Would Uefa take on Nasser Al-Khelaifi in the battle to own Manchester United?

Nasser Al-Khelaifi - Would Uefa take on Nasser Al-Khelaifi in the battle to own Manchester United?  - Reuters/Ben Amor Nooman

Nasser Al-Khelaifi – Would Uefa take on Nasser Al-Khelaifi in the battle to own Manchester United? – Reuters/Ben Amor Nooman

The prospect of Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the influential footballing powerbroker, eventually fronting Qatari efforts to buy Manchester United remains a hotly disputed topic.

Even today, friends of the Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) chairman insist he is only interested in a minority Premier League deal due to his presidency at Paris St-Germain.

But it will be the call of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, whether Al-Khelaifi must eventually pull on another hat to add to those he already wears at broadcaster Bein and the European Club Association.

If he is parachuted into it Qatar Investment Authority’s (QIA) audacious move for Manchester United, Al-Khelaifi has a favor stored up and ready to be called in. Crucially, Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin – the man who could have the ultimate say in whether Qatar can own two sporting juggernauts at the same time – is a firm ally.

Untold good faith was secured two years ago as PSG became the only major club to turn down an invitation to join a European Super League breakaway.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart to Nasser,” said Ceferin, the president of European football during a keynote speech in that tumultuous week in April 2021. “You have shown that you are a great man and that you respect football and its values.”

The decision to turn down the failed plot was a masterstroke. While breakaway architects such as Juventus’s Andrea Agnelli and Real Madrid’s Florentino Pérez would be killed as political forces, the furore led to the making of Al-Khelaifi. He was swiftly re-elected to the Uefa executive committee as ECA chairman. “European football is at a pivotal moment, in which all stakeholders should work together; in good faith, with dignity, and to protect the game we all love,” he said.

Two years on, Al-Khelaifi knows the potential ownership of both PSG and United would strike similar nerves to the revolt prompted by the ESL project he helped defeat. Yet in a footballing landscape where the wealth gap is worse than ever, Al-Khelaifi’s voice at the top table would be a major asset for Qatar countering the protest.

The biggest obstacle in this potential United takeover is a 2012 Uefa rule protecting the integrity of the Champions and Europa Leagues. “No club participating in Uefa club competitions may … hold or deal securities or shares in any other participating club or be involved in any capacity whatsoever in the management administration and/or sporting performance of any other participating club,” the rule says.

QSI, which has owned PSG since 2011, is effectively a subsidiary of the QIA £370 billion sovereign wealth fund, and Al-Khelaifi is said to be a board member of both. Whatever the structure of a deal, in this tiny gas-rich state, the emir would end up holding the purse strings for both clubs.

‘Old Trafford redevelopment could be offered as major carrot to Government’s leveling up effort’

However, the long and protracted Saudi Arabian purchase of Newcastle United proved that with enough lobbying, political outrage alone cannot derail momentum for a deal. The Premier League is working with Amnesty on new human rights clauses in its directors and owners tests. But QIA can make the point that there were no such hurdles for its other British establishment ownerships, such as the Shard building in London and the department store Harrods. A major redevelopment of Old Trafford and the surrounding area could also be offered as a major carrot to the UK Government’s leveling up efforts.

A green light for a takeover in the UK could see the baton then handed over to Al-Khelaifi to smooth the path towards multi-club ownership in the Champions League. Uefa’s Club Financial Control Body would almost certainly be told the emir is a hands-off figure at both clubs, with the two teams having distinct corporate structures. But there is precedent for the Qataris to point at – both Germany’s RB Leipzig and Austrian outfit RB Salzburg have competed in the same competition despite being funded by the same soft drinks firm.

For now, however, the first task is persuading the Glazers that they are the best option to get a quick deal done. The aim from United’s perspective remains to complete the process by April.

Qatar can point out that one of its main rivals – an offer to be tabled by Sir Jim Ratcliffe – could also face hurdles around multi-club ownership. OGB Nice, owned by Ineos, are currently well off the pace in Ligue 1, but as recently as last autumn, Ratcliffe, who also owns the Swiss club Lausanne, had been pledging to turn the French club into a European force.

Another factor in Qatar’s favor is that the British offer appears to rely on some help from investment banks Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

A new football regulator will be an added potential hurdle for Qatar. But with enough promised investment to win over the government, Al-Khelaifi could end up with a good tail wind behind him if he is drafted in to quell pushback in Europe.

How Red Bull precedent may give Al-Khelaifi takeover wings

A precedent set by RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg in 2017 may give Qatar hope of potentially backing Manchester United and Paris St-Germain at the same time.

Despite both clubs being associated with the energy drink maker Red Bull, Uefa ruled six years ago that the teams did not breach its rules on European competition.

RB Leipzig had finished runners up in the Bundesliga, while Salzburg were Austrian champions to ensure both qualified for the 2017-18 Champions League. But following representations made to Uefa, the governing body ruled: “No individual or legal entity had a decisive influence over more than one club.”

The decision came despite little doubt that Red Bull funding helped secure the two clubs’ success. Leipzig were founded in 2009 with backing from the company and won four promotions in seven seasons, before finishing second in their first ever top-flight season. Red Bull bought Austria Salzburg in 2005, but having renamed the Austrian club, the drinks firm surrendered its controlling stake and instead became merely a sponsor.

The Uefa clause against two clubs competing in European competition gives priority to a team who are champions of their country. In 2017, Leipzig would have missed out.

But Uefa’s Club Financial Control Body found there was no breach of Article 5 concerning the integrity of the competition, which state no club participating in a Uefa club competition may, either directly or indirectly, hold or deal in the securities or shares of any other club participating in a Uefa club competition.

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