An A for Villa to an F for Man Utd: how US owners have fared in European football

<span>Fan protests against the Glazer family are a regular sight at Old Trafford.</span><span>Photograph: Nick Potts/PA</span>
Fan protests against the Glazer family are a regular sight at Old Trafford.Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

It might have taken the USA generations to take soccer seriously as a sport, but the country’s reach across the English and European game continues to grow, particularly when it comes to club ownership. Indeed, American entrepreneurs, moguls and general wealth-hoarders are now commonplace in boardrooms across world soccer.

No fewer than nine Premier League clubs are majority owned by Americans – and that’s without even mentioning clubs lower down the pyramid such as Birmingham City and Wrexham (although Canada could claim that one too). Across continental Europe, too, there is a current of American ownership gathering pace – Serie A has proved particularly attractive recently.

For every success story written by an American-owned club, though, there is at least one cautionary tale. With the season coming to a close, now is a good time to grade American ownership at a selection of major clubs in Europe.

Arsenal: A-

The Kroenke family’s relationship with the Arsenal fanbase was a turbulent one. The 2021 European Super League debacle prompted furious protests outside the Emirates Stadium, motivated in no small part by the north London club’s stagnation over a number of years. Supporters pointed to a lack of communication, investment and ambition.

Since then, though, the landscape has changed. Stan Kroenke’s son Josh has taken on a more active role as co-chairman and addressed many of the fans’ concerns. Arsenal hired Edu as sporting director and Mikel Arteta as manager and emboldened them to change the identity of the Gunners on and off the pitch.

Roughly £500m has been spent on new signings in the last three seasons with Arsenal smashing the club’s record transfer fee to land Declan Rice last summer. The Kroenke Sports & Entertainment’s (KSE) era may ultimately be defined by whether or not Arsenal win the Premier League title with this crop of players but fan discontent has quickly faded.

Aston Villa: A

Between them, Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and American asset manager (and Milwaukee Bucks owner) Wes Edens own Aston Villa through their holding company, V Sports. The pair bought the Villa Park outfit in 2018 and have overseen the return of the club to the Premier League. Even more impressive: the club will play in the Champions League next season.

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Aston Villa have invested heavily in their squad in recent times. Indeed, over £500m has been spent on players since the change in ownership six years ago, with Unai Emery also lured to the club – albeit after Villa’s regrettable 11 months under Steven Gerrard. The squad is now packed full of proven international stars.

There are, however, concerns that the club could push the limits of the Premier League’s Profit and Sustainability Rules (PSR) which saw Everton and Nottingham Forest deducted points this season. Emery has admitted Aston Villa will have to be “intelligent” in the transfer market this summer despite securing Champions League qualification.

Bournemouth: B-

Nobody can accuse Bournemouth owner Bill Foley of lacking ambition. Having completed his takeover of the Cherries in December 2022, the chairman and CEO of Black Knight Sports & Entertainment – which also owns the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights – put on the record his intent to take the club into Europe within five years.

Foley has admitted to being inspired by Brighton’s growth – and there are signs Bournemouth have learned lessons from their fellow south coast club. Andoni Iraola has turned the Cherries into a modern, proactive team since taking over as manager last season with Richard Hughes doing such a good job as sporting director that Liverpool have poached him.

Bournemouth have been placed at the centre of a multi-club group that now includes Hibernian, FC Lorient and A-League club Auckland FC. While there is a debate to be had about the threat of multi-club ownership to the future of football, this network will benefit the Cherries as they hand-pick the best players from their affiliate clubs. Bournemouth are on an upward trajectory, though replacing Hughes this summer will be difficult.

Burnley: C-

Lancashire ordinarily would be an unusual place to spot a future NFL hall of famer, but that doesn’t account for JJ Watt’s passionate interest in Burnley. The former Houston Texan and his wife, former USWNT international Kealia Watt, purchased a minority stake in the club last year and have bought into the life of being a Claret.

More questions, however, have been asked of Watt’s business partners after ALK Capital’s takeover in December 2020 left Burnley loaded with debt. Comparisons have been drawn between this takeover and the Glazers’ leveraged buyout of Manchester United amid concerns over the source of the investment group’s funding.

Chairman Alan Pace has attempted to modernise Burnley, hiring Vincent Kompany to implement a more attractive style of play after years of Dyche-ball. A record points tally in the Championship last season gave the impression of a club on the up, but immediate relegation back to the second tier has raised questions again. Ultimately, ALK bought a club in the Premier League that is now facing up to another season in the Championship.

