An American tale for the Devils

  • Other Sport
  • Sunday, 10 Oct 2004

By Rob Hughes

LONDON: What excites us more, the dazzling skills that young players perform on the pitch, or the seemingly bottomless fortunes of the rich entrepreneurs apparently willing to speculate on the clubs? 

In London, there is the inexorable, if right now the somewhat dull, advance of Chelsea, a team transformed by the Russian, Roman Abramovich. 

In Madrid, angst rises by the week because the galacticos purchased by Real Madrid are fading in all but the size of their bank balances. 

Now, the long forecast bid by the rich American Malcolm Glazer and his sons to buy Manchester United, appears to be formally on its way. 

The shares of United, already the most profitable club in the world, rose tentatively last week when Wayne Rooney, an 18-year-old, shot himself into a Hollywood-script debut, scoring three goals. Those same shares took off again last Monday when the London Stock Exchange was officially informed that a genuine bid for the club was in its “primary” stages. 

That bid was pre-empted by a report in the business section of the Mail on Sunday that Glazer, the owner of Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the National Football League, had instructed the investment bank JP Morgan to advise him on a takeover that would cost, at Monday's valuation, about £675 million, or US$1.2 billion. 

The total price would be close to the estimated family fortune of the Glazers.  

They already own 19.17% of United and have been steadily buying shares over the past 18 months. It is the second-largest holding. John Magnier and J.P. McManus, the Irish racing tycoons, together own 28.9%. 

The Glazers are known to believe that the marketing of the United brand “only scratches the surface of the global potential” of this unique club. 

Ever since 1958, when the fine United team known as The Busby Babes were almost wiped out in a plane crash in Munich, there has been a sympathetic fascination with the team. Matt Busby, who built his side with thrilling young players, survived in the wreckage; so did Bobby Charlton. 

Busby, the manager, and Charlton, a player, became world icons as the rebuilt United won the European Cup in 1968. Both were knighted. 

The current manager, Alex Ferguson, was knighted for raising the club back to the European pinnacle in 1999. And it is no coincidence that in that season, Murdoch's BSkyB television company bid to take over United occurred.  

Murdoch's bid was denied by government, a ruling that the conflict of interest between a British media company and Britain's leading club was unhealthy.  

Now, after year-long speculation that Glazer would make his push for the club, the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association has started a campaign against the American bidder.  

“We sent Murdoch packing, and gave Magnier and McManus a bloody nose,” said John Spencer, the supporters' association chairman. “If Glazer wants a fight, we will give him one. He is not welcome or wanted as owner of Man United.” 

The supporters are numerous, but their combined stake is small - not more than 1.5%. Their notion that the club belongs to the people who love, support and sustain it, as their forefathers have down its 128-year existence, is heartfelt and touching. 

But the rules used against Murdoch five years ago do not apply to the American entrepreneur even if his interests are business before sport.  

There were objectors, too, when Abramovich dug into his pockets to take over Chelsea.  

But once the major shareholders sold out to him, Abramovich did what others are doing in English soccer: He pulled the club off the stock market.  

The fashion for taking clubs public made them vulnerable to takeover and put pressure on them to deliver short-term profit returns at odds with long-term investment in a team. 

United, however, is a bigger club than Chelsea. Its following around the world is rivalled only by Real Madrid, and even Madrid is playing catch up.  

The unconquered marketplace, the one that possibly the Glazers know how to tap, remains the United States.  

Two years ago, United's then chief executive Peter Kenyon, now in the employ of Chelsea's Abramovich, embarked on his mission to “crack” the American market.  

There was a summer tour based on the spurious expectation that the marriage between David Beckham, at the time a United player, and Victoria, formerly a Spice Girl, would excite Americans. The tour fell flat. 

European clubs refuse to accept that Americans are not turned on by exhibition tours and are insulted by top clubs sending half-fit, half-strength squads for a pre-season warm-up. 

If the U.S. global companies have money to burn on soccer, they do it with a world market in mind. Nike, Vodafone, PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch already sponsor Manchester United. 

Malcom Glazer has turned a profit in sports before. He paid US$192 million for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995. Despite years of mediocrity - punctuated by a Super Bowl title three years ago - they are worth $671 million. 

The family businesses are in real estate, banking, natural gas, oil production and food packaging, but clearly the extra thrill provided by Buccaneers games has given him a taste for owning sports teams. 

The two Irishmen whose stake would effectively ensure Glazer taking over United will not sell cheaply. Indeed, there is no evidence that they ever enjoyed soccer so much as the anticipation that one fine day a buyer would send their investment soaring. 

Maybe, just maybe, the cynicism is unfounded.  

Perhaps the dancing feet of Cristiano Ronaldo, the brilliant young bull Rooney, and the promise that a new United era is imminent has won the heart of a faraway speculator whose sons appreciate that globally, the ball is round. – IHT 

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