Manchester United claim to have more than 50m fans around the world. Yet the few thousand who accompanied the team to Paris on Wednesday could barely rouse themselves to urge on the players. With their team losing 1-0 to little Lille in the Champions League, most fans stood watching in silence, aghast.

It wasn’t merely that United were playing dreadfully. There was a sense of an era ending: that the team described only half-jokingly by its manager Sir Alex Ferguson on Tuesday as “the biggest club ever, on the planet, in the universe” is no longer among Europe’s best. If United’s owner, the American tycoon Malcolm Glazer, was watching – and he is not known as a soccer fan – he might have regretted the £790m he paid for the club earlier this year.

United were for decades the most popular English club, but until the early 1990s, they only sporadically won trophies. Then Sir Alex built a team around a generation of homegrown boys: David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, with a young Roy Keane arriving from the Midlands club Nottingham Forest.

From 1993 to 2003 United won eight league titles – more than in the rest of their history combined – and the Champions League in a legendary final in 1999. They became football’s best supported, richest club.

Today those homegrown boys, bar Beckham, are still at United, but they are now in their thirties, and prone to injury. The youngsters who have followed them through the youth teams lack their talent. When it comes to buying players, Sir Alex has never been a bargain-hunter to match his rival Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. He has poor knowledge of foreign markets, and wasted capital on flops such as the Argentine Juan Sebastian Veron and Cameroon’s Eric Djemba-Djemba.

Nor are many foreign stars keen to play under such an old-fashioned autocrat, whose motivational methods include throwing crockery and kicking boots around the changing-room. Ruud van Nistelrooy, one of Ferguson’s few inspired purchases, admitted this week the London side Chelsea – owned by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich – now have the stronger squad.

In an interview with United’s own television channel, Keane expressed himself more forcefully. The club suppressed his comments.

Sir Alex, United’s manager since 1986, has scant opportunity to buy new stars. He spent two summers’ worth of transfer budgets in luring the temperamental genuis Wayne Rooney to Old Trafford for £27m in 2004. Since then the club has incurred a debt of £265m, the sum borrowed by Mr Glazer to finance his takeover. United cannot replace the Giggs generation at market prices.

“What we need is Michael Ballack,” muttered one United fan in the Stade de France on Wednesday. The German is indeed a great player, and due a free transfer next summer, but great players want to join great teams, and so he is unlikely to come to Old Trafford.

So United’s decline becomes a vicious cycle. Not only will stars go elsewhere, but millions of United’s foreign fans may too, taking their money with them. Many fans – spread from Shanghai to Soweto – are unaware that Manchester is an English city. Their attachment to the club is fickle. United realise that the brand depends heavily on three “pop star” footballers who marked its past: Beckham, Eric Cantona, and George Best. With the current side lacking anyone of equivalent glamour, some international fans will buy Real Madrid shirts instead of United ones this Christmas, or will subscribe to Chelsea’s website.

United’s money-raising tour of the Far East this summer was played in front of surprisingly small crowds. Last month, it officially ceased to be the world’s richest club, after eight years on top, when Real reported that its annual income had risen to €275.7m ($325m, £186m), driven largely by income from sponsors and merchandise. United’s last full-year figures before Mr Glazer took the company private – for the year to July 31, 2004 – showed earnings slipping 2 per cent to £169m.

If United lose to Chelsea in their Premier League clash tomorrow, they will fall 16 points behind their rivals. That would probably mean a third season running without a title. Sir Alex needs to build another great team. Yet is hard to see how. Nor can the Glazers, already derided as avaricious newcomers, easily sack the figurehead. United risk becoming again what they were before Sir Alex: a glamorous club, but seldom successful.

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