FSG’s multi-club plans: Who should it target to join Liverpool? – The Athletic

By Philip Buckingham6h ago

In the weeks when Liverpool were attempting to lure Michael Edwards back to Anfield, a bargaining chip was thrown across the table that would help pique interest.

A new role would offer Edwards greater responsibilities within Fenway Sports Group (FSG) and, unlike his first spell, not see duties confined to Liverpool. There was a commitment for expansion and Edwards could be the man to oversee it all.

“One of the biggest factors in my decision is the commitment to acquire and oversee an additional club, growing this area of their organisation,” said Edwards when eventually confirmed as FSG’s chief executive of football earlier this month. “I believe that, to remain competitive, investment and expansion of the current football portfolio is necessary.”

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And so began Liverpool’s multi-club adventures; a venture down a road on which Premier League rivals such as Manchester City and Chelsea have already embarked.

There have been early misgivings from supporters, but Edwards and Liverpool are projecting a bigger long-term picture. No longer can the club’s future be shaped entirely on Merseyside. Modern football demands broader horizons.

“We see it as a path that will help strengthen our club for the future,” said Mike Gordon in an email to Liverpool staff.

FSG’s search for a second football club to run alongside Liverpool had only ever previously been explorative, with particular consideration given to Brazilian clubs, but now there is a commitment to create a stable. The search, with Edwards as its leader, is on.

Liverpool intend to join what UEFA call one of the “fastest-growing trends in football’s financial ecosystem”.

It has been calculated by European football’s governing body that 230 clubs worldwide were part of a multi-club investment structure by the end of 2024, compared to less than 40 in 2012. They say that 13 per cent of all UEFA clubs (105 across Europe’s top divisions) now have a cross-investment relationship with at least one other club, with the trend primarily being driven by American investors.

Boston-based FSG, owner of Liverpool since 2010, has left it late to join the rush, but the next 12 months are expected to see a multi-club operation begin under Edwards’ watch.

The most likely first dance, just as it was for Chelsea’s American owners last year when buying French club Strasbourg, will come with a European partner.

Strasbourg’s supporters have protested against BlueCo’s multi-club ownership model (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

It is the logical starting point now that the United Kingdom has exited the European Union, providing a stage for the best youngsters to be developed without the need to satisfy restrictive rules that barred the signing of European under-18s after Brexit in 2020. Those rules have been relaxed, but limits remain over who is awarded a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) to join an English club.

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A European affiliate club, perhaps more importantly, also offers the opportunity for Premier League clubs to develop emerging talent at a competitive level. The higher that is, the better. Or so goes the theory.

Take Chelsea and their promising teenage Brazilians as an obvious example. Andrey Santos, signed from Vasco da Gama in January 2024, joined Angelo Gabriel, recruited from Santos last summer and duly shipped out to France, on loan at Strasbourg in January. The motivation is that both will either return closer to being Premier League-ready or will have enjoyed enough exposure to maintain or increase their value. In an era of heightened financial fair play awareness, that increasingly matters.

“The level of play is a big piece of why Premier League clubs want a European partner,” says Jordan Gardner, an investment strategy consultant at Twenty First Group and former CEO of Danish club Helsingor.

“The whole point in having an MCO (multi-club ownership) is to develop talent. Chelsea have looked to Strasbourg because it’s a good club.

“They’re obviously not having a great season (they are 12th having finally won their first game of 2024 just before the international break), but having a club in Ligue 1 to develop your talent is very different to a feeder club in Brazil, for example.

“That would be part of a far longer-term project to develop talent. Geographically, having a club closer to you and being able to oversee talent development would be another benefit from a club in Western Europe.

“Each market is different, so it will depend on what your philosophy is. Maybe France would see more players from African markets settle in more easily. Portugal would be the same for players from South America. You would expect a pretty cohesive strategy behind Liverpool’s plans.”

Andrey Santos (left) joined Strasbourg on loan in January after struggling to make an impact at Nottingham Forest (Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images)

Multi-club ownership is driven by the notion of casting your net further. It is mining talent for your benefit, either directly or indirectly. That reality makes plenty feel uncomfortable, UEFA included. As recently as last month, director of research Andrea Traverso warned of the “potential integrity risks”.

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Not that there are any plans to clamp down — UEFA has even relaxed its multi-club rules ahead of next season — and this is merely Liverpool following the lead of others. Gordon said FSG’s move into multi-club ownership would “help fortify our overall operation and drive our competitive ambitions”.

“What most clubs are looking for is the chance to give playing time to young talents on a professional level so they have a development pathway,” says Simon Van Kerckhoven of Zurafa Football Capital, who advised in City Football Group’s (CFG) purchase of Belgian club Lommel SK in 2020.

“If we look at Portugal and Belgium, we can see there’s been a lot of young talent moving towards the Premier League, but also La Liga and Bundesliga directly from those clubs, and they have performed immediately after making those transfers.

“Another aspect is talent recruitment. Portugal has the Brazilian market, which is very interesting for ownership groups. There is easy entry for non-European players and there is also a strong connection to Brazil. That is hugely beneficial. In Belgium we also have a lot of foreign players coming into the country at a very young age before making a transfer to a bigger league.

