If you owned a big club, would you buy Ajax?
Some Get Goalside newsletters are very informative and verge on instructional; some are just weird blogs. This is one of the latter.
With the recent death of Hilary Mantel I’m reminded of one of my favourite things about reading her Wolf Hall trilogy: characters can be two months removed from momentous events, they might even anticipate those events happening, but the way Mantel writes captures how it can seem just as likely to them that Henry VIII will force through a divorce as he will get bored with Anne Boleyn and distract himself with a war against France instead.
We can all see that the trend of multi-club ownership structures is only going in one direction. A recent article in The Athletic says that nearly 33 per cent of teams in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ men’s leagues are part of such set-ups. As the number grows, so do the types of approaches. The ‘Red Bull model’ is different to the City Football Group (CFG) model, which are different to the Pacific Media Group model (investment in Barnsley, Oostende, Nancy, Den Bosch and others), which are different to the ‘rich American happens to own 5-20% stakes in various clubs’ model.
We don’t know how this is all going to end up. We can see the ways that the pieces could fall, but not how they will. “But [Cardinal] Wolsey’s becoming uneasy,” Mantel writes from the perspective of a Thomas Cromwell sat half a decade before Henry VIII’s eventual marriage annulment, “waiting for Boleyn’s daughter[…]to please the king. If she would do this, the king would take an easier view of life.” She didn’t. And he didn’t.
There was a time when Anne Boleyn was just a mistress. A time when the Premier League was just an idea discussed in expensive restaurants. A time before free transfers, a time before uncapped wages, a time before baseball farm systems.
If, in the 1520s, you were trying to map out how the next decade of England’s political and religious landscape would shape out, you’d have simply been wrong. So let us avoid being wrong in the same way; instead of trying to map the future out, let’s focus in on one very specific possibility to see where it might lead and what, if anything, we can learn from it.
Let’s buy Ajax.
Ajax, of Amsterdam, are one of the few teams to have won the European Cup and one of the few to have a club icon who is also a flat-out legend of the entire sport. The club has a definable culture and successful academy, and in the past four seasons, they’ve received, according to Transfermarkt, close to €600mn in transfer fees. I, like many people, don’t know what the Netherlands’ natural resources are, but Amsterdam’s is footballers.
And Ajax are good exporters. “It’s a steppingstone team,” Arco Gnocchi, host of the “Pak Schaal” Ajax podcast, told the New York Times recently. “That can be difficult to accept, but if we’re a steppingstone team, at least we’re the best steppingstone team.”
This may be because, despite their performances and heritage, Ajax are not one of the financial big dogs. Deloitte’s Money League report lists the top 30 teams by revenue; Ajax weren’t one of them on the latest edition. As coincidence would have it, 30 is just about the number of teams that each of the big three US major leagues have, leagues which Florentino Pérez and friends so clearly look to as inspiration.
So, money no object, if you were on Pérez’s little rolodex of financial ambition within that top 30, you’d do it, right? Buy the best team on the outside of the money list? (If, a large and inconvenient if, you had the sway with the various people who you’d have to persuade to sell).
Now, if you did buy them, or at least a majority stake, the benefits wouldn’t be as simple as a direct Ajax-to-Super Club pipeline. For that, we have Red Bull as precedent.
They made for an eye-catching test case when both their Leipzig and Salzburg wings got into UEFA competitions at the same time in 2017. That summer though, the governing body ruled that the two clubs were sufficiently separate: "no individual or legal entity had a decisive influence over more than one club". Sure enough, the Salzburg-to-Leipzig tunnel slowed to one transfer per season* rather than the three or four per year that it’d been from 2014 up to that point.
*It’s not quite clockwork but it’s not far off. From Transfermarkt again: Konrad Laimer in 2017/18, Amadou Haidara in 2018/19, Hannes Wolf in 2019/20, Dominik Szoboszlai and Hee-Chan Hwang in 2020/21, offset by nobody in 2021/22 (although Caden Clark was purchased from the New York branch). Nobody’s arrived in 2022/23 – yet – but Benjamin Sesko is lined up already for 2023/24. Including next year that’s seven seasons and six transfers, and we still have this coming January window to go.
So, if you’re a landed gentry club, you’d have to limit your transfer activity. A summer like Manchester United’s – bringing over Lisandro Martínez and Antony along with manager Erik ten Hag – would be out of bounds. You’d have to make do with Matthijs de Ligt one year, persuade Frenkie de Jong to hang around until the next, that kind of thing.
However, even if you can’t bring in multiple players at a time, that doesn’t mean that your extra hand in the transfer market is wasted. You have a possible landing spot for visa stuff, you have potential to nudge players who don’t fancy sticking around away from your worse rivals, you have a club to use as makeweights in other deals. On that third point, here’s an extract from the previously linked Athletic piece:
“In the summer transfer window just ended, CFG waited until Southampton had sanctioned Oriol Romeu’s departure to Girona, a club which it has a 47 per cent stake, before Manchester City sent Samuel Edozie and Juan Larios to St Mary’s. Southampton also loaned goalkeeper Mateusz Lis to CFG club Troyes.”
