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Battle of the billionaires takes up positions on Europe's football fields Add to ...

It must be some comfort for white van man, the archetypal English working-class football-obsessed male, that some of the cash that disappears into his tank is now heading back home. A Gulf Arab tycoon has just agreed to buy Manchester City, the Premier League football club, sister to the more prestigious Manchester United, for almost £200-million ($376.7-million).

Much better, Sulaiman al-Fahim, the Emirates property developer who is fronting the bid by Abu Dhabi United Group, has promised a colossal investment in new players that he suggests could reach hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Emiratis had barely emerged from negotiations to buy 90 per cent of Man City from Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who fled a corruption trial at home, when they announced that City had signed up Robinho, snatching the Brazilian striker who plays for Real Madrid from under the nose of rival Chelsea. Abu Dhabi United Group paid £34-million for Robinho and Mr. al-Fahim remarked casually that he wanted to make Man City the world's top club and that meant an entirely new team. He said: "I need to meet the manager but the best players in the world average £30-million. We need a minimum of 18 players at that level. Without that you can't win the Champions League."

The papers are now screaming that City is gunning for the world's top player, Cristiano Ronaldo, the Manchester United forward who is up for grabs. The rumour is that the Emirati owners are considering a bid of £135-million, topping Real Madrid's suggested bid of £90-million. These are staggering sums - the reported Man City bid would be twice the operating profits of Manchester United and almost three times the record transfer fee of £47-million that Real Madrid stumped up to take Zinedine Zidane from the Juventus stable.

Other top players are said to be targeted - Liverpool striker Fernando Torres, and Ronaldinho, the Brazilian who plays for AC Milan. This is more than football, it is the bizarre world of the petro-rich and it is plain that for these Gulf businessmen, winning matches is just a means to the more delicious pleasure of knocking the stuffing out of rival oligarchs and even rival states.

One obvious target is Roman Abramovich, the Russian tycoon who dragged Chelsea out of obscurity to the top of the league, leaving a trail of petro-dollars and delirious fans behind him. The al-Nahyan family, who own Abu Dhabi United Group, would like to copy and better the Abramovich strategy of overwhelming the competition with an avalanche of cash.

They have the means: Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan is the brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi with a reputed trillion-dollar fortune. Less obvious is why the al-Nahyans choose to recycle their petro-dollars by spoiling footballers. They can't take the prize home; the club will stay in Manchester and the expenditure is not a real investment, it cannot be recovered in any sensible time frame.

Some football club owners do have their eye on profit, notably Malcolm Glazer, the Florida sports tycoon who took control of Manchester United. But in the long history of English football, most clubs have teetered on the edge of insolvency, supported by the vanity of local businessmen and a drip feed of cash until it runs out. What has changed today is that the businessmen are much, much richer. They are no longer pillars of the local Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club and the vanity is more calculating.

For Mr. Shinawatra, the investment in Manchester City was about the purchase of status and respectability. You could say the same for Mr. Abramovich and fellow Russian Alisher Usmanov, the steel tycoon who has acquired a quarter share in Arsenal, a top-ranking London club. Notwithstanding their huge wealth, these men would have remained obscure outside their home countries but now find their names wrapped into football chants, jeers and catcalls heard by millions. It's the sort of fame you cannot buy for love but you can for money.

For the Emirs, the real battle is at home where Abu Dhabi is engaged in a bizarre rivalry with Dubai, the neighbouring statelet that has led the running in generating foreign investment and a services sector that now hugely exceeds Dubai's dwindling oil economy. Abu Dhabi is richer but bears the grudge of the less glamorous older sister. It wants to be cooler and hotter than Dubai and a top football team plastered with Abu Dhabi slogans is fit for the purpose. Scott Fitzgerald said the rich were different but Ernest Hemingway said they were only different because they had more money. The curious thing about the petro-rich is that their ambition is pathetic and a bit hopeless: They just want to be loved.

 

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