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Dreaming and dreading: A European classic on the eve of the unknown

Should United cease to be a football club and become a sports washing project, this was a match worthy of such an end...

FC Barcelona v Manchester United: Knockout Round Play-Off Leg One - UEFA Europa League Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Last night was a classic Manchester United European night.

Sure, it was in the Europa League, a tournament that many clubs and their fans, including United, look down on with the expectation of Champions League football every season. Certainly for both United and FC Barcelona, their Thursday Night Football hosts, the competitive and financial ambitions are above the Europa League level, but that wasn’t holding either of them back on the pitch.

Last night wasn’t about money, it was about good football. Xavi’s Barcelona, currently top of La Liga, and Erik ten Hag’s resurgent Reds went head to head in a classic European contest. It was entertainment at it’s finest, a match that would contend with most Champions League fixtures, certainly from this season. Two clubs draped in history and tradition, and fanbases with the passion to match, went head to head under the lights and delivered a fast, entertaining match that threw each side off their guard.

That’s how football should feel at the highest level. Of course there will be stakes, but it should be fun. It’s a game, after all, and it has fans dreaming of the future under Erik ten Hag.

Unfortunately the day also came with a sense of dread over the threat of an imminent takeover from Qatari investors. The club is at risk of becoming another sports washing venture, with the Emirate supposedly looking to submit a bid to the Glazers on Friday. The rumors were seemingly confirmed by tweets from Qatari news outlets and journalists, a worrying turn with the club hoping to find new ownership this financial quarter.

Qatar has long sought out football spaces as a means of positive international exposure, most recently with the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but an ownership stake in the world’s biggest sporting institution would be a different beast entirely. All most fans can do now is wait. There will be multiple bids by the soft deadline Friday evening, and certainly there are concerns with the morals and records of the other bidders as well, but a state-owned Manchester United is the seismic option for football as a whole.

Many fans, and certainly trolls, on social media have expressed support for this takeover bid, highlighting the obvious financial benefits that would come, but these arguments are shortsighted at best. Even with leech owners like the Glazers, United have been big spenders and fairly self sufficient. The problem has been the lack of sporting intelligence at the highest level in finding and/or supporting managers. Any of the rumored ownership groups could find solutions for the Glazers’ debts and invest in facilities and personnel, but a Qatari takeover comes with the expectation of City/PSG level transfer spending, and that is likely the biggest factor in so many choosing to overlook abhorrent human rights abuses and voice support for their bid.

Yes, the prospect of Kylian Mbappe is exciting, but at the time of writing this the Premier League is in the process of hunting down City for the kind of financial maneuvering it would likely take to pull that off. The sport in general is rank with a continued shift towards an insurmountable economic gulf with playthings for the hyper rich and everyone else. United already have an unfortunate role in the beginning of that shift, dating back to the early Premier League, and a club of their stature and history taking on a sports washing role would be a gross new landmark in that history.

The discomfort over this particular potential takeover isn’t unique to a handful of United fans. Many fans have also expressed their concern over the potential takeover, with Rainbow Devils expressing their concerns on Friday afternoon in regard the status of new ownership in the discourse around the protection of LGBTQ+ rights in football spaces. Hostile homophobia, and especially transphobia, in recent discourse has been a stain on all of society.

The hyper-capitalization of the game and society over the last few decades has warped our sense of success and sustainability, and for Manchester United in particular because of its role in the foundation of the Premier League and sustaining itself into the new Millenia. But even that model was successful within its limits and the emergence of financial doping at other clubs.

Even with the horrendous Glazer ownership and at times baffling work of Ed Woodward, United have managed to figure themselves out. The club are once again on the verge of becoming a force in football, and they’re doing it without state-funded wealth. They’re doing it without cooking their books with phony sponsorships or under the table payments. Yes, there is more work to be done, work that will require financial backing, but it doesn’t mean the club must sell its soul to cleanse the image of an exploitative, fundamentalist and monarchist nation state with a very long and recent track record of human rights abuses.

That is an association that Manchester United and it’s vast community should be comfortable with, and the club does not need that sort of wealth to support themselves anyway.

Of course everyone wants good football. Everyone wants to experience the highs of old with the club that means so much to such a vast local and global community. You can already feel it now without the wealth to match the noisy neighbors, the same way it was felt with Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp, or Arsenal now under Mikel Arteta. This club is finding itself again, with the players we’ve loved through some abysmally difficult times. It has me dreaming again of what this team can do, and yet there’s renewed concern over what their success could potentially represent within a broader context.

Manchester United are living again, and it’s not something I’m ready to lose.