Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Watching Manchester United win a cup from Qatar, home of their would-be owners

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If you pass through the lobby of the Blue Rose Hotel, take the lift up to the mezzanine floor and swing a left, you arrive at the entrance of a bar called Pavilion. Make your way past the security desk and inside you’ll find a dark and windowless room, dimly illuminated by a couple of ceiling lights and the glow of plasma screens.

It could be any nightclub in a provincial town on the outskirts of Manchester, but this is Doha, and the venue is the regular haunt of Manchester United’s official Qatari supporters’ club.

For the third time since the announcement of Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani’s bid to buyout the Glazer family, United’s Qatari fan contingent is meeting to watch a game together: the Carabao Cup final.

The supporters’ club’s organiser-in-chief is Kenny D’Souza, who took the reins midway through last season and arranged for the group to become the official Qatari branch. To achieve that, they needed to pass a threshold of 50 members being signed up to United’s membership scheme.

The flag of Qatar’s official Manchester United supporters’ club (Photo: Mark Critchley)

“We started off slowly but with the way things have been happening, the response has been overwhelming,” he says. The club has 63 members, plus others contributing via a lively WhatsApp group and attending screenings.

What starts as a couple of fans in replica shirts sitting around the same table an hour before kick-off turns into a room of around 80 supporters, enough to pack out the modestly-sized bar.

In a country where expatriates make up the vast majority of the population, Qataris are in the minority among this group. Most of them hail from South Asia — India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are all represented — but there are also fans from Jamaica, Indonesia and even Stockport.

One supporter, Ihsan Wira, has brought a friend whose interest in football dates back to the start of the World Cup. He’s still deciding which club to support, though a red T-shirt hints which way he’s leaning.

The potential takeover by the son of a former Qatari prime minister is the main topic of conversation as kick-off approaches. Unsurprisingly perhaps, many of those present hope United falls into Qatari hands.

One of those is Qatari-born and bred Mukhtar Abdullatheef, who started supporting United back in 1995 before Premier League games were broadcast live in Qatar — he instead caught weekly highlights shown on a Friday night. Abdullatheef was enamoured with the 1999 treble-winning side.

When rumours of a £1.5billion ($1.8bn) Qatari takeover of the club were quashed in early 2011, he felt “deflated”. Now: “Finally, getting the dream of Qataris owning United, it can’t be better than that.”

What would be so special? “It’s the connection,” he says. “It gets even more intense once you have your team coming here. As a football fan, as a team that you support, you see your superstars coming every now and then, having an opportunity to meet up with them.”

This is something that crops up again and again in conversations with United fans in Qatar. Paris Saint-Germain hold a training camp in Doha every winter and the expectation is that a Qatari-led United should do the same.

D’Souza, who hails from India and moved here a decade ago, points to the potential development boost for football in the country: “I’ve witnessed the growth of football in Qatar. From when I came in 2013 to what it has been right now, it’s a massive transformation.”

At the same time, D’Souza and Abdullatheef are aware of the opposition to a Qatari-owned United.

“Certainly there’s been a lot of criticism and it’s well-documented,” says Abdullatheef. “It’s not how it is being reported.”

He adds: “It’s because they’re just zoomed in on some big kind of issue.”

He attributes at least part of the blame for “issues” in Qatar — many of which are to do with human rights, which The Athletic has reported on, including the treatment of migrant workers and homosexuality — to individual companies, while praising the government.

“They’ve gone leaps and bounds, they’ve gone way beyond what they have been doing before to address these things to a limit,” he says. “In every country, wherever you go in the world, there’s always good and there’s some bad that comes along with it. But the criticism from the media perspective, it’s totally out of proportion.”

D’Souza, meanwhile, complains of a sneering attitude towards fans in Qatar from other parts of the world, particularly around the World Cup.

“A simple thing is the Argentina fan parade along the (Doha) Corniche, right before the World Cup,” he says. “I was part of that because I’m part of the Argentina football supporters’ club in Qatar as well. I’m a lifelong Argentina fan. They said the people there for the flag rally were all paid. Sorry, but I didn’t get any money.

“There has been a lot of criticism about it but there are true fans from India, from the Asian part of the world like Bangladesh, from Nepal, that actually support Argentina and Brazil. They’ve been blindly supporting these countries for a very long time. None of these guys as far as I know has been paid to come and show their faces.”

Some in attendance at the screening are reluctant to speak about life in Qatar. When asked what brought them to the country, one fan responds: “Same reason as everyone else: the money.” Then they quickly switch the conversation back to football.