Neat. Mind, you probably wouldn’t be able to be as obvious as that if your junior partner was Ajax instead of Girona or Troyes, but you get the idea.
While we’re talking technicalities, Red Bull’s UEFA decision isn’t the only prominent example of separate-but-related entities. Towards the end of a much wider ranging recent interview on the Training Ground Guru podcast, chairman of Toulouse FC, Damien Comolli, was asked whether he had any interaction with the data people at Liverpool and Milan, who both now have ownership links to the French side. Understandably, Comolli sought to clarify the situation:
“Toulouse is owned by a different part of Red Bird which is Red Bird FC. So Red Bird FC owns Toulouse[…]and Zelus Analytics [a data consultancy who’ve been mentioned in a previous Get Goalside newsletter]. AC Milan is new[…]and the involvement in Liverpool – actually not in Liverpool, with Fenway Sports Group – is with Red Bird Capital Partners, not with Red Bird FC.”
To repeat that, because I needed to go over it a few times: Toulouse FC are owned by Red Bird FC, a company of Red Bird Capital Partners; Liverpool FC are owned by Fenway Sports Group, invested in by Red Bird Capital Partners (reportedly a ten per cent stake, although at one point they were linked to an attempt to get a larger stake through a Special Purpose Acquisition Company, unhelpfully for keeping track of names called RedBall); AC Milan are directly owned by Red Bird Capital Partners. Red Bird Capital Partners also bought a 30-40 per cent stake in Wasserman Media Group in 2021, a big ol’ company that has a sports agency wing with a ‘global football (soccer)’ sub-wing.
To be clear, this is neither a set of ownership stakes in Liverpool and Milan like the Red Bull clubs have, nor an agency-club relationship as appears to be the case at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Just an impressive business portfolio with lots of mentions of and links to the colour red. (Very glad I never had to care about the RedBird-backed RedBall in talks to buy a stake in the Red Sox’s parent company).
Apologies, we’re getting away from Ajax.
As we said, if you bought them – and, we should stress, big if – you could probably get away with a transfer per season from them, maintaining the club as the successful development ground that it currently is. You don’t even need to call yourself part of the same group (having everybody dress up the same and re-branding all the club badges is a bit passé).
Like all businesses, being larger can also bring with it some economies of scale that you could make use of. City Football Group – as the parent group – has its own data insights team, for example. Other models may not have a centralised department but workers at the individual clubs could have a ready-made network of quasi-colleagues to chat things over with. This newsletter has an eye firmly on analytics but it could be useful for coaches to discuss tactics and methodology in a safe-ish environment too.
As luck would have it, bringing Ajax’s analytics staff into your gold-SQLed fold would be a pretty neat thing to be able to do. They’re the type of club that do things like eye-tracking experiments and goalkeeper stance studies. Imagine the impact that smart, advanced studies could have not just on a first-team squad but on player development, and not just player development at one club, but at multiple clubs. (This is probably why CFG have their own centralised insights team).
At this point things are starting to sound like an investment pitch, which is fitting because the type of people who listen to investment pitches make up a large section of the people buying stakes in football clubs.
There is a form of advertising in some of the club ownership groups, most obviously Red Bull and, of a different sort, City Football Group and Qatar Sports Investments. But for many it seems to be just a fun piece of investment portfolio management, with a dazzling array of price-entry points, and almost every club with a ready-made customer base to build on. It’s like if you could invest in Coronation Street. Or dearly departed Neighbours.
Football clubs might not be money-spinners on a year-to-year basis, but between American business on the one hand taking to soccer like Ted Lasso takes to nurturing fellow men with deep-seated emotional issues, and on the other hand certain oil states recognising both the business side and the geopolitical avenues* that a globally-popular sport offers, the feeling seems to be that club ownership stakes are assets whose appreciation can only be rivalled by male-attracted fans’ appreciation for Jack Grealish’s shorts size choices.
*In fairness to oil states, it’s not like ‘leisure activities as soft power’ is anything new, nor even getting a political-avenue boost from football; the magnitude of it happening on a nation-state scale, and the signal that sends to the rest of the market, is new though.
Bringing this back to Amsterdam, buying a large enough stake in Ajax wouldn’t be cheap, particularly considering that a lot of it is owned by a member’s organisation who’d probably need a lot of convincing. Even if you were very wealthy, you’d need to share the cost. Maybe you’d get a big investment group with star-power names, like LeBron James (Liverpool again, in a sense, with a bizarrely timely recent news article on his and FSG’s links) or like, well, anyone who has an ownership stake in Angel City FC.
And this is where, even within the structure of a self-awaredly out-there thought experiment, problems arise.
If you own one of the mega clubs, you may already be sharing the cost. And you’re going to try and buy another one, which is a rung below the top step of the financial ladder? You might get the money together but would that be an investment coalition that’d be able to stick together?
Not only that, but buying Ajax might just be flying too close to the sun of regulation. Laws can change, and often do when presented with new circumstances. The two Red Bull clubs are one thing – they were ranked 32nd and 47th best teams in Europe by clubelo in summer 2017 (even now they’re ‘only’ 25th and 35th). Owning Ajax would likely mean owning two in the top twenty.
