What is sportswashing? Manchester United face Qatar takeover dilemma
Manchester United have confirmed they have received takeover bids from two billionaires, Qatar-based Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani and Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the chief executive of petrochemicals firm Ineos.
Many Red Devils fans have protested against the Glazer family since they took over one of English football’s most decorated clubs in 2005. While United have struck numerous lucrative financial deals in recent years, they have not won a trophy since 2017.
But, more controversially, the club had been in the black before the 2005 takeover but are now reportedly £455.5million in debt. Critics feel the American family have used and mismanaged the club.
With the club now up for sale, there has been widespread relief at their likely departure from Old Trafford, though now fears have been raised over the potential suitors to take over.
Sheikh Jassim’s bid is said to be in a personal capacity and not backed by the Qatar state. “It will significantly upgrade the club’s infrastructure — including the stadium and training facilities — and create meaningful long-term benefits for the wider Manchester community,” he said.
However, as chairman of QIB — a leading bank in Qatar — he has ties entrenched in the state. Qatar has also come under fire for its alleged human rights abuses, including in the run-up to hosting last year’s World Cup. For example, Amnesty International called on the UK Government to press Qatari authorities to repeal anti-LGBT laws, among other issues of concern.
Meanwhile, lifelong United fan Ratcliffe has also announced his intention to restore the club to its former glories. Like Sheikh Jassim, he has the capital to meet the £6bn asking price.
“We are ambitious and highly competitive and would want to invest in Manchester United to make them the number one club in the world once again,” he said.
Ineos has invested in many sports over the past decade. It has bankrolled a British sailing team for the America's Cup, sponsored the cycling outfit previously known as Team Sky, and funded Kenyan long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge’s successful attempt to run a sub-two hour marathon.
However, all of these ventures have been criticised as an effort to improve the image of a company which emitted more than 3.2m tonnes of carbon dioxide from its largest plant in Scotland in 2019 alone.
This is an example of greenwashing, critics say, while some have denounced the Qatari bid as sportswashing.
What is sportswashing?
Sportswashing is a term used to describe the practice of individuals, groups, corporations, or governments using sports to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing.
The Cambridge dictionary says to greenwash is “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”.
Sportswashing has been a factor within sports for many years. Traditional examples include the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin under the Nazi regime, which Adolf Hitler hosted in an effort to demonstrate German and Aryan superiority. More recently, McDonald’s once sponsored youth-level athletics and tobacco sponsorship in sport was also rife — the latter having now been banned in nearly every global sport.
However, more recently, alleged sportswashing has expanded as sport has become bigger and more profitable.
Russian oil magnate Roman Abramovich taking over Chelsea in 2003 was considered a watershed moment for an increasingly internationalised Premier League. But last year, the UK Government claimed that one of Abramovich’s companies provided steel to build the Russian tanks which are laying siege to Ukrainian cities. Abramovich was forced to sell Chelsea due to his ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The term sportswashing is now “reductive”, says the Independent’s chief football writer Miguel Delaney. “It doesn’t truly articulate what this is about, which is about influence and buying off the infrastructure of states to change the nature of wrongs.”
Should Manchester United proceed with the Qatar option, which is currently the odds-on favourite, it would mean Gulf states would have interest in three Premier League clubs. The UAE is connected to Manchester City and Saudi Arabia has ties to Newcastle United. These are all oil-rich nations which can allegedly be oppressive to opposition and journalists, as well as restricting or banning homosexuality and limiting rights for women.
The Newcastle sale in 2021 was helped by the Government intervening, a Guardian freedom of information request revealed.
“These are states with unlimited money which cause a stretch right down the football pyramid,” Delaney told Sky Sports News, alluding to how many poorer historic clubs, such as Portsmouth, Bury and Wigan, have entered administration.
Mark Ogden, of ESPN, added: “It is uneasy to have this level of state interest but all these countries are big allies of the UK Government and I don’t think the Premier League will have the power to block these takeovers. It goes beyond football into state politics. That is the problem football is facing.”
Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK’s economic affairs director, said: “Fan groups are right to be concerned that a Qatari buyout of Manchester United is likely to be part of a wider programme of Qatari sportswashing, where the glamour of football is used to refashion the country’s image regardless of serious and systematic human rights abuses.”
Meanwhile, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust issued a statement on Sunday raising concerns around multi-club ownership — given Qatar Sports Investments’ (QSI) control of Paris Saint-Germain.
The club’s official LGBTQ+ supporters’ club, Rainbow Devils, said it had “deep concern over some of the bids” being made and were “watching the current process closely with this in mind”.
While some United fans might be happy for anybody but the Glazers to own their club, time will tell if they accept the new owners or rally against them.