United fans in Qatar

Fans in Qatar watching Sunday’s final wearing replica shirts featuring former United talisman Cristiano Ronaldo (Photo: Mark Critchley)

Then there are those who can see both sides of the debate but would prefer Qatari ownership.

“I’ll be honest, I follow a lot of the United fan channels so my views are mixed with my allegiances with Qatar as well as supporters in Manchester themselves,” says Wira.

“I understand they don’t want a state-owned club, but personally I think I can separate the football from the political. I believe United would be better run with the Qataris as a footballing institution under new ownership.

“One thing I’ve observed from their acquisition of PSG and how they do business is that they’re very shrewd with their decision-making. I trust they would work in the best interests of the club.”

A different perspective comes from Ian, the supporters’ club’s aforementioned Stockport representative, who was a season ticket holder on the Stretford End from the late 1980s through the 1990s, but whose job took him abroad.

“Wherever I’ve gone I’ve tried to seek out a United supporters’ club,” he says, as we catch up a day after the final. “One of the attractions for me is I meet people I wouldn’t meet elsewhere.”

Ian was a United shareholder prior to the Glazer buy-out. “I was one of the few that didn’t sell up when they made the offer to cash in. Ultimately, I know those shares were made useless but I didn’t sell mine because I’ve got my share certificate, I’ll keep them, I’m a member of MUST (Manchester United Supporters’ Trust), and I’ll still be a United member.”

In an ideal world, his preference would be fan ownership. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a decent billionaire; maybe that’s my political persuasion. There’s always going to be something a bit unsavoury in the accumulation of that much wealth.”

He adds: “To live abroad and to live in Qatar, China and to a certain extent to live in Britain and the US, there’s an element of cognitive dissonance when engaging with issues.

“The criticism should be raised and it should be something that’s discussed in any takeover. The issues related to women or homosexuals in Qatar is something that should be questioned and discussed and answers sought.”

But he takes care to be even-handed, pointing out criticism of INEOS’ environmental record and why others who were cheering on United in the same bar as him might be more enthusiastic about a Qatari bid.

“I think in the supporters’ club, there’s plenty of guys who are travelling from difficult circumstances and they see Qatar completely differently from the way I do as a westerner.

“Many who come to Qatar see it as a land of opportunity, somewhere money can be earned to send back to friends and family and make a better world for themselves. I’m an economic migrant, too.”

Ian ultimately believes the toxicity of the Glazer era has skewed the debate, pushing some issues aside among a lot of fans, while making a change of ownership imperative regardless of the rights and wrongs of any buyer.

“What people are talking about isn’t the ownership of Manchester United,” he says. “It’s, ‘How do we get rid of the Glazers?’”

There is a reminder of that an hour into the final itself, when the cameras cut to Avram Glazer and the room erupts in boos and jeers. One supporter’s loud cry of “Fuck you, Glazer” is loud enough to rise above them.

Even so, that is the only time the focus shifts back to the matter of United’s ownership. Otherwise, the bar’s full attention is on matters on the pitch and their club ending a six-year wait for a trophy.

Ask those in attendance who their favourite players are and a few names come up more than others. Casemiro and Marcus Rashford are popular picks, not least because they are United’s goalscorers on the day, but this crowd also have a cult hero: Wout Weghorst.

A lung-bursting run forward leads one fan to say his gait is “like a camel through the desert”. It’s not immediately clear if it’s meant as a compliment.

A Weghorst shot from range that forces an acrobatic save out of Newcastle goalkeeper Loris Karius provokes a cry of, “Come on the camel!” By the time of his substitution midway through the second half, most of the bar is on their feet applauding and one fan pays a special tribute to “the double-humped camel”.

When the final whistle sounds, the 1983 FA Cup-winning squad’s version of “Glory, Glory Man United” booms out over the bar’s sound system. The trophy lift is followed by two rounds of tequila shots.

United fans old and new celebrate the Carabao Cup final win over Newcastle (Photo: Mark Critchley)

D’Souza also holds a prize draw — a regular feature of the screenings — and the winners get a club-branded sports bottle and keychain, provided to the supporters’ club by one of United’s sponsors.

This time, Wira is one of the winners. When we chat again the day after the final, he reveals his friend who was undecided about who to support had made his mind up after watching United lift the trophy.

“He loved it,” Wira says. “After the game, he drove me around town to buy some coffee and was asking more about Sir Alex (Ferguson), the history of the club, and getting to know what the Carabao Cup means to the fans.”

United have another supporter in Qatar. If the club ends up in Qatari hands, he will not be the last.

(Top photo: Mark Critchley)

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