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English football and the credit crunch

Why should you root for Man U? You own it.

Manchester United fans react as they watch the Champions League final soccer match against Chelsea on television at Sam Platts pub in Manchester, northern England, May 21, 2008. (Nigel Roddis/Reuters)

LONDON — As the scales fall from the eyes of investors around the world and they look at the ruins of their portfolios, spare a thought for soccer fans in England. Most won't have lost their retirement nest eggs (they weren't rich enough to have them) but many of their teams are stuck in the middle of the economic maelstrom. 

No country's soccer is more in thrall to foreign money than England's Premier league. In the last five years foreign billionaires from Russia to Thailand to Tampa Bay have snapped up English soccer clubs. This makes the teams particularly sensitive to the global economic and political crises thousands of miles away.

The casualties so far: West Ham United, in east London, is owned by Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson. He is one of the fabled Icelandic financial whizzes who, as chairman of Landsbanki, led his country into bankruptcy and left hundreds of thousands of depositors wondering where their life savings went. Currently West Ham is up for sale. The chaos surrounding the owner is partially responsible for the team’s poor performance: It is barely in the top half of the league, with seven wins, five draws and nine losses.

Manchester City started the season owned by Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand who fled his country following a military coup. He is currently in hiding after being tried in absentia and found guilty of corruption by a Thai court.

Shinawatra sold Manchester City to Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi in September 2008. Shinawatra claims to have made a $20 million profit. The team hasn't done as well. It is five places from the bottom of the league.

Even a great team like Manchester United, champion of England and Europe, is not immune. Man United has a double connection to America: The Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, purchased it in 2005 for about $1 billion. The club also has a sponsorship deal with AIG. Yes, that AIG, the insurance company that was bailed out by the American taxpayer. So U.S. citizens are sponsoring United, which stands in fourth place.

Arsenal, historically one of the most successful team in England, has seen its boardroom trapped in internecine warfare as an Uzbek oil billionaire, Alisher Usmanov, tries to acquire enough shares in the club to buy it outright. The confusion in management has led to uncertainty on the field, where Arsenal is one spot behind Man U.

The tale of the foreigners and the Premier League is one more example of liquidity looking for somewhere to be spent. "Owning an English football club was an apparent opportunity for capital growth when money was cheap," said Tom Cannon, professor of strategic planning at Liverpool University. There was another reason for foreigners to buy in, according to Cannon. Security. If you are a Russian oligarch and want protection against the Kremlin moving against you, owning a big English football club might be a fun form of insurance. Cannon speculates that was one of the reasons Roman Abramovich, a Russian oil baron, bought London club Chelsea. Thaksin Shinawatra may have had the same idea.

The presence of billionaires among the owners of England's top soccer clubs is nothing new, Cannon said. The team he supports, Everton, was owned for decades by Liverpool's Moores family. Their money came from running legal football betting pools.

"The Moores fortune was in real terms probably worth more than that of the Glazers," Cannon said. "The first dollar billionaire to own a team was an English steel magnate, Jack Walker."

Walker was an up-from-the-bootstraps industrialist who bought Blackburn Rovers, the no-hope team he supported as a boy. He poured cash into buying players. The team went from near extinction to champions in four years.

Today's owners now face some very harsh reality as their wealth shrinks. Chelsea's Abramovich, for one, is reported to have lost as much as $20 billion in the Russian stock market. They seem keen to spread the pain around.

In the off-season summer of 2007 clubs spent a record 530 million pounds — a little over $1 billion at the time — on purchasing new players. In the off-season of 2008 that spending was down to 300 million pounds, or about $550 million at the current rate of exchange. As it is common for the player to get a percentage of the fee for which he is sold, that means transfer fees are down by almost half.  New contracts show wages are also coming down and they are expected to plummet over the next year.

But all is not lost. Oil prices may be way down but oil wealth is still significant. Saudi Telecom is stepping into AIG's place and will be advertising itself next to the Nike logo on Manchester United's shirts.

Arsenal's suitor Usmanov has slowed the pace of his acquisitions as his net worth has declined, and in the meantime a U.S. billionaire, Stan Kroenke, has joined the board. Kroenke's money is more solid than Usmanov's. He is a construction magnate in his own right, but he is also married to Sam Walton's grand-daughter. And as everyone knows, in tough times Wal-Mart is everybody's favorite place to shop. That’s good for Arsenal.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/united-kingdom/090111/english-football-and-the-credit-crunch