The billionaire Glazer family are considering putting Manchester United up for sale.
For many Man United fans, that is extremely welcome news.
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The Glazers’ ownership of the Premier League club has been deeply unpopular from the start, with the Florida-based family’s 17-year reign marred by fan protests, enormous debt and declining performance on the pitch.
“It is an understatement to say that fans will be happy – the contempt for the Glazers runs deep,” Ahmed Bilal, the editor of the football blog Man Utd News, told Al Jazeera.
Why has the Glazers’ ownership of Man United been so controversial?
After beginning his investment in Man United with the purchase of a 2.9 per cent stake in 2003, late real estate mogul Malcolm Glazer took ownership of the club in 2005.
The leveraged buyout costing 790 million British pounds ($955m) relied on a significant amount of borrowed money that was secured against the club’s own assets.
The deal immediately sparked uproar among fans, who slammed the club’s new owners for saddling the then hugely profitable team with huge levels of debt.
Despite paying an estimated 743 million pounds ($898m) in interest payments since then, Man United today has outstanding debts of about 500 million pounds ($604m) – almost as much as it did in 2005.
Fans have also been incensed by the club’s paying out of dividends – averaging at about 22 million pounds ($266m) per season – to shareholders, the biggest group of whom are the Glazers themselves.
To add insult to injury, Man United, once one of the world’s most successful clubs, have failed to deliver on the pitch in recent years despite the huge sums of money swirling around the team.
The club has not won a trophy since 2017 – a feeble performance for a team with 20 league titles, more than any other club, and the distinction of being the only English side to have taken home the treble of the European Cup, domestic league and domestic cup.
“All of this has turned United from the leading club in England to now playing catch up to five or six other major teams in the league,” Bilal said.
“There is a lot of anger amongst fans at the scale of the financial outflow from United towards the Glazers with nothing to show for it in terms of the club’s improvement or its future.”
Tensions hit a new peak last year when hundreds of Man United fans broke into the club’s home ground, Old Trafford, to protest plans to join a proposed European Super League, which critics branded elitist and anti-competitive.
In an interview with television host Piers Morgan earlier this month, star play Cristiano Ronaldo, who exited the club by “mutual agreement” this week, joined the criticism of the Glazers, claiming they had no interest in the welfare of the club.
“They will get money from the marketing – the sport … they don’t really care, in my opinion,” Ronaldo said.
Scott Patterson, the editor of football blog Republik Of Mancunia, said the Glazers have invested little in the club, to the point where its stadium and training ground have fallen into disrepair.
“They don’t have a clue about football and have employed too many people who share their lack of knowledge, who have made poor footballing decisions that have set us back years,” Patterson told Al Jazeera.
“It was only after our fans broke into the stadium, leading to the end of European Super League plans, that the Glazers opened any sort of dialogue with the fans. There is no relationship.”
Who is going to take over as Man United’s new owner?
Avram Glazer and Joel Glazer, the club’s executive co-chairmen and directors, said this week they are exploring “strategic alternatives” to best serve the club and its fans, including a possible sale.
“We will evaluate all options to ensure that we best serve our fans and that Manchester United maximises the significant growth opportunities available to the club today and in the future,” they said in a statement.
Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the 27th wealthiest person in the United Kingdom per the Sunday Times Rich List, has openly expressed an interest in buying the club.
A lifelong Man United fan, Ratcliffe in August said through a spokesman that he is “definitely a potential buyer” if the team goes up for sale.
Lord Jim O’Neill, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs who led an effort to buy the club in 2010, has also signalled his potential interest in the team.
In an interview with the Manchester Evening News on Wednesday, O’Neill said he would consider making an offer if the Glazers lowered their “unrealistic” demands amid reports the family could be seeking up to 5 billion pounds ($6bn) for the club. O’Neil admitted, however, that it was “very, very difficult” to see a way forward.
Other potential buyers floated in the media and among fans include private equity investors in the United States and state-backed investors in the Middle East, who have snapped up a number of European clubs including cross-city rivals Manchester City, which was bought by Emirati royal Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008.
Still, a sale is not guaranteed.
And while Man United fans would not be sad to see the back of the Glazers, there is also anxiety about the possibility of the club falling into the wrong hands.
Patterson said fans are mindful of the possibility of going out of the frying pan and into the fire.
“We just want an owner who will invest the money the club generates on training facilities, improving the stadium, employing football people, signing the right players, and developing youth,” he said. “We don’t need a rich sugar daddy and don’t want human rights abusers to own the club.”
Dale O’Donnell, the editor of the Stretty News football blog, said fans should be cautiously optimistic after the prospect of the Glazers’ exit had proved that the fans are the “life and soul of football”.
“Anything can happen and we don’t want the club to fall into the wrong hands – for example, some human-rights abusing despotic state or similar,” O’Donnell said.
“We urge the UK government to protect our football club because they didn’t listen to us when fans issued concerns about the Glazers.”