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Acquisition of Marseille brings American owners of European clubs into focus

McCourt’s acquisition of Ligue 1 club Olympique Marseille brings American owners of European football clubs into focus

football Updated: Oct 19, 2016 10:51 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Marseille’s new owner Frank McCourt has promised to invest the resources necessary to restore the club to its former glory.
Marseille’s new owner Frank McCourt has promised to invest the resources necessary to restore the club to its former glory.(AFP)

Coincidentally or otherwise, Olympique Marseille’s sale deal was announced on the day they beat Metz and, more importantly, in the week they are scheduled to meet the club they would love to knock off its perch --- Paris St Germain (PSG).

That’ll happen in Paris on Sunday in Ligue 1 and though no one’s expecting a French revolution that soon, American businessman Frank McCourt’s comment that the new owners have the “resources and courage necessary to invest” should give fans of this once-famous club hope. ESPN reports that McCourt has paid a reported 45 million euros (Rs 330 crore).

Ever since PSG began to be bankrolled by money from Qatar, the club has swept everything in France. Last season, they finished 31 points ahead of second-placed Lyon, scoring 102 goals and conceding 19. But European glory has eluded them and that was reason enough for chairman Nasser Al Khelaifi to sack coach Laurent Blanc with a reported severance pay of 22 million euros (Rs 161.5 crore approximately).

Time will tell whether McCourt brings such a war chest but since PSG’s takeover, Marseille’s fortunes have gone south. Till Monday, they were owned by Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, one of France’s richest women, but a 13th place finish in Ligue 1 last season showed that it clearly wasn’t enough. That Marseille is perceived as an unsafe city for footballers hasn’t helped --- Brazilian defender Hilton left for Montpellier after being robbed --- nor the ignominy of being relegated on match-fixing charges when Bernard Tapie was owner.

It was under Tapie, though, that Marseille had their best years. There was a lot of money in France football after ‘Les Bleus’ won the European Championship in 1984 and Tapie spent lavishly to get the best in business. Marseille won the Champions League in 1993. McCourt has said he aspires to take the 117-year-old club to the “highest ranks of European football.”

Irrespective of whether that happens or not, McCourt’s newest acquisition brings American owners of European football clubs back into focus. “It seems an opportunity to make a difference,” is what American Randy Lerner said when he took over Aston Villa in 2006. From Stan Kroenke at Arsenal, Shahid Khan (Fulham), the Glazers at United and Fenway Sports Group which owns Liverpool, there are seven clubs in the Premiership owned by Americans. In Italy, Roma is run by a group of Americans.

In most cases though, the relationship with fans has been tetchy because they think Americans are in it only for the business opportunity football in Europe provides. Earlier this year, Arsenal fans sought Kroenke’s removal citing grievances over increasing ticket prices --- a recurrent peeve in England when compared to Spain, Italy or Germany --- and no trophies. Liverpool fans too have had issues with that.

After Roman Abramovich courted success and worldwide fame with Chelsea by spending nearly a cool 120 million pounds (now Rs 983 crore) in the first year, billionaires from all over the world want to be associated with football in Europe. “Ninety per cent of Mayfair is now foreign-owned and sometimes all of Arsenal’s team is foreign, so why not football clubs?, said Pini Zahavi, who facilitated the Chelsea takeover. Most clubs in the La Liga are wholly or fully owned by the Chinese.

So, reports of Indonesian businessmen seceding control of a top European club to Chinese tycoons or Malaysians taking over clubs in England don’t really turn heads anymore. When they do, it is usually because things haven’t really gone the way they were supposed to. Such as at Blackburn Rovers. Or, when Lerner left.

Enter the Glazers

Fans made their opposition toward Glazer’s bid for United felt during a protest outside Old Trafford on May 12, 2005. (Getty Images)

With the Glazers in 2005, America really announced its interest in European football. The sport may be growing in popularity back home with an expanding MLS (Major League Soccer) that is now 23 years old, but football as the Glazers saw it was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. With a leveraged buyout that sunk Manchester United into debt, Malcolm Glazer became the owner after paying only 250 million pounds (Approximately Rs 2,050 crore now) of the 790 million pounds (nearly Rs 6,476 crore now) United were then worth.

