The race to buy Manchester United became a little clearer on Friday when a consortium led by Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani, chairman of Qatar Islamic Bank (QIB), announced that it had submitted an offer to take full control of the Premier League club.
"Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani today confirmed his submission of a bid for 100% of Manchester United Football Club," his press release said ahead of the Friday "soft" deadline for bidders.
The statement did not give any details on the amount proposed in the bid for the club but the price could reach a record US$6 billion (RM26.6 billion), according to reports.
That would be in contrast to the controversial 2005 leveraged takeover by the US-based Glazer family, the club's present-day owners.
United currently have debts running at more than US$620 million.
However the bid announced Friday will be "completely debt free" via Sheikh Jassim's Nine Two Foundation which will "look to invest in the football teams, the training centre, the stadium and wider infrastructure, the fan experience and the communities the club supports".
The Glazers announced in November they were open to a sale or investment of the record 20-times English champions, prompting talk in Friday's Daily Telegraph of a bidding battle between Qatari and Saudi Arabian interests.
British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe's Ineos company is the only other bidder to have officially declared an interest, with the Daily Telegraph reporting Friday he had told the American merchant bank Raine Group conducting the sale he can be the "long-term custodian for the club".
But with United's shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), brokers acting for the club will be obliged to consider offers even after Friday's "soft" deadline expires.
United shares rose close to 2% in after hours trading following the Qatari bid announcement. They had closed down 1.9% on Friday on the NYSE.
Both Ratcliffe and the 41-year-old Sheikh Jassim, educated at Britain's elite Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, have claimed to be boyhood United fans.
A source close to chemicals company Ineos told the Telegraph Ratcliffe wanted to be "a long-term custodian of Manchester United," adding: "As locally born, he wants to put the Manchester back into Manchester United."
British media reaction to the bids was generally sober but the tabloid Sun opted for a headline of 'Top Qat', a reference to the 1960s American animated cartoon 'Top Cat'.
The Glazers had signalled they were open to both minority investment and a full takeover.
But the latter now appears to be their preferred option.
Deeply unpopular with supporters since they saddled the club with huge debts in a £790 million (RM4.2 billion) leveraged takeover in 2005, the Glazers further angered fans by backing the failed European Super League project in 2021.
The Telegraph reported sources close to the country's £515 billion Public Investment Fund (PIF) had played down the likelihood of a state-backed bid to the regime given their existing involvement at rival Premier League club Newcastle.
A sale price of £6 billion for the three-time European champions would smash the record fee for a football club set by Chelsea last year.
A consortium led by LA Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly and private equity firm Clearlake Capital paid £2.5 billion for the Blues, with a further £1.75 billion promised in further investment in infrastructure and players.
Any Saudi Arabian investment at United would prompt outrage from human rights groups who have spoken out against the Gulf state following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A Qatari takeover would be opposed on similar grounds, with Peter Frankental, Amnesty UK's economic affairs director, saying it would represent "a continuation of this state-backed sportswashing project".
A successful Qatari bid would raise sporting questions as well, given the emirate also controls French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
But a statement issued late Friday on behalf of Sheikh Jassim stressed he was a private individual with no links to the Qatar Sports Investment group that owns PSG.
United, one of the most successful clubs in English football history, have not won the Premier League since 2013 and have failed to win any silverware since 2017.
They are third in the Premier League this season after an improvement in form under manager Erik ten Hag, who took over before the start of the current campaign.
United are also set to face Newcastle in the League Cup final at Wembley on February 26.
Thursday saw United draw 2-2 at Barcelona in the first leg of a Europa League knockout round play-off tie, with Ten Hag insisting the speculation about the club's future would not prove a distraction to his side.
"We are following it," Ten Hag said. "It's our club...But we are focusing on football, on training and our way of play, on games."
He added: "I focus on football. They (the Glazers and United's officials) are focusing on other parts, departments of the club. How to get everything, for instance, financed."