Chelsea: F

£1bn. That’s the amount Chelsea have burned through since Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital’s takeover two years ago. No Premier League club has come close to spending that much in this time with Chelsea no stronger for the 28 signings they have made. They may even be weaker.

Chelsea have gone through multiple managers in just two years. They finished last season in the bottom half of the Premier League table and spent much of this season in a similar position. Towards the end of the campaign, though, Mauricio Pochettino started to point the Blues in the right direction, somehow salvaging a sixth place finish. So naturally, the Argentinian left Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

Generously, Boehly could be described as a disruptor. He has amortised transfer fees by handing out seven-year contracts and eased Chelsea’s PSR worries by selling two hotels and once proposed a trade with Inter for Romelu Lukaku. In reality, though, Boehly comes across as someone who has yet to grasp soccer club ownership and is making a mess while he figures it out.

Crystal Palace: B

Steve Parish might be the figurehead regularly shown on TV as the face of Crystal Palace, but American businessman John Textor is the largest shareholder through his multi-club group Eagle Football Holdings. Until recently, Palace fans might not have had much positive to say about Textor and the club’s leadership, but the tide has turned.

This is primarily down to the appointment of Oliver Glasner who has quickly changed the playing style and culture at Selhurst Park. The Eagles won six of their last seven matches of the season with the likes of Eberechi Eze, Michael Olise and Jean-Philippe Mateta flourishing in a more attack-minded, dynamic team. Midfielder Adam Wharton, a call-up to England’s provisional Euro 2024 squad, is another who has caught the eye.

Whether or not Palace cash in on some of those assets in the summer transfer window will indicate how serious Textor and Co are about building for the future, but for the time being there is an air of optimism around Selhurst Park.

Fulham: D

On the pitch, Fulham are more stable than at any other time of Shahid Khan’s 11-year ownership of the club. Having spent a number of seasons yo-yoing between the Premier League and Championship, the Cottagers are preparing for back-to-back top flight campaigns for the first time in a decade. This season’s 13th place might have been a regression on 2022-23’s top-half finish, but it was never likely that Marco Silva’s team would get sucked into relegation trouble.

Off the pitch the picture is murkier. Fulham supporters have protested against rising prices: season tickets were up by as much as 18% this year. An increase in ticket prices may help pay for the club’s new £80m Riverside Stand, but construction has been ongoing for five years and the expansion – which will include a rooftop bar and swimming pool – still isn’t complete.

Fulham fans are at risk of being priced out of their own club. Khan has attempted to justify the rising prices by claiming the extra money will help the club in the transfer market, but the Cottagers had a net spend of just £15m this season after selling top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic last summer. Fans are right to be concerned.

Liverpool: A

By many measures, Fenway Sports Group (FSG) are the perfect modern soccer owners. Since taking over Liverpool in 2010, the Boston-based conglomerate has pushed the club back to the top of English and European soccer, winning seven major titles in nine years under Jürgen Klopp.

FSG’s data-driven approach has allowed Liverpool to punch above their weight in the transfer market, although the club has still spent big on the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Darwin Nunez. Meanwhile, Anfield has also been extensively renovated and expanded with a new £50m training ground built in Kirkby.

This summer, however, represents a crossroads. Klopp is gone and Richard Hughes will take over as the club’s new sporting director in a couple of weeks. Mohamed Salah could be the subject of interest from Saudi Arabia again while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Van Dijk are entering the final year of their contracts. FSG have a lot on their plate.

Manchester United: F

When the Glazer family bought Manchester United in a controversial leveraged takeover in 2005, the club was the jewel of the Premier League. United rarely went one or two seasons without winning a title and were consistently competitive in the Champions League. They had the greatest manager in history, some of the most talented players in the world and England’s best stadium. With the Glazers at the helm, though, the club has crumbled.

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In fact, Old Trafford itself is literally crumbling and has become a symbol of the rot that has taken hold at Manchester United. Rivals point out the club has still spent aggressively in the transfer market in recent times, but there has been no coherent strategy to underpin this spending – not to mention the fact that these signings were largely funded through United’s own revenue, loans or structured payments.

That the Glazers were so willing to hand over sporting control of Manchester United to Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos for a minority stake earlier this year proved how little they cared about the success of the team. They turned English football’s biggest powerhouse into its most tragic punchline.

Milan: C

The Milan boardroom has been a chaotic place recently. In August 2022, it was announced that RedBird Capital Partners had completed a €1.2bn takeover of the rossoneri in a deal that included a minority stake for the New York Yankees. However, prosecutors claim hedge fund Elliott Management still controls the San Siro with the club’s offices raided as part of an investigation in March.

