What do buy when you are one of the world's richest men and you already own everything most other people can only dream of? Yesterday's confirmation that Dubai International Capital, an offshoot of the empire controlled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, seems to be on the verge of buying Liverpool hammers home the answer: a Premiership football club.
But the motivation behind DIC's move is different to that which inspired the spate of other foreign takeovers in recent years, a well-placed source close to the deal said last night. "This is not about turning Liverpool into a trophy asset," the source said. "It is not a case of Liverpool becoming the sheikh's personal plaything. DIC is a serious international player in all sorts of fields and this is one opportunity among many that makes sense."
To varying extents, it can be argued that Roman Abramovich's purchase of Chelsea and those by Randy Lerner and Eggert Magnusson of Aston Villa and West Ham are cases of rich men (and/or their backers) buying clubs that have little short-term potential to earn significant financial returns on their investment. They simply want to be involved in English football, and profit will be a bonus, breaking even a more realistic goal.
At Manchester United, profit in the long term is certainly the driving factor behind the Glazer family's £790m takeover last year, and remains so. But that buyout also differs from DIC's plan because it was financed by mountains of debt (currently £660m) and thus contains all the attendant risk for the club if things do not work as a planned.
The DIC deal for Liverpool, according to the people planning it, is neither solely about glory-hunting with a billionaire's spare change, nor just a business venture that must pay its own way. Rather it is a strategic move by a company that has huge resources and sees Liverpool fitting into a growing business portfolio, at relatively little cost. Relatively is the operative word.
"Liverpool have great history and tradition and represent an opportunity," one source said. "DIC are comfortable in the UK, as other investments have shown, and comfortable in the leisure sector. They are serious about doing whatever is necessary to make Liverpool genuine contenders to Chelsea and Manchester United again, and have the resources to do it.
"But while acknowledging fully that they're very high-profile, a massive club, in the context of some of DIC's other deals it is a relatively small transaction."
In other words, an initial £450m to fund a takeover, and further cash for players, as and when necessary, is really only small beer to DIC, which should be music to supporters' ears, because there seems, on the face of it, little downside.
DIC will want Liverpool to thrive, because a successful club will become a flagship for its varied international businesses. It will also give Sheikh Mohammed a perfect platform on which to conduct other business. He already has access to some of the world's most prominent movers and shakers through his involved in horse racing. What better place than a successful football club, playing in the world's richest league, to offer hospitality and promote your country?
DIC was established in 2004 as an investment group that business insiders believe intends to invest around £20bn globally in various sectors in the coming five years. Already in Britain it owns the Tussauds group (bought last year for £750m), and the Travelodge hotel chain (bought for £610m) and the engineering company Doncasters Group (£600m). It has also bought a two per cent stake in the German-US car manufacturer Daimler-Chrysler for £500m. These are all businesses from which DIC intends to make money. Buying Liverpool would fit into the company's strategy for another reason, as part of Dubai's ongoing efforts to market itself.
"Buying a football club makes sense with a lot of what is happening in Dubai," another source said. "They [the Dubai ruling elite, and by extension, DIC] are doing all sorts of things in and around Dubai in terms of business, tourism, sports and leisure and owning a football club like Liverpool fits together very nicely. English football is an incredibly powerful international brand."
As for questions about the day-to-day running of Liverpool, as and when the takeover concludes, it seems the status quo will be maintained. "If you're asking whether, in six months' time, the directors' box will be a sea of Arab faces, then no," said a source. "DIC's usual strategy is to support existing management, and invest in growth."
This will hearten Liverpool's manager, Rafael Benitez, who said last night in Istanbul ahead of Liverpool's Champions' League game against Galatasaray: "At the moment I only really want to concentrate on the match here, but of course it is always good for a club to have more money and more possibilities."
Hey big spenders: Sheikh Mohammed versus Red Rom
* SHEIKH MOHAMMED BIN RASHID AL MAKTOUM
Nickname: Sheikh Mo.
Nationality: United Arab Emirates.
Day job: Prime Minister and vice-president of UAE; and ruler of Dubai.
Personal fortune: About £7bn although, with "family money", that figure at least doubles to make him the fifth-richest man in the world.
Personal life: Wives include senior wife, Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma Al Maktoum, and junior wife, Princess Haya bint Al-Hussein, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan. Seven sons and nine daughters.
Hobbies: Horse racing (he owns Godolphin), camel racing. Patron to numerous major international sports events staged in Dubai, including golf, tennis and horse racing.
* ROMAN ABRAMOVICH
Nickname: Red Rom.
Day job: Oligarch, who has amassed his fortune buying former Russian state enterprises, especially oil and metals. Governor of Chukotka.
Personal fortune: Approximately £10bn.
Personal life: Married first wife, Olga, in 1987, divorced in 1989. Married Irina, former Aeroflot stewardess, in 1991. Five children.
Hobbies: Football, Formula One, yachts (he is the world's biggest spender on boats, and owns Pelorus and Le Grand Bleu, two of the world's largest private yachts). He also owns a private Boeing 767.
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