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Football’s money problem comes to Sheffield

At a time when the Blades' on-field success is so high and promotion seems inevitable, Dillan Goss looks at one prospective buyer of Sheffield United who is waiting in the wings.

Stephen kidd bramall lane sheffield united football club
Stephen Kidd

Whether it’s the crippling debt of struggling lower league and
grassroots teams or the heady heights of luxury supported by some of the world’s most questionable finance, it's no secret that football has a money problem. But by the very nature of its polished design, where it’s beamed into homes and pubs across the world, it doesn’t seem likely it’s going to clean itself up anytime soon.

From ownership to television rights, transfers to sponsorship deals, the money in football just continues to rise. In just 17 years the record transfer fee rose from €60 million for Luis Figo in 2000 to €222 million for Neymar in 2017. For top flight clubs in particular, the fees continue to rise extortionately and with that comes a huge pressure to generate income. As the gulf between teams widens, it’s no surprise that some are willing to do anything it takes to secure the finance to bring them back to the big leagues.

Clubs are ultimately left with a decision: leave your morals at the door, or lose. Money makes football. Players want massive contracts, fans and owners want shiny stadiums, and parasitic broadcasters know they can charge people extortionate amounts to watch a handful of games.

Football is a religion and money is its God. The reality is that most fans are willing to accept moral backsliding if the results can plaster over this, because it’s the game that matters to them.

Sheffield United are the next club to be embroiled in the financial race for the top tier. In the midst of money woes and a consequent transfer ban for failing to keep up with payments to Liverpool over Rhian Brewster, the club finds itself up for sale.

Last year a push was made to complete a deal between its Saudi owners and prospective American buyer, Henry Mauriss. That fell through – and Mauriss now finds himself in prison for wire fraud after an investigation by the FBI.

Dozy Mmobuosi

Nigerian businessman Dozy Mmobuosi.

Kryswai (Wikimedia Commons)

As the search continues for a new owner of the Blades, up steps businessman Dozy Mmobuosi, founder of Tingo Inc, a Nigerian agri-fintech company with an apparent annual revenue of $1.5 billion.

But does he or his company hold up to scrutiny? The company itself has seen rapid financial growth since its birth in 2001 with Tingo Mobile PLC and later expansion to Tingo Inc in 2015. In 2017 however, a criminal case was brought against the company on an eight-count charge of conspiracy, obtaining by false pretence and issuance of a dud cheque valued at around £71,000. The case was later settled by arbitration. Further county court judgments have been brought against Mmobuosi and Tingo Inc in the UK for unpaid debt, including failing to pay over £30,000 rent on a property. These have all since been settled, according to Mmobuosi.

Mmobuosi’s status in the wider football world has recently seen rapid growth too. Just a few weeks ago he appeared on the Rio Ferdinand Podcast, outlining his plans for the club and speaking of how he “fell in love with the energy of [Sheffield] over a pint of Guinness.” Around this time his popularity on social media began to soar as well – or so it seemed.

Prior to 20 February, there was very little on Twitter about him beyond news of the proposed takeover, but overnight Mmobuosi became somewhat of a sensation. Several hundred tweets appeared praising his philanthropic work and his success in promoting Nigeria. With just one click through to any of these laudatory accounts profiles however, you can uncover a network of bots offering promotions for as little as $10.

The English Football League’s due diligence process is yet to raise any red flags following questions put to the businessman. To many that process seems almost non-existent. In the case of Wigan Athletic, four weeks after their £17.5 million takeover in 2021, they fell into administration. In fact, the EFL does not require full proof of funds and no proof that those funds will actually be invested in the club or wider area, hence Wigan’s tribulations.

It remains to be seen whether Sheffield United could suffer a similar fate if Mmobuosi’s takeover goes ahead. At a time when the club’s on-field success is so high and promotion to the Premier League seemingly inevitable, investors will be drooling at the idea of big league money. And at £90 million, it’s almost too good an opportunity to miss.

Sheffield’s last stint in the Premier League was short-lived and investment would no doubt go some way towards making their return more concrete. Whether Dozy Mmobuosi’s fortune comes through for Sheffield or the takeover is successful is yet to be seen, but finding many – or even any – alternative sources of finance seems highly unlikely.

by Dillan Goss (he/him)
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