And here’s one we made earlier. Please ignore the noises from the basement. We, the sovereign state of Qatar, are here to restore the lost soul of your prized social-sporting institutions. And it’s all going to be fine. There was an unavoidable significance this week in the coincidence of two apparently unrelated events. First the suggestion that Qatar really may have a serious interest in buying Manchester United, or at least enough interest to add its name to the list before Friday’s “soft” deadline. And second the deliciously more-ish scenes of chaos at Paris Saint-Germain as the current Qatari football project confirmed its status as the most thrillingly grotesque entity in European club football.
It is worth stating this simply: Qatar buying United would be an absolute disaster for the team, the Premier League and Uefa. And not just for reasons such as human rights abuses, which nobody really seems to care about, or the fact nation-state ownership is by definition unhealthy, and foreign policy never benign. In the end none of this really seems to cut through. What makes an impact is basic footballing competence. We hear talk already of how “classy” Newcastle’s Saudi owners are, which is no doubt a huge comfort to those the state has classily beheaded, or gay people in Saudi being (classily) tortured.
If this is what really counts then we do have a model of what being owned by Qatar looks like. Witness the state of PSG, a job interview for the role of Manchester United owner so inept it serves to be ranked up there with the one where you accidentally called the senior partner of a magic circle law firm “Dad” or punched the head of HR in the clavicle going for a handshake.
Qatar is, of course, more than just one thing. Past incompetence is no guarantee of future balls-ups. No doubt the relevant “fund” would build some really good bridges in Salford and generally machine-gun this thing with money. But the fact remains Qatar has made a mind-numbingly awful hash of running PSG in a way that would play specifically to United’s own vices and destroy in an instant the cautious progress made under Erik ten Hag.
It is easy to lose track of the sheer level of inanity and dysfunction at PSG. But it was there in its many shades before, during and after the 1-0 defeat by Bayern Munich in Paris on Tuesday, an occasion when the team looked more than ever like a version of football as reimagined by an uncompromising nine-year-old video game enthusiast.
The culture at the club is perhaps best summed up by the “bien manger, bien dormir” affair that has dominated PSG celebrity gossip channels in the days since. This was a comment made by Kylian Mbappé to Canal+ after the game, urging his teammates to eat and sleep properly before the return in Munich, taken as a public slap-down of Neymar, who seems unusually intent on having late-night parties at his house in Bougival. Most recently there was his birthday party (Neymar is, lest we forget, eight years old) plus other boisterous shindigs that have led the Bougival mayor to describe Neymar as “a disrespectful individual” who is “prodigiously annoying”.
Which seems fair enough and indeed demonstrably true. It also captures perfectly a club that has come to mirror its ownership, not so much a sporting enterprise as a kind of royal court, a power struggle between princelings and dukes, where Sir Kylian, demi- emir of Paris, is free to fritter away his surplus brilliance overseeing his sub-empire.
The day after that potential season-ending defeat, it just kept rolling on. A round of key power meetings were breathlessly staged, meetings that seemed of more consequence than the actual game: Lionel Messi’s dad and the club board; Todd Boehly and Nasser al-Khelaifi. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace. All of it confirming a sense of a sporting institution that is essentially a celebrity gossip mag made flesh (What Kiki Really Said To Ney!).
The wider frustration here is that this just feels like such a vast and pointless waste, making a silly star show out of a one-city club that could be something profound, that sits at the centre of the most stupendous player production model of the age, that has the banlieues as its feeding ground, that has boundless funds and time to develop a player culture.
Instead we have this. A celebrity construct that has already wrecked the European transfer system once, that seems to no longer hide its political influence, which just keeps chewing its way through good and thorough managers because all must be subservient to the egotism of star players.
Which brings us back to United and to Erik. Why have things begun to settle? Because just enough power and authority has been given to a serious, ascetic man who cares only about football, who has lanced some of the celebrity waxwork stuff, who has invested in a useful Dutch beanpole, who has publicly disciplined Marcus Rashford, then publicly backed him, then made him into the high-grade homegrown standard bearer he was always meant to be.
Nothing has been achieved yet but just look at the easy gains, the uplift from simply trusting in a serious, competent person and neglecting the fripperies. Throwing Qatar at this thing would demand the opposite model, the one to which United have already been vulnerable as a grand old club trading off its past. It is as though the engine crew of the Titanic have finally worked out how to stop this thing listing into the waves, only to be informed that their new captain is a horse in a top hat who has decided to set sail immediately for the nearest and sparkliest ice shelf.
Plus it would be disastrous for Uefa, which has described the multi-club ownership model as a threat to football’s “integrity” but has no real power to stop it when a fund can just become another fund. Not to mention deeply uncomfortable for the Premier League, which has charged Manchester City with offences allegedly related to connected sponsorships. Welcome, National Bank of Qatar!
And yet for all the potential barriers the fact remains this thing will happen if the emir wants it. This is how football works, how deregulated industries work, how energy dependence on Qatar works. In which case the current, fragile little age of Erik may just come to look like its own brief shaft of light.