Considered to be one of the most popular and valuable sports teams in the world, Liverpool Football Club would be a prize catch for any buyer looking to establish a foothold in English soccer’s top-tier Premier League. The sale of Chelsea to American businessman Todd Boehly in the summer, to the tune of approximately £4.25 billion ($4.84 billion), has led many to believe that Liverpool will likely demand an even higher price should Fenway Sports Group (FSG) choose to sell up completely. A price that high would mean only a select few could afford the club.
Naturally, rumors are swirling about where potential new owners may come from, with reports variously suggesting the United States, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates. The reality is that the new owners would have to be extremely wealthy unless there is a leveraged takeover of the club. Such a takeover, using a significant amount of borrowed money, would likely prompt a very negative reaction from the fans given the financial impact on the club.
Many Liverpool fans are apprehensive about the idea of having more American owners, given the club’s turbulent recent history with them. While FSG must largely be considered a success having won every available trophy bar the second-tier Europa league continental competition with manager Jurgen Klopp, they have come under fire for several controversies during their stewardship.
The most significant error of FSG’s reign was the club’s entry into the ill-fated European Super League (ESL). John Henry, the principal owner of the club, is considered to have been one of the key architects of the project, alongside US compatriots the Glazers at Manchester United, Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez, and Andrea Agnelli at Juventus.
The proposed breakaway league, which was widely condemned by fans, journalists, and pundits, lasted only two days before all of the English clubs pulled out, which ultimately led to its collapse. Henry later put out an apology video on the club’s official social media channels, but, for many Liverpool fans, the damage was done.
Other missteps have included the club applying for the UK government’s furlough scheme to help pay employees during the Covid-19 pandemic. The move was widely condemned by Liverpool fans, given that the scheme was specifically designed to help struggling businesses. The club reversed its decision due to the negative reaction. In 2015, meanwhile, FSG tried to significantly hike ticket prices for home games, which was met by organized walkouts from fans at games, again leading to the policy being scrapped.
With the possibility of new owners, Liverpool fans are now left wondering what kind of individuals they may be dealing with going forward. In the last 15 years, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, and Newcastle have all been taken over by conglomerates from the Middle East, and all three clubs are essentially state-backed, allowing them to pay transfer fees and wages well beyond those of the rest of the teams in Europe.
All three ownership groups have also been significantly criticized extensively for sportswashing, which essentially involves using the positive press involved with owning a sports team to launder the image of a country. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have all received worldwide condemnation for their poor human rights records. The murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2019 for speaking out against the current regime dominated the international news cycle for weeks, while Qatar has been spotlighted extensively for their treatment and the deaths of migrant workers during the lead-up to their hosting of the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup.
There is a possibility that Liverpool will be taken over by a regime looking to improve its image in the Western world. Newcastle United’s Saudi-backed takeover was recent, but there has been a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes due to manager Eddie Howe and impressive recruitment. Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City have shown extensively over the last decade that spending the most money does win trophies, with both teams dominating their respective leagues.
As Newcastle continue to improve, the Premier League could become a two-horse race every year. There is a very real possibility that spending money in the way these teams can will be the only way to stay competitive at the top of the sport. This is the appeal to some Liverpool fans regarding a takeover of this nature, with FSG having been regularly criticized among some sections of Liverpool fans for their frugality and careful spending in the transfer market.
However, the cost of such a sale could be the club becoming the face of a project designed to clean up the image of known human rights abusers. While many fans would happily look the other way, others would be more concerned about the direction Liverpool would be heading in, knowing it’s a road that would be difficult from which for the club to come back.
Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankly (SOS) fan group, formed under the ill-fated ownership of Texan businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillette who all but bankrupted the club during their tenure, removed their banners from the Kop end at Anfield, which had been placed there in the absence of fans during the Covid-19 pandemic, after the announcement of the club’s entry into the ESL.
The group said it could no longer support a club that was putting financial greed above the integrity of the game, adding that the ESL directly contradicted the egalitarian principles upon which the club was built.
In December 2021, Liverpool entered into an agreement with the SOS to create a supporters’ board which requires the club to gain approval from fans on key decisions going forward. The SOS would be opposed to a sportswashing regime coming in as Liverpool owners, but only time will tell if the wishes of the group will be met.
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