And finally, to dwell a little on that big ‘if’ we’ve noted throughout this, there doesn’t seem much on the table for Ajax (besides, if you have it, boatloads of money). They’ve won three league titles in a row (and were joint-top when the 2019/20 season was abandoned because of covid). While two of these were only by a handful of points, strengthening their domestic position would come at the cost of an implicit ceiling on how far they’d be expected to go in the Champions League, which they reached the semi-finals of in 2018/19. ‘This might be selling your soul but we’ll turn you into Eredivisie Bayern’ isn’t a hugely attractive pitch.
If you, the club-owning wheel-reinventor, are still interested in an institution with history, a strong academy and player development pedigree, a decent analytics set-up, and, crucially, a lower clubelo ranking than Ajax’s current 13th... Would Benfica work?
We’ll hand-wave away the whole issue of winning over shareholders and fans again and I’ll point you to the lower chance of being hit by new regulation, the fact the club hasn’t won a league title in three years while they haven’t ever reached the Champions League semi-finals (they’ve got their own in-build ceiling already!), they still could have provided you with a signing-per-season list of João Félix, Rúben Dias, and Darwin Núñez.
Who would do it? Perhaps Liverpool/FSG, with their Darwin connection. It’d be a bit tough for Chelsea given that their own Portuguese link, José Mourinho, has history with Porto but maybe they could style it out. Real Madrid might make for some interesting Iberian politics hot takes, while Barcelona would probably be waiting til they have enough saved up for Ajax. Hmm…
I wrote a draft of this over the weekend and, having got to this point, decided it was all pretty terrible. For a start, even as a thought experiment, it goes into some fairly disrespectful territory towards the clubs involved. And for what? The multi-club model stress test of ‘what if a big club buys Ajax’ just ended up seeming that little bit too far-fetched, even if it did let me touch on a lot of other interesting multi-club stuff.
But then Monday came around.
QSI, the Qatari acronym that own Paris Saint-Germain, announced a 21 per cent stake in SC Braga (QSI’s portfolio also includes KAS Eupen, because if you don’t have at least a sizeable stake in a Belgian club are you even in the club ownership game). Braga, the Portuguese team who’ve finished in the top four of the Primeira Liga every year since 2017/18. Who may not have produced a Frenkie de Jong or a Rúben Dias recently, but did sell Francisco Trincão to Barcelona.
It may not be outright ownership or even a majority stake, but… The “let’s play a stupid game” draft had pivoted off Ajax to Benfica and ended up about 360km and 0.66 points per game away from where the PSG owners actually plumped for.
“But some people suggest that she is bargaining with the king; some say that she wants to be the new wife; which is laughable, Wolsey says, but then the king is infatuated, so perhaps he doesn’t demur, not to her face.
He has drawn the cardinal’s attention to the emerald ring Lady Anne now wears, and has told him the provenance and the price. The cardinal looked shocked.”
Ajax being the subject of this newsletter has an added significance, in that they tried to be the head of their own multi-club-type model before it was cool. The following is cribbed from Wikipedia, although I was already aware of some of it.
In 1999 they acquired 51% of one club in South Africa and one in Ghana; in 2000 owned a majority stake in a Belgian club (always Belgium). In 2003 they sold the Ghanaian and Belgian stakes and pivoted to America before that folded in 2007. They opened academies in Greece starting in 2011, a scheme that dissolved in 2016; and in 2020 they finally sold the stake in 'Ajax Cape Town'.
Those types of markets are the ones that a lot of ‘rung below CFG/FSG/QSI’ level players are operating on. There’s a lot of Belgian ownership purchasing of course, a fair amount of lower-than-elite French, German, and Italian purchasing, smatterings in Central Europe. The ‘African academy’ idea has been taken up successfully by FC Nordsjælland, owned by the Right to Dream Group since 2016, and Aston Villa’s owners recently announced investment in an Egyptian and a Senegalese academy.
I wish I had a good-enough sense of where this ‘lower’ level of things is floating towards to do a version of this newsletter about them, but I don’t. I’d probably end up selling Belgium’s public utilities to Athletic Club.
That level of things is probably the more important to have a handle on, though less eye-catching, simply because it captures a lot more clubs. I’ve mentioned Belgium a lot, but, like, what if two clubs decided to use their Belgian subsidiaries as a proxy war between them? What happens if the Belgian government or populace turn away from football, the talent pool dries up, and suddenly everyone decides they’ve got to drop their investment in the clubs there? More sensitively, what happens if this pattern plays out in an area with a larger wealth gap to western Europe?
I dunno. In some ways, it probably depends what happens at the top end, but maybe it wouldn't.
I was trying to find another Wolf Hall quote to end this on that fit in with this postscript. Maybe something about laws, given that FIFA may have to write new ones. But Hilary Mantel just writes good lines and I liked this unrelated one.
“No ruler in the history of the world has ever been able to afford a war. They're not affordable things. No prince ever says, 'This is my budget, so this is the kind of war I can have.”