Uefa powerless in race for multi-club empires
The great clubs of Europe – and many of those for whom greatness remains stubbornly out of reach – will meet this week to discuss their collective futures, although of all the issues concerning money and scheduling, there is one that will be impossible to unpick.
Multi-club ownership is at the top of the agenda again, forced into the spotlight by the future of Manchester United and those who seek to buy them. Yet such ownership has grown so rapidly over recent years that it is now thought that around 200 clubs globally are part of a multi-club structure. Everything from the 12-strong worldwide empire of City Football Group, to those club owners with minority stakes elsewhere, or investors who have multiple interests.
The game has moved so swiftly that Uefa is contemplating a great network of interest over which it will exert even less power. Little wonder then that when its president, Aleksander Ceferin, was asked about the future of multi-club ownership, he was sympathetic.
The issue is not whether Uefa permits multi-club ownership, and teams from the same group competing in its competitions, because that moment has long since passed. It is now about how the governing body tries to make peace with it.
The European Club Association will meet for its annual congress on Monday – a body so powerful that it co-owns a joint venture with Uefa to control the €3.5 billion (£3.1 billion) in revenue the three Uefa club competitions earn annually. Its chairman is Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who sits atop some of the biggest hills in football: president of Paris St-Germain, chairman of its ownership group Qatar Sports Investments and chairman of beIN Media Group, one of the biggest sport rights owners in the world.
Al-Khelaifi is Ceferin’s key ally in the post-European Super League world – and what Al-Khelaifi says on the issues of the day has a profound effect on those running football at Uefa.
Multi-club ownership is everywhere, the idea that Uefa can dismantle it is fanciful
Qatar interests are chasing United, and those concerned will tell you that Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani is doing so in a private capacity and distinct from the sovereign wealth fund, Qatar Investment Authority, which owns PSG. Whether people believe that is largely irrelevant. It is what Ceferin thinks that matters. Either way the other United bidder, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the British billionaire founder of Ineos, is not even attempting to deny his own part in multi-club ownership. He already owns Nice in Ligue 1 and Lausanne-Sport, formerly of the Swiss Super League.
Multi-club ownership is everywhere. Daniel Kretinsky, the owner of the second-largest stake in West Ham, owns Sparta Prague. Tony Bloom, who has invested around £350 million in Brighton, owns Royale Union St-Gilloise in Belgium. Nottingham Forest’s billionaire owner, Evangelos Marinakis, also owns Olympiacos, the perennial Greek champions. The Red Bull drinks conglomerate has RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg as well as New York Red Bulls. Miami-based investment company 777 Partners has stakes of various sizes in Genoa, Sevilla, Standard Liege and Hertha Berlin, among others.
The notion that Uefa is about to police this network of shared interests, much less dismantle it, is fanciful. The multi-club ownerships are dictating to the governing body and the consequence will be ever greater power in the hands of the individuals who control the clubs.
Al-Khelaifi already has his eye on another acquisition. QSI has a 21.7 per cent stake in Portuguese club Braga but the fund is looking at buying Malaga, who reached the Champions League quarter-finals in 2013 but are now languishing near the bottom of the domestic second tier. They are in the ownership of another member of the Al Thani family, albeit not one with the golden touch of some of the other Al Thanis.
Either way, it seems unlikely that there will be major obstacles placed in the path of Sheikh Jassim or Ratcliffe if either persuades the Glazers to sell United. There are few ways of regulating these global networks of clubs, or of knowing truly whether wages are being paid from which entity.
Some will argue that it is a useful way for smaller clubs to attract investment and build alliances. Ultimately, however, it is also a way of exerting control.
There is a growing sense that the biggest and the wealthiest will get what they want
The allegation is that Roberto Mancini’s salary at Manchester City was in part paid by another club under the Abu Dhabi ownership, as denied by the man himself recently in Naples. Those questions will be for the Premier League’s independent commission to answer but there is no doubt that multi-club ownership is much harder to regulate than the simple notion of one club and one set of financial results.
It was once Uefa that was the only true European-wide power over the game it regulated, but now there are club owners who can say the same. New ownerships such as the Todd Boehly-Behdad Eghbali consortium at Chelsea and the Saudi Public Investment Fund at Newcastle have both said they are looking to do the same thing. It is a scramble for empire and there are some playing catch-up.
In the battle to survive in the modern game, when existing sustainably is so difficult given the wealth of some, the multi-club system can feel like the least of the game’s major worries. But the direction is obvious: weaker governing authorities, powerful club networks, and the sense that the biggest and the wealthiest will always get what they want.