The race to take control of Manchester United intensified Saturday as British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe formally challenged a Qatari banker for the ownership of the English football giants.
Ratcliffe had already expressed interest in United several weeks ago and his INEOS company followed the Qatari offer by officially submitting their own bid.
But the contest for control of the record 20-times English champions may be more than a two-horse race.
On Saturday, The Times reported that American hedge fund giant Elliott had made a bid — but not a full takeover of the kind proposed by both Ratcliffe and Qatari rival Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani.
United is currently owned by the US-based Glazer family — with the cost of purchasing one of the world’s most iconic sports teams expected to reach around $6 billion.
The 70-year-old Ratcliffe is keen to expand a sporting portfolio that already includes French football club Nice and Swiss team FC Lausanne-Sport, as well as the cycling team Ineos Grenadiers, formerly Team Sky.
“We can confirm that Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS have submitted a bid for majority ownership of Manchester United Football Club,” Ineos said in a statement to AFP.
Ratcliffe, born in Failsworth, Greater Manchester, is one of Britain’s wealthiest people, with an estimated net worth of £12.5 billion ($15 billion) following the success of INEOS, his global chemical company.
– ‘Number one in world again’ –
The boyhood United fan vowed to restore the Old Trafford side as the “number one club in the world again” after 10 years without a Premier League title triumph.
The group also pledged to be “the long-term custodians of Manchester United on behalf of the fans and the wider community”.
“We want a Manchester United anchored in its proud history and roots in the North-West of England, putting the Manchester back into Manchester United and clearly focusing on winning the Champions League.”
US merchant bank the Raine Group are conducting the sale on behalf of the Glazers.
A price tag of around $6 billion would smash the record fee for a football club set when a consortium led by LA Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly and private equity firm Clearlake Capital purchased Chelsea last year.
There could be yet more US involvement in the Premier League, with The Times saying Elliott, the former owners of Italian football giants AC Milan had made an “eleventh-hour swoop” for United.
The Times, citing unnamed sources, added Elliott, which manages $56 billion (£46 billion) in assets, had ruled itself out of a full takeover of United, but has offered to provide the financing for a bid — which could include debt funding.
But that would provoke a bitter reaction from United fans, many of whom were angered by the Glazers saddling the club with huge debts in their £790 million 2005 takeover.
– ‘Completely debt free’ –
By contrast Sheikh Jassim, chairman of Qatar Islamic Bank (QIB) promised a “completely debt free” bid launched via his Nine Two Foundation, promising investment in both the team and a fading Old Trafford, as well as training facilities, the “fan experience” and the “communities the club supports”
The 41-year-old, educated at Britain’s elite Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, also claims to be a long-time United fan.
The Glazer family announced in November they were open to a sale of or investment in United prompting talk of a bidding war between Qatari and Saudi Arabian interests.
United shares rose by close to two percent in after-hours trading on the New York Stock Exchange following the Qatari bid announcement. They had closed down 1.9 percent on Friday.
Saudi Arabia have also been linked with a bid but any investment in United would prompt outrage from human rights groups, who have spoken out against the Gulf state following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A Qatari takeover would be opposed on similar grounds, with Peter Frankental, Amnesty UK’s economic affairs director, saying it would represent “a continuation of this state-backed sportswashing project”.
Qatar have already invested in a European football heavyweight with Qatari investment fund QSI buying French champions PSG in 2011.
The Daily Telegraph reported sources close to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) were playing down the likelihood of a state-backed bid given their existing involvement with rival Premier League club Newcastle United.
United, one of the most successful clubs in English football history, have failed to win any silverware since 2017, struggling to keep pace with bitter rivals Manchester City since the retirement of legendary boss Alex Ferguson in 2013.
United sit third in the Premier League, after an improvement in form under manager Erik ten Hag, who took over before the start of the current campaign.
They return to action for the first time since the bids were lodged against Leicester in a Premier League clash at Old Trafford on Sunday.