English Football Club Attracts Arab Buyer; One by One, England's Most Famous Soccer Clubs Are Being Bought by Foreign Owners and Now an Abu Dhabi Investment Group Has Entered the Fray

Article excerpt


IN 1992, ENGLISH soccer underwent a dramatic transformation. Until then, while its fast pace and imposing physicality endeared it to fans around the world, it remained the relatively poor and unglamorous relation of its Italian and Spanish counterparts.

But then in 1992, clubs that formed the top, first division of English football, broke away and formed their own association--the FA Premier League. With this came lucrative television deals and the financial independence these top flight teams had craved.

The English Premier League (EPL) became the most aggressively and successfully marketed soccer league in the world and, by the turn of the century, the richest, and most powerful. Its rehabilitation from the dark days of the 1970s-80s crumbling stadiums and hooliganism was complete.

Despite a few notable exceptions, the most talented international soccer stars had previously chosen to play in either Spain or Italy, where clubs offered the most lucrative deals. But as the wages on offer increased, the world's biggest stars began to choose England as a place to show off their skills.

And the League knew how to sell itself like no other. With marketing diamonds like David Beckham at its disposal, it established itself as the dominant force in the south-east Asian and North American markets; revenue from worldwide television rights ran into billions of dollars.

And it was the lure of those all important television rights that gave rise to a new phenomenon in English football: foreign ownership.

The clubs which make up the EPL are extremely powerful in having the power to negotiate their own media and sponsorship deals independently of a governing body. And with the global success of what is increasingly called 'The Brand', whatever it costs to buy a club in the EPL is considered a safe bet to make huge sums of money in the longer term.

The first high-profile foreign takeover was by Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, at Chelsea, although the acquisition was less an investment than the realisation of a very rich man's dream.

There followed the US buy-outs of two more of England's biggest clubs: Manchester United and Liverpool. These were business deals and the solely money-making aspect of the takeovers served to alienate the new owners from the majority of the fans. The first murmurings of disquiet began as yet more foreign businessmen bought control of famous clubs and talk of the EPL games being played abroad was met with strenuous opposition.

Manchester City was another team to be sold to a foreign owner. In their case it was the former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Things looked up for a while for the club, but when Mr Shinawatra had his assets frozen amid accusations of corruption, he sold the club on to the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

At a single stroke, Manchester City became the richest club in the history of sport.

Sheikh Mansour, son of late UAE president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and brother of the current president, is his country's Minister of Presidential Affairs. With a number of independent business and charity interests, Sheikh Mansour also heads ADUG, part of the vast sovereign investment arm of Abu Dhabi's ruling family, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which enjoys an estimated $850bn worth of assets. …