Wahey! I sort of got one right. At least the Spectator Business magazine sort of thinks so. Or at least Martin Lipton in the Daily Mirror sort of thinks so. From where I live on the very tip of South-West Greater London, the Spectator Business magazine has been about as elusive as…well…Ali Al-Faraj, so I’ve only just finished reading and inwardly digesting the, eek, eight-page feature on The disembowelling of Portsmouth Football Club and the “strange case of Ali Al Faraj.” When I said a year ago that I thought Al-Faraj belonged in the same column as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band’s famous “urban spaceman” (“…and here’s the twist… I-I don’t exist…”) I genuinely thought we were in “Fake Sheikh” territory and that the News of the World expose of the Premier League’s “fit and proper persons test” was just a weekend away. I was wrong. And in being wrong, I was giving too much credit to the press in this country. That was credit which remains unwarranted, if the reaction to the Spectator Business investigation is a guide.

Take up of the story by the national press has been limited in the extreme. The Mirror got there first. It was a diary story for the ever-popular Charles Sale in the Mail – suggesting out-and-out fraud was to blame, rather than Premier League doziness. And Jim White in the Telegraph treated it all as a joke (albeit a good one: “What next, one of the Seven Dwarfs taking control of Manchester United? Oh, hang on a minute…”). However, if Ali Al-Faraj was a figment of imagination, that is far, far from a joke. The article itself actually fights shy of saying that, although it contains so many allusions to his non-existence that you sense they’ve come as close to doing so as their in-house lawyers have allowed.

Indeed, the magazine sets its story out from the basis of the one genuinely reported conversation with “Ali Al Faraj”, and the convoluted and dishonest efforts of Al Faraj’s legal representative, Mark Jacob, to dismiss this journalistic contact last October with Portsmouth’s then-new owner, as fake. No sooner had Jacob told the media that the interview was not only fake but also “the work of some bad people” (whom Jacob neglected to name) than the Saudi newspaper, Ashraq Al Awsat, said that… er… actually, it was real, we’ve got it on tape and we’ve published some extracts. This, it seems, was the only time that the ‘story’ of Al Faraj as Portsmouth owner came close exposure as a fake in itself. Yet the Spectator Business article’s author, Oliver Edwards, does not even attempt to explain why such a story would be concocted at all.

Instead, he concentrates, to excellent effect it must be said, on the failure of Portsmouth owners Alexandre Gaydamak, Sulaiman Al-Fahim and, Ali Al Faraj (the ‘persona’ if not the actual person) to provide the money to either deal with its recent past financial problems or run it on a day-to-day basis. Edwards occasionally betrays his ‘distant’ relationship with football. There’s his constant reference to the Premiership (and references to the “Inland Revenue” filing “a winding-up order” are pretty inglorious for a business magazine). He badly misjudges the team’s chances of avoiding consecutive relegations, even taking into account Pompey’s recent good form, which possibly post-dated the writing of the article. And he suggests that Portsmouth fans at one stage chanted “Come on the Faraj brothers, down with Al Fahim,” which would have been rejected by a “Shoot” script meeting in the 1970s as “too old-fashioned.” What next? “Play up Pompey”?

But none of that detracts from an excellent piece, which highlights the difference in quality between enthusiastic amateurs such as me and ‘real’ journalists. For whilst there are no entirely new revelations for keen followers of the Portsmouth saga, there are certain aspects of the story which are given an unexpected and fascinating emphasis. Admittedly, some key aspects are overlooked – THE key aspect, for example. Arcadi Gaydamak, the Franco-Russian-Israeli fugitive from justice and father of former Pompey owner Alexandre (“Sacha”), is central to most versions. Here, he is mentioned only briefly, in the caption accompanying Sacha’s photo, which reads: “Sacha Gaydamak and his father spent more than £30m buying Portsmouth.” The emphasis is mine, as such a glaring and significant discrepancy with the orthodox version of events is not addressed in the article, almost as if Edwards is saying, ‘look, I don’t care what they say, we KNOW that Arcadi’s money was involved, so let’s get on, eh?’

Of more significance to Edwards, is the Premier League’s role in the affair. And here, much-maligned (by me, anyway) chief executive Richard Scudamore doesn’t merit even an Arcadi-style name check. Indeed, the league’s entire role in the article belongs to one man, chairman Sir Dave Richards. Richards, the former Sheffield Wednesday director (and, by the way, Wednesday’s future remains in the balance as I type this), is cast as a Premier League omnipotent and guardian of it’s ownership rules…not to mention lead negotiator in early talks between Portsmouth and the execrable Al Fahim. His rather too hands-on role was alluded to in the tabloid press at the time. But Edwards makes it clear that if the press erred in its portrayal of Richards’ role, it did so on the side of caution. The Sun newspaper exposed flaws in Pompey chief executive Peter Storrie’s version (fancy Storrie getting his facts wrong). And the Daily Mail briefly hit the story when it quoted a disaffected “Premier League source’s” complaint, rooted sometime in 1956, that Richards had “taken it upon himself to see that Al Fahim was ‘a good chap.’”

But everyone was quickly side-tracked by, ultimately ungrounded, fears that the involvement of an advisor to fugitive Thai ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra would lead to the involvement of Thaksin and/or his money. And Richards was quietly forgotten. Edwards reminds us, though, that Richards was as much of a proverbial rubber-stamp for the Al Faraj deal as he was for Al Fahim. He says Richards told Portsmouth “to announce that Al Faraj had already passed the “Fit and Proper Persons Test” with the full backing of the Premier League,” because “Richards could find nothing wrong with Al Faraj.” As Edwards notes: “Richards was only too happy to approve a second owner just 44 days after having declared Al Fahim was a ‘fit and proper’ owner.” At which