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17 October 2018

Reports that the Saudis want Man Utd show the murky insularity of the football rumour mill

Stories about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s interest in the club manage to ignore the swirling accusations against him. 

By Arun Kakar

Fans of Manchester United calling a change in regime have had their hopes raised in an unexpected way, if rumours that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is reported to be interested in a buyout of the club are to be believed. 

That is of course the same Crown Prince Bin Salman who finds himself under intense media scrutiny after Turkish authorities accused Saudi agents of murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October and has yet to be seen. It would prove a strange moment for the Saudi royal family to set the stall for a takeover bid.

The Sun, making no reference to the swirl of allegations surrounding the Khashoggi incident, reports that the Crown Prince is targeting United for “investment and a potential takeover”. The paper cites “well-placed sources” to support the claim, and notes that the club’s co-chairman Avram Glazer has been spending “significant” amounts of time in Saudi Arabia. Glazer is also due to attend the Kingdom’s Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh later this month.

A takeover deal is unlikely. The Glazer family, which took over the club in a £790m leveraged buyout 13 years ago, are unlikely to sell. The Glazer reign has been controversial among fans of the club because of how aggressively the family – which controls 97 per cent of the voting rights – has pushed the business interests of the club at the expense of the quality of its football. United might currently be eighth in the league table as it stands, but it is by far the most valuable and profitable club in the world according to Forbes: its £200m operating income for last season was almost twice that of any other.

So where did the rumour come from? The first news site to report the story on 14 October was the Daily Star. Its source? “Web football forums and Twitter.” The main tweet it cited came from United fan @Daniel_K23 (the paper did not mention the name) who told his 254 followers: “I’m hearing #MUFC reps met with Arabs to potentially buy us – could be huge”.  

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The Daily Star also cited Middle East reports that the price would be “around £4bn”. A search on Twitter reveals that on 11 October, MARCA contributor Diego Martinez tweeted that he could “confirm that Manchester United representatives have been holding discussions with an Arabian led consortium over the potential sale of the club”. Martinez, though occasionally correct, is not always right. But Martinez, the Starthe Sun, or even @Daniel_K23 don’t have to be right for a good story to gain traction on Football Twitter. 

Notably, few of those sharing the story considered the broader political context of such a transfer, or the consequences of being associated with such a morally questionable owner. The only thing of relevance was United, a club starved of glory, and this chance regain it. Such is the insular nature of gossip, football’s cottage industry.

Technology has exacerbated the problem. Traditionally rumours were reported from tip-offs and insider access, and then run on traditional news channels. Twitter has democratised this access, but it has also taken the core component of transfer rumours – that they don’t need to be corroborated – and has turned the platform into a wild west for football reporting.

The probability of a rumour surfacing is often irrelevant to its probability of being true. At a time where a player can be bought for £200m, any rumour inflame interest – especially at United, the evergreen subject of rumours because of its underperformance and financial clout. Ramos, Bale, Ronaldo, Neymar; the list of United “targets” that have failed to join the club is so long precisely because many of the clubs fans are so hungry for signings.

As The Star report shows, football rumours spreading on Twitter are regularly treated as news stories even if their provenance and source are tricky to establish. Football gossip is the radio phone-in for the digital age, with no host is around to moderate the discussion. It’s made journalists more accountable with what they report and the rumours they give credence to, but it has allowed disinformation to spread from unknown figures with incredible speed and ease. Of course, the most bizarre part of all of this is that some of these rumours actually end up coming true. 

Mostly, this is harmless fun: transfer rumours allow fans to entertain aspirations for their clubs in the space of 240 characters and are at the bedrock of fan discussions. In an infamous example, Hal Robson-Kanu, a player dropped from his championship club Reading, found himself linked to La Liga giants Altletico Madrid after an impressive display at Euro 2016. Robson-Kanu’s mooted transfer might have been as likely to happen as United winning the league that year, but it surely enlivened many a pub conversation across the country.

And yet rumours of the United takeover show just how far detached the football rumour mill is from the rest of the universe. It is a place where only results and silverware matter. When Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Abu Dhabi United Group took over Manchester City in 2008, concerns over the kingdom’s alleged human rights restrictions were quickly smoothed over when the team won its first Premier League title in 2011. In January, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that the UAE subjected those in violation of their restrictions to “torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and unfair trial procedures”.Around the same time City were sitting clear at the top of the table and being talked up as potentially the greatest Premier League team in history. Should the Saudi’s make a deal for United, if this rumour turns out to be one of the few that’s on the money, it will be trophies and transfers that are discussed in the insular football universe, not politics and missing persons.