That’s some movement forward for a club which, as Newton Heath, had brewer John Davies wiping off its 2,670 (approximately Rs 2.18 lakhnow) pound deficit because, as rumour has it, he wanted skipper Harry Stafford’s dog for his daughter.

Unlike Marseille, United were winning on the field but off it there was trouble between Alex Ferguson and shareholders John Magnier and JP McManus. That made it possible for Glazer to step in. The club is now worth over 2.45 billion pounds (Rs 16,396 crore) so, by way of a business deal, the Glazers have certainly nailed it.

“The Glazers have been very clever. They have done it all ruthlessly well,” Jim O’Neill, who was with Goldman Sachs, was quoted as saying in FourFourTwo last year. The new deal led to the formation of FC United, which plays in the sixth tier of English football. It is run by Manchester United supporters who think their favourite club has lost its soul.

Not everyone thinks that way. “I had a great relationship. When I left United in 2008, Joel (Malcolm’s son and co-chairman) called. He told me that I always had a place at the club and that it was my duty to try and get me to stay…I was grateful for that. I remember the takeover period not being an easy period for the fans or the boss…But in all the protests, it didn’t stop the players or staff from doing their job,” said Carlos Queiroz, who was Ferguson’s deputy and is Iran’s head coach.

Since Ferguson left, United have struggled to find their feet but what is significant is that the Glazers have loosened purse strings. After accounting for money earned from players being sold, United spent 133 million pounds (Rs 1,090 crore) in the 2014-15 summer transfer window. This was sixth months after they paid 37 million pounds (Rs 303 crore now) for Juan Mata.

“Resurrecting United for the post-Ferguson era could prove to be the most expensive rebuilding exercise football has ever seen,” wrote World Soccer in its October 2014 issue. Two years later, it’s not changed.

The Liverpool story

Juergen Klopp has so far enjoyed comfortable relations with Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group. (Getty Images)

The other big story of American involvement in English football is Liverpool. Also a leveraged buyout, Tom Hicks and George Gillett took over as owners in 2007 spending nearly 219 million pounds ( Rs 1,794 crore now) and when they left in 2010, the club was 350 million pounds (2,866 crore) in debt. The fans who had welcomed them were happy to see their backs. But the Americans were replaced by their compatriots and the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) took over in 2010.

After friction with Brendan Rodgers centering around the sale of Luis Suarez and fitting new signings, said to be more the management’s choice than that of the manager, Juergen Klopp came on board and so far the relations have been more than cordial. Proof of that lies in Liverpool’s current form. Unlike Rodgers, FSG president Mike Gordon and Klopp are said to get along really well.

That can’t be said of Lerner and Aston Villa. Since buying the club from Doug Ellis, the takeover being worth 62.6 million pounds (now Rs 512.7 crore), Lerner put in 200 million pounds (now Rs 1,638 crore) but as Villa kept finishing mid-table, refused to spend more. The result: five mangers since 2011 and relegation from Premiership last season. And Lerner’s exit this year.

These Americans cut their teeth in owning sports teams at home before venturing into football. McCourt was formerly associated with Los Angeles Dodgers and is part-owner at Boston Braves, the Glazers have Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lerner Cleveland Browns, Khan Jacksonville Jaguars and the Fenway Sports Group owns the Boston Red Sox. The Kroenke family owns a number of teams across sport in Canada and the USA and Swansea’s Stephen Kaplan and Jason Levien also own Memphis Grizzlies and DC United.

That makes all of them markedly different from the not-so-famous story of David Patey. This American didn’t care much for football or sport but now owns Herediano, Costa Rican league champions. The Mormon now claims to have fallen in love with football. Marseille will be hoping McCourt does too.

Data on French football club Marseille, bought by the American Frank McCourt. (AFP)