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The not-so-beautiful game: European football reckons with dirty money

Football is no stranger to politics and money. After more than a thousand people associated to the Kremlin were sanctioned last month by the EU, UK and US, and as some of these have links to European football, Russian investment in the game has come into question. Who should own a football club?

Many are paying record prices for the privilege. M&A in European football has risen considerably in recent years. A total of EUR 3.2bn was spent across 17 deals in 2021; this is the highest annual value recorded by Dealogic. Five deals this year have already been announced, including a consortium of American investors buying 55% of Serie A club Atalanta for EUR 275m.

Indeed, foreign investors have been instrumental to the uptick in M&A. The US and China both rank in the top five for investors’ country of origin by deal count since 2012. Russia is tied for seventh with a total of 13 deals. Meanwhile PE firms are coming off the bench, investing at both the club and league level.

Black and white

With foreign ownership come politics. "Sportswashing" is an increasingly common phrase, with the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia splashing out to own teams and host the FIFA World Cup.

One notable case is Newcastle United’s GBP 300m takeover by Saudi Arabian sovereign-wealth fund PIF. It was celebrated by swathes of the Newcastle faithful, with untold riches coming to a club which had stagnated under Frasers Group [LON:FRAS] majority owner Mike Ashley.

It also drew ire. Amnesty International called the deal “a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human-rights record with the glamour of top-flight football.” 

As the corporate world pays more heed to ESG considerations, greater regulatory scrutiny is likely in football too. For its part, the Premier League has already indicated owners might need to meet as-yet-undefined human-rights criteria

Transfer list

Because of sanctions on owner Roman Abramovich and his assets, Chelsea FC’s operations are now restricted. The club can still play but cannot sell tickets or merchandise.

Sanctions have also led to a sale of the club. Four bidders are shortlisted. The bank advising Chelsea, Raine Group, is to provide the Premier League with a preferred bid by mid-April.

Similarly, in the Netherlands, Vitesse owner Valeri Ojf is reportedly selling his stake due to his Kremlin connections.

Premier League club Everton may be next up. The club has had to sever commercial ties with sanctioned oligarch Alisher Usmanov and now needs a round of financing, as reported.

Manchester United [NYSE:MANU] has been floated as a sale candidate by this news service’s Flash feature, given pressure from supporters and its owners’ partial selldown. Arsenal had takeover interest last year from Spotify [LON:SPOT] co-founder Daniel Ek, and Napoli has reportedly caught the eye of PE investors. Should any of these be sold, the number of bidders linked to unsavoury regimes would be a bellwether for future investment in the game.