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FOOTBALL

United must find new shirt sponsor

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United's current star player Wayne Rooney sports the Vodafone branded shirt.

LONDON, England -- Manchester United are searching for a new shirt sponsor after Vodafone ended their four-year association with the Premiership giants.

The telecommunications company declined to take up an option to extend the current contract, which is worth nine million pounds ($15.5 million) per year, by a further two years.

United are confident of finding a replacement, but the announcement is bound to be seen as a setback to the club's new owners the Glazer family.

They took control in a $1 billion deal earlier this year, which attracted criticism from supporters' groups because it relied heavily on borrowing.

United have also been struggling on the pitch, with Tuesday night's 0-0 draw with Villarreal leaving them in real danger of missing out on the lucrative knock out stages of the Champions League.

The termination of the Manchester United contract at the end of the current 2005-06 season was announced just as European governing body UEFA issued a release that Vodafone had signed as an official sponsor of the Champions League, Europe's top club competition.

Financial terrms for the three-year deal starting in the 2006-07 season were not disclosed, but the contract involves wireless content for mobile phones.

Red Devils commercial director Andy Anson put a brave face on what the club said was a "mutual" decision with Vodafone.

"The Manchester United shirt is the most iconic in sport," he said.

"The club feels that, in the current market. there is a genuine chance to attract significant additional investment.

"Initial soundings and discussions with a number of world-class potential partners have been very encouraging and we are confident of securing a new deal in the coming months."

United's new shirt sponsor would be only the third in the club's history after Japanese electrical firm Sharp, who had an 18-year association, and Vodafone.

United's premier league rivals Chelsea recently signed the biggest current shirt sponsorship deal in English football, a 50 million pound ($86 million) five-year contract with Samsung.

However, even that contract is eclipsed by the massive 16 million pound ($28 million) a-year Real Madrid will rake in from Taiwanese mobile company BenQ Mobile in a deal which takes effect in the summer.

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