“You can see the pathway clearly.”

CFG, which is controlled by Manchester City’s owners the Abu Dhabi United Group, has taken over clubs in Spain (Girona), Italy (Palermo), France (Troyes) and Belgium (Lommel) since 2017 to take multi-club ownership to a new level.

Most Premier League clubs have been more circumspect, focusing on either one or two European partners.

Girona have enjoyed a fine season in La Liga (Joan Valls/Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Belgium and France have attracted most Premier League owners and Portugal will have an obvious appeal for Liverpool, who are already coveting Benfica’s technical director Pedro Marques to join a reshaped operation this summer.

It has long been a popular choice. UEFA’s European Club Football Landscape, an annual report from European football’s governing body, said 16 Portuguese clubs were already part of multi-club investment structures. Nine of those are in the Primeira Liga, the country’s top division.

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Aston Villa have already planted their flag after V Sports, the holding company owned by Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, bought a stake in Vitoria 13 months ago. That shareholding was watered down from 46 per cent to 29 per cent once Villa and Vitoria both qualified for UEFA competitions this season, but it is still considered “an important step forward in the global expansion of the V Sports portfolio”.

Paris Saint-Germain also effectively have a 29 per cent stake in Braga through Qatar Sports Investments, while Israeli businessman Idan Ofer ensures a link between Atletico Madrid and Famalicao owing to a sizeable stake in both. Estoril, meanwhile, are owned by Crystal Palace shareholder David Blitzer.

“Portugal is an obvious choice (for Liverpool),” explains Gardner. “Villa bought a club there and it’s a key talent development market for players coming in from Brazil. Chelsea went to France, which would be another option. Portugal or France would seem the most likely destinations to me.

“There’s a new media rights deal coming in the Portuguese leagues, which is making the distribution of TV money a bit more equitable. The idea of owning a club there is more attractive.

“There’s so much interest in that market that the club valuations have been inflated. (Chelsea co-owner) Todd Boehly has been looking around in Portugal and some of the numbers I’ve seen coming out of Portugal have been crazy. But a lot will depend on the size of club Liverpool are looking at.”

If Portugal, France and Belgium are considered the most likely starting points for FSG’s European expansion, the next consideration is the size of club that will be targeted.

The biggest clubs in a domestic league are not pursued owing to the financial commitments required purchasing and operating them, but neither are the minnows. There has to be some certainty that an affiliate club offers the chance for players to compete at the best possible level.

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“When I advised the City Football Group on its acquisition here in Belgium, the reason Lommel was interesting was because it was such a small fan base,” explains Van Kerckhoven.

“Maybe between 800 and 1,000 fans at the games. A very small city with no clubs where players can go out, no distractions. For CFG, this was very important. It had 11 training pitches, which is huge compared to other clubs.

“That could be the same for Liverpool where they look for a smaller club on a professional level, where fan protests would be very minimal.

“I haven’t heard too many stories yet where fans love or welcome MCO structures coming to their club. You have your success stories in CFG, like Girona, where fans will be very happy to be competing for the title.

“If I was Liverpool I would at least take a club that has the potential to be sustainable on its own, where it has a proper fan base but maybe not competing year after year in UEFA competitions.”

Lommel’s away support celebrate a goal in their 2-2 draw at Beveren in November (David Pintens/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)

That factor cannot be overlooked.

FSG will not want a loss-making club in its stable, no matter the benefits it might offer Liverpool. The aim will be to find a new club capable of washing its own face financially.

“It puts a risk on the club, but also the investment itself,” Van Kerckhoven adds. “Take a look at Lommel and it is making a heavy loss. Before this, it was a club that would break even. It’s a huge difference.

“They’ve had their success story with the sale of Manfred Ugalde to FC Twente for around €4million (£3.4m; $4.3m) and Vini Souza being transferred to Sheffield United for around €12million. There is success in that (player trading) department and the pathway is there, but the investment (from CFG) has been huge.”

Did Chelsea, or U.S. owners BlueCo, go too big with Strasbourg for £65million last summer? The opening season has not been an endorsement.

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“It’s a tough balance,” argues Gardner. “You see what’s happening with Chelsea and Strasbourg and they’re getting killed by the fans for treating the club like a minor league affiliate.

“On the one hand you’d say Strasbourg was too big a club to be in an MCO model, but on the other, it’s a club that’s been in Europe and has a good structure. It’s a club where you’d want to put a young player into that environment. Conceptually you’d want a big club with a good infrastructure, but it does create other issues off the pitch.

“Premier League clubs are using these clubs to develop players, but you also don’t want to haemorrhage money doing that.”

Patrick Vieira has endured a difficult first season in charge of BlueCo’s Strasbourg (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

Liverpool and Edwards are looking and assessing, weighing up how best to grow their capabilities.

“They’ll be a very attractive club to partner with,” adds Gardner. “They have an excellent global reputation. Being a smaller club in European football, I’ve had this experience — there’s only so much you can do with your resources. The idea that a club the size of Liverpool would walk through the door…

“I would assume most, not all, clubs would find that very attractive.”

GO DEEPER

Chelsea, Strasbourg, BlueCo and a multi-club model yet to convince a sceptical fanbase

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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