Whoever truly owns Milan, the last two years have been underwhelming. Stefano Pioli’s team put up a feeble defence of their 2021-22 Scudetto title last season and followed that up with a second place finish this term that seems respectable until noting rivals Inter are 19 points better off as runaway champions going into the final round of matches.

RedBird have bold plans to leave the San Siro and build a new stadium and have leaned into the American market through the signing of USMNT stars Christian Pulisic and Yunus Musah. This summer, however, will be the biggest test of Milan’s new leadership to date with Pioli expected to depart. There will be more Americans in the city soon too: US investment firm Oaktree Capital Management seized control of Inter this week after missed payment from the club’s Chinese owners.

Roma: B

Billionaire film producer Dan Friedkin bought Roma for €591m in August 2020 and made a box office appointment in hiring José Mourinho for the start of the 2021-22 season. This was a statement of intent by a club that last won Serie A more than two decades ago, and Mourinho enjoyed some success, leading Roma to the Europa Conference League title and a Europa League final. Fans adored him.

However, Mourinho left the Stadio Olimpico having failed to guide Roma into the Champions League and Daniele De Rossi’s swashbuckling approach has highlighted just how dull things had become towards the end of the former Chelsea manager’s tenure. In performances and results, there has been an uptick under De Rossi who is expected to land the job permanently.

A considerable overhaul of the squad will probably take place soon with Roma reportedly close to hiring Florent Ghisolfi from Nice as their new sporting director. There are question marks over the future of players like Paulo Dybala and Romelu Lukaku and concerns over Roma’s Financial Fair Play compliance.

Atalanta: B+

Bought in February 2022 by a group of investors led by Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca, Atalanta comprehensively beat Bayer Leverkusen in their first-ever European final this week. However, the club’s success is largely down to veteran manager Gian Piero Gasperini. The real test of Atalanta’s new owners will come when Gasperini leaves, which thankfully for the Bergamo club doesn’t appear to be on the horizon after Europa League glory.

Fiorentina: B+

Known for his bold public comments, Rocco Commisso couldn’t possibly make a bigger statement than the one his Fiorentina team could make by winning next week’s Europa Conference League final. The team have made continental finals in back-to-back seasons and opened a new €100m training facility earlier this season.

Genoa: C+

777 Partners have been the subject of much scrutiny recently due to their faltering attempt to buy Everton. The Miami-based firm also has stakes in Standard Liège in Belgium, Red Star in France, Brazil’s Vasco da Gama and Hertha Berlin. Under 777’s stewardship, Genoa won promotion from Serie B last season and have consolidated in the Italian top flight this term by staying up.

Mallorca: B+

Former tennis pro Andy Kohlberg heads up an ownership group at Mallorca that includes NBA legends Steve Nash and Steve Kerr as well as former USMNT midfielder Stuart Holden. The team made a run to the Copa del Rey final this season and have consolidated in La Liga after promotion in 2021. €30m was also spent on renovating Mallorca’s Son Moix stadium.

Le Havre: B-

Le Havre have a rich history of producing world class players at academy level – see Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Riyad Mahrez, to name but a few – and France’s oldest club just about avoided immediate relegation back to the second tier from Ligue 1 this season. American businessman Vincent Volpe has been the majority shareholder since 2015.

Lyon: D

Textor makes his second appearance on this list with Lyon part of the same multi-club ownership group that includes Crystal Palace. Lyon spent much of this season fighting relegation from Ligue 1, prompting protests from furious fans. Somewhat bizarrely, though, their campaign finished with a stoppage time Alexandre Lacazette penalty sending them into the Europa League.

Marseille: B-

Results have been mixed over the course of Frank McCourt’s eight years as Marseille owner. Under the former LA Dodgers owner, OM have been Ligue 1 runners-up twice and finished third last season. This term, however, was more volatile. Marcelino quit as manager, citing “severe threats and insults” following a meeting between club figures and fans. Jean-Louis Gasset’s appointment as Marcelino’s replacement was unpopular, but Marseille still made a run to the Europa League semi-finals.

Strasbourg: D-

Not content with turning Chelsea into a circus, Boehly has succeeded in doing the same to Strasbourg. The club’s supporters have revolted against BlueCo, the multi-club group that added Strasbourg to its portfolio last year, and while Patrick Vieira’s team avoided relegation from Ligue 1, there are growing concerns about the direction the Blue and Whites are heading in.

Toulouse: C-

RedBird have owned Toulouse since 2020, but have reportedly considered offloading the Ligue 1 club with FSG mentioned as potential buyers. Located in France’s fourth-largest city, the club has great potential, but there is a growing sense their current owners aren’t committed to pushing Les Violets to the next level.