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Can the man from the Gulf bridge the Anfield divide?

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Mihir Bose | 15:27 UK time, Friday, 23 January 2009

Liverpool's potential new owner Nasser Al -Kharafi could not be a more powerful man. He is reckoned to be one of the richest men in Kuwait and the largest shareholder in the National Bank of Kuwait and his politician brother is chairman of the Kuwaiti National Assembly.

He will see any investment he might make in Liverpool much more as a financial investment and is unlikely to behave like the Abu Dhabi owners of Manchester City, who are intent on splashing the money and demanding that the best of world football be assembled at Eastlands.

The talks with Liverpool's current owners are at an early stage but the likely price of about £400m should not cause Nasser Al-Kharafi, a man in his late 60s, and whose fortune is estimated at more than £10bn, too much bother.

He has recently built a city out of nothing in Egypt and in the past his extensive investments have been in the Arab world including the Lebanon and Morocco.

Although he has investments in the West they are well screened and not that visible. Should he buy Liverpool this would be his most public investment here. He is also known as a cautious, discreet, conservative businessman, with no previous interest in football. But his nephew, Rafed, is a strong supporter of a sports club in Kuwait.

Any deal with joint American owners of Liverpool, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, will not come easily. I understand that the club's finance director Philip Nash, the man recruited from Arsenal by Tom Hicks for the job, was in Kuwait at the weekend talking to the Al-Kharafi family.

The Al-Kharafi family was initially contacted by Gillett last year. It started as Gillett trying to secure finance for a new stadium, which was heralded as one of the main objectives when Gillett and Hicks bought the club nearly two years ago.

Computer-generated image of the proposed new Liverpool stadium

The talks blossomed into a possible sale but did not progress and collapsed. They have been revived by Hicks in recent weeks.

Some reports suggested that this indicated another breakdown in the relationship between the two Americans. Ever since they became owners of Liverpool the two owners have provided us with a rollercoaster ride, marked by disputes and a relationship that blows hot and cold.

There have even been suggestions that things between the two are now so bad that the Hicks initiative means the current talks centre around Hicks, with the help of the Kuwaitis, buying out Gillett and retaining an interest in the club or selling his own stake. However, reliable sources have told me that this is just not the case.

The talks conducted by Nash have been, and are being conducted, on behalf of both Hicks and Gillett. Both the Americans want to sell. The question is whether the Americans will get the price they want.

Back in February 2007 the two Americans paid £174.1m for shares of the Merseyside club (along with a debt of £44.8m - meaning Liverpool had an enterprise value of £218.9m).

Just over a year ago, when Hicks was in talks with DIC, he wanted £1bn. Now the price has come down to £600m but a price of £400m is more realistic in the current climate.

Tom Hicks, George Gillett

The American owners will soon need to renegotiate their deal to finance the club. It was just over a year ago that they agreed a £350m financing package with the Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia Bank, but both banks are now in desperate trouble.

The deal was due to end in January 2009 and has been extended to July 2009.

In order to secure the £350m deal, £225m was provided in a variety of ways, including cash from the owners, letters of credit and personal guarantees. Neither Hicks nor Gillett have ever disclosed how much personal guarantees they gave but it is believed personal guarantees from each owner amounted to £90m.

I understand that in the last week Gillett has refinanced some £75m of his personal guarantees.

The fact that the talks on the sale are being conducted by Philip Nash and not Rick Parry, the club's chief executive, suggests that the internal wars that have been part of the American ownership of Anfield may have revived.

While Parry has a good relationship with Gillett his relationship with Hicks has always been rocky.

Just over 10 months ago Hicks wrote a letter to Parry asking him to resign, Parry refused, describing it as offensive and stayed with the backing of Gillett.

A further strain has come as a result of ongoing problems with Rafa Benitez's new contract. Benitez is demanding total control over transfers, the sort of control no manager has in the English game. Not only does he want control over who is bought and sold but how much they are paid and the details of their contract.

Parry and representatives of Hicks and Gillett refused to accept such demands.

However, since then Benitez has made public comments which, while critical of the club, have been warmer towards Hicks. Hicks in turn has said he understands Benitez's frustrations, comments which have not gone down well with Parry.

With Parry on the sidelines as the current sale talks proceed it indicates what a tangled web Liverpool remains. It will take some time before the whole thing gets resolved though my Kuwait sources say should Nasser Al-Kharafi buy the club he will bring in his own management team to run the club for a very hands-on approach.


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