Legendary former Manchester United goal scorer and board member Sir Robert ‘Bobby’ Charlton, taunting the Abu Dhabi owners of rival Manchester City, questioned Thursday whether deep pockets can buy soccer performance.
Charlton, speaking in the Gulf emirate, made his remarks amid reports that Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, is progressing in its efforts to acquire Manchester United.
Arch rivals Manchester United and Manchester City, which were acquired by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family in 2008, are set to face off in Old Trafford on Saturday.
Suggesting that Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan would have preferred to have acquired Manchester United, Charlton argued that the injection of Arab oil money would not create a Premier League winner overnight.
“If a club spends a lot of money quickly, it takes time for the team to settle down,” The Daily Mirror quoted Charlton as saying. ”There’s no easy way of winning the Premier League. You have to deserve it.”
Charlton contrasted efforts to fast track success on the back of Arab financial muscle with Manchester United manger Sir Alexander Chapman "Alex" Ferguson’s strategy of nurturing players from a young age.
He said Manchester United had several promising young players. “Alex keeps them right until the exact moment he thinks that they’re ready for it, and then he’ll put them in. We've had more than our fair share of good young players and we’ve invested in a lot of young players too.”
The retired player argued that “you get a bit of an affiliation with a football club when this sort of thing is taking place, and not just piling loads and loads of money in.”
Arab critics of Middle Eastern failure to perform in last month’s Asian Cup in Qatar have focused on the failure of the region’s authoritarian regimes to develop soccer talent at a young age.
For many of these regimes, political control of soccer is key because it, alongside Islam, traditionally is often the only force capable of creating alternative public space for pent-up frustration and anger.
That control is likely to rise in significance as the Middle East is rocked by protests that last month toppled Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali and are shaking Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year authoritarian rule to the core.
Charlton’s remarks suggested that he may be opposed to the possible acquisition of Manchester United by Qatar. The Glazer family, owners of Manchester United, and Qatar were, according to The Daily Express, close to concluding a deal believed to be worth £1.6 billion and “only haggling over details.”
Manchester United has repeatedly denied reports circulating since December that the Glazers were in negotiations with Qatar Holding, an investment arm of the Qatari royal family.
The Daily Express quoted a source it described as “well-placed” as saying that “the deal is pretty much done.”
Manchester United executives are believed to have recently travelled to Qatar for talks about the possible acquisition by the gas-rich Gulf state.
Qatar balked at the Glazers’ initial asking price of £2 billion, but kept the Manchester United owners at the negotiating table by raising by £100 million its initial offer of £1.5 billion.
James M. Dorsey authors The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog