Manchester United's commercial director insisted last night that the club do not need to buy players from a continent in order to sell shirts there, as they put the loss of the £32m-rated Eden Hazard behind them and moved towards the €22m (£17m) acquisition of Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund.
An initial €18m bid for the 23-year-old forward was rejected last week, though Dortmund's sporting director, Michael Zorc, has said the player now has only "some details" relating to his contract to agree with United. Chelsea, who claim that their Champions League win will make them £100m richer, have secured Hazard, signalling a serious intent to rebuild and threaten United next season.
United's commercial director, Richard Arnold, said Park Ji-sung, who could leave the club this summer, is the player selected more than any other by Koreans who want the image of a player on the million United credit cards sold in that country. In United's January 2010 £500m bond document, it was stated that "our popularity in certain countries or regions may depend, at least in part, on fielding certain players from those countries or regions".
But Arnold said: "When you look at the success we've seen in that part of the world it's not down to any one player. Ji's obviously been a very successful player, captain of the [South] Korean team. But for Manchester United it's more than any one player. He's picked for his merits, not marketing. The overwhelming majority [of South Korean United credit-card holders] choose the club's imagery rather than a player. We don't sign players to sell shirts. We are reliant on 25 players and they are all massive stars. For the want of a better description, we have 25 George Clooneys."
The 23-year-old Kagawa's movement and quality of passing have marked him out and his goal and assist in Dortmund's 5-2 German Cup final win over Bayern Munich, which Ferguson and his assistant, Mike Phelan, attended, confirmed that. But the failure to sign Hazard, Samir Nasri, Wesley Sneijder and Karim Benzema in a four-year period, during which United's most expensive acquisition has been the £18.9m David de Gea, points to greater financial firepower among their rivals.
United's £302m Nike kit deal expires in 2015 and the club are understood to be looking for at least £450m when they renew. The club sought to demonstrate their commercial power last night by publishing the findings of a survey, by a market-research company, Kantar, which shows United to have a support base of 659 million people worldwide – making them the most popular club in the world.
The total of "followers" is a 97 per cent increase on the 333 million found by a 2007 survey. Arnold said "followers" was a valid measure of support, because it covered all ways of supporting the club "from the person who holds up the flag to the person getting up at 4am to watch our Champions League games". All respondents offered this form of allegiance to United unprompted.
"There are lots of different ways of following the club. [It is] semantics around followers or fans," he said.
The equivalent 2007 research also extrapolated a figure of 139 million "core support". No such figure has been disclosed by United this time.
Though many United fans are concerned by Manchester City's greater financial muscle, Arnold said competitionwas helping to drive better deals.
"These close competitions are what make Manchester United," Nelson said. "We thrive on that competition. When you look at this last season, [it] would have been great if it had turned out differently in that last 90 seconds. But the uncertainty that comes with having strong competitors is really, really good for the fan base. It's really good for the club to have these exciting competitive influences."
To the suggestion that supporters might be more concerned with marquee signings, Arnold said: "Everybody's interested in us being the most successful club in the world, on and off the pitch. In well-run clubs the virtuous circle [is] of being successful on the business side, off the pitch, enabling you to be successful on the pitch.
"With regard to commenting on where a player is or isn't going that wouldn't be right for me to do. Suffice to say that Sir Alex has shown after 25 years that he has this in hand."
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