Are Manchester United really about to become Qatar’s latest high-profile buy?

WHEN Manchester United visited Qatar in January it was touted as a sunshine break, a chance for their title-chasing players to escape from the freezing conditions gripping England at the start of the year.

But it also prompted whispers that the country’s most famous club were sounding out appetite to invest in United, or even buy them outright, from within the increasingly influential Gulf kingdom.

Since then rumours linking Qatar with a possible £1bn-plus bid for the Premier League leaders have refused to subside, with a number of developments lending credence to talk of a buyout of the unpopular Glazers.

Most significant of those was the Glazer family’s paying off of around £220m worth of costly payment-in-kind (PIK) loans last month. The move raised eyebrows, with questions about how the Americans raised the cash going unanswered.

Speculation that a stake in the club had been sold flourished. That theory was given support earlier this month when it emerged that two of the Glazers’ British companies had filed documents at Companies House authorising them to issue new shares.

The documents were dated 22 November, the same day the PIK loans were repaid.

Of course, the Glazers could have been issuing the equity to themselves. But with no indication of why they would do that, and no word on how they funded the PIK pay-off, it pointed to third-party investment.

At the same time the Glazers parted company with their long-serving spokesman Tehsin Nayani, and are yet to hire a replacement. For those who believe a sale is on the cards, it is another telling clue.

Opinions within United towards Qatar have also changed in recent months. Having derided it as “some unknown country” in 2009, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson (left) endorsed their controversial, but successful, bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Ferguson then personally paid a visit to Qatar last month to be keynote speaker at a conference, waiving his fee.

These links do not prove the Qataris are homing in on United. However, key Barcelona figures backed Qatar’s 2022 bid; a week after its success, Barca sealed a world record-breaking £125m shirt sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation, the country’s non-profit arm.

Qatar Holding, chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, bought Harrods in May and has stakes in a range of blue-chip companies, as well as some of the most desirable properties in London. It is said to want to raise its sporting profile ahead of the World Cup, and as a means of promoting the country’s growing profile. A bid for United would certainly do that.

The Glazer Family
The Americans are estimated to be worth $2.4bn (£1.5bn) and also own NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and First Allied, owner of retail space in the United States. Unpopular among some United fans for loading £700m of debts onto the club, leading to fears for their ability to remain competitive with Europe’s elite.

Qatar Holding
The country’s investment arm is chaired by its PM, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani (above), and has enormous wealth. Bought Harrods for £1.5bn this year and has stakes in Barclays, Credit Suisse, Sainsbury’s, Volkswagen and the London Stock Exchange.