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Abu Dhabi group makes $354 million bid for English soccer team

The move to buy Manchester City is expected to trigger a new spiral in player costs and a fresh backlash to foreign ownership.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 5, 2008



LONDON

A bid by an Arab consortium for one of England's most prominent but underachieving soccer teams has amplified a noisy debate about the astronomical finances of the game – and the deepening divisions between the industry's haves and have-nots.

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The Abu Dhabi United Group – an investment vehicle for the emirate's royal family – has put forward a £200 million ($354 million) offer for Manchester City, the perennially weaker opponent to metropolitan rivals Manchester United, and promised to make it the richest and best team in the world.

The takeover would be the first of an English soccer team by an overseas Arab owner. It would multiply the bidding stakes for the world's best players, probably triggering a new spiral in player costs. The newcomers would eclipse Chelsea's Roman Abramovich as British soccer's richest owners.

From Russia's Abramovich to US sports moguls like Malcolm Glazer and Randy Lerner, foreign tycoons are gradually taking over English soccer. The attraction for the investor is the wealthiest league in the world, with revenues topping $3 billion a year, much of it derived from television broadcast rights. Nine Premier League clubs have foreign owners. Arsenal is the only club that consistently challenges for the league title without having a rich foreign owner.

But foreign owners have not always been welcomed with open arms.

Manchester United fans were in open revolt at Mr. Glazer's takeover, which was financed with huge amounts of debt. Some clubs have become exasperated at owners' reluctance to plow money into what can be an expensive business. Many fans suspect ulterior motives: that owners are just there for the marketing potential and not for the love of the game.

Manchester City fans are excited

Still, the initial response from Manchester City fans was euphoric. Some dressed up as Arab potentates in gratitude. Others informally renamed the club's Eastlands stadium "Middle Eastlands."

"When you've been in the footballing doldrums as long as we have, when the olive branch is offered to you, you take it," says Kevin Parker of the Manchester City supporters club, with a delicious mix of metaphors so beloved of football aficionados. "It might end up choking you, but you take it."

But his reaction hints at conflicting emotions at both Manchester City and in the wider football world.

"It's obviously raised the stakes in terms of the amount of money clubs are going to need," says Rory Miller, an expert in football finance. "It's also diminishing the competitive balance in football and diminishing the amount of interest that clubs will have in training their own players."

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