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This weekend, even as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team were demonstrating their inadequacy on the pitch at Bournemouth, the attention of many Manchester United fans was diverted much further south. A story bloomed on social media suggesting that the Saudi royal family was about to buy the club. Richard Arnold, United’s managing director, had been spotted in Riyadh the previous week and the news was that this was but the opening of negotiations. Things were moving quickly, the Glazer family were in the process of selling up. And the new owners were wealthier than Croesus.
Never mind that United sources insisted there was nothing in it, that Arnold was in Saudi for a long-scheduled commercial meeting, that the Glazers had no intention of offloading their valuable cash cow and anyway, if they were, such a deal would be announced via the appropriate channels rather than on some unauthenticated social media channel, thousands of the club’s followers excitedly spread the word. The Glazers were on their way, the club was being bought by the richest people in the world, the money they would spend would make United great again.
Which makes you wonder what on earth they were smoking. The very idea of a Saudi takeover should be enough to send a shiver down the spine of any sane United follower. Sure, as owners, the Glazers might be guilty of many things but staging a public stoning of a woman accused of adultery in one of their Florida shopping centres is not on the charge sheet.
As far as we know no coach of their NFL side Tampa Bay Buccaneers has ever been asked to present themselves at a foreign embassy where they were subsequently butchered. And while they may have been extracting large amounts of cash from the club, at no point have the family ever been complicit in the concerted export of a vicious brand of medieval theocratic fascism.
To be owned by the Saudis would be enough for any match-going United follower to surrender their season ticket. To see the club in which they have made such a huge emotional investment used as a vehicle for self-promotion by the most brutally repressive regime on earth is beyond revolting. Yes, it might indeed mean they could sign Lionel Messi. But no-one with a conscience could cheerfully support the club were the Saudis to take up residence in the Old Trafford board room.
There is one thing that we can safely conclude however misdirected the weekend’s social media storm was: United might deny it is going to happen to them but the idea that the Saudis are imminently to become involved in football is not remotely fanciful. They will have looked on as their neighbours Abu Dhabi and Qatar have exploited their assets so successfully and reckoned it is about time they joined in. The manner in which Manchester City and Paris St Germain have grown in prominence under their ownership by middle eastern operations gives all the evidence you need that football works as a generator of soft power. And boy if any government needed a thorough sportswashing it is Saudi Arabia.
The country’s politicians have already begun to position themselves on the sporting market. Brazil are scheduled to play Argentina in Riyadh during the forthcoming international break, while Anthony Joshua’s attempt to reclaim his world title is to be staged there in December. It is not preposterous to suggest that a move into club ownership will follow.
Nor is it unreasonable to assume that when the Saudis do decide to buy a European club, it won’t be Morecambe. They will want to enter the market at the top. Frankly they are among the few in the world who could afford to do so. But wherever their bank account lands, the fans of the club concerned should greet the news with alarm. Whatever they might promise in terms of delivering success, to see the club you love in the hands of people like that would be beyond intolerable.