Investors aim to cash in on Premiership's global appeal

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The Independent Football

Thaksin Shinawatra's desire to own a sizeable chunk of Liverpool Football Club says more about the English game than it does about him. That much was evident yesterday when the Thai Prime Minister explained why he wants to pump £60m into the Anfield coffers in return for a 30 per cent stake.

"Lots of our products need a brand," he said, talking particularly about Thailand's rural industries that manufacture items as various as wooden stools, silk cushion covers and spicy cashew nuts. "And Liverpool is one that we can use on the world market."

In a nutshell, he was making the astonishing assertion that English football is now so powerful it is possible simply to co-opt one of its brands (or clubs, as they were formerly known) and use it to flog anything, anywhere.

He might be right, although there is no precedent to prove it. But the mere fact that he thinks his cunning plan is feasible marks another seismic shift away from what club ownership used to be about.

Forget the local butcher, the baker and builder. In days gone by they would invest some of their relatively limited wealth into clubs that were, relatively, cheap to run. Mostly they did not expect their clubs to make them money but rather eat up some of the spare funds they had acquired from their primary businesses. A bit of brass equalled local kudos, and that was it.

Roman Abramovich did not, on his own, change that. There had been examples of foreign speculators before he started shovelling money down the King's Road last summer. But the sheer scale of Abramovich's investment did send out a message about the English game: foreign plutocrats, PMs and presidential candidates, queue here, because English football gives you global recognition and maybe even credibility.

It is ultimately credibility that Abramovich is seeking as he looks for a safe, long-term home. He is not involved at Chelsea for profit. If Thaksin thinks Liverpool are about to make him richer, he should think again.

Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Gjelsten thought in 1997 that investing in Wimbledon would make them a fortune. The Norwegian magnates spent more than £30m buying the club and maintaining it in the mistaken belief they would move it to Dublin and cash in on Ireland's only Premiership franchise. Barely before they could say "Milton Keynes" their dreams and money were gone.

In 1997 Mohamed Al Fayed bought Fulham with a dream of turning them into a global cash cow. No doubt he also hoped that owning a club might help secure him a British passport. Seven years on he has spent some £100m. Yes, Fulham are a Premiership club. But global? No. And the passport? No.

At Stoke City in 1999, a group of Icelandic businessmen took control of the then Second Division club for £3.5m. They saw a Premiership future and have continued to invest in it. They are still waiting.

Milan Mandaric at Portsmouth also saw a Premiership future when he took over in 1999. It arrived. Some £20m of his money went in the other direction to achieve it.

Malcolm Glazer, the US sports magnate, apparently has designs on Manchester United, although despite buying up nearly 19 per cent of the shares for around £130m, he has made no firm statement that a takeover is on the cards. He would probably need to find around £470m more to fund it. For a club on the wane, that is not an attractive price.

As for other would-be investors this season, Aston Villa have reportedly been courted by the Venezuelan billionaire, Gustavo Cisneros, a media magnate who also has political aspirations. Leeds were briefly considered by investors from the Middle East and Uganda, even though the credentials of Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa and Michael Ezra did not actually stack up. Manchester City, meanwhile, have apparently had talks with several Russian oligarchs. Foreign money is in demand.

Which leaves one question for Thaksin Shinawatra. If Liverpool are such a massive, powerful, attractive, saleable brand, why do they need your baht in the first place?

FOREIGN BODIES FIVE OVERSEAS INVESTORS IN THE ENGLISH GAME

ROMAN ABRAMOVICH (Russian)

Ushered in a new era of megabucks foreign investment in English football when he saved Chelsea from financial doom last year. The acquisition itself plus debt settlement and player buys have seen his outlay reach £250m already. With a personal fortune of £7.2bn, there's plenty more where that came from.

MALCOLM GLAZER (American)

The 75-year-old owner of Tampa Bay Buccaneers has an estimated fortune of "only" $1bn (£565m) but has spent around £130m of it since last year to stockpile shares in Manchester United. His latest £10m purchase of 4.1m shares took his holding to 18.25 per cent, rekindling takeover talk.

MOHAMED AL FAYED (Egyptian)

Al Fayed bought Fulham in May 1997 after the team's promotion from the Third Division was confirmed. The purchase was seen as part of a wider plan to gain establishment credibility. He vowed to make Fulham the "Manchester United of the south". Has spent £100m-plus trying.

MILAN MANDARIC (Serbian)

Made his fortune in America through computing and investment companies. Had interests in clubs in the US, Belgium and France before buying Portsmouth from the administrators for £5m in June 1999. Has spent more than £20m since to see them gain promotion to the Premiership, and stay up.

GUNNAR THOR GISLASON (Icelandic)

The chairman of Stoke City is the figurehead of the consortium that has run the club since a £3.5m takeover in 1999. His wealth came from fruit and veg, wholesale and investment activities. Most of the other Icelandic investors share a common source of wealth: fish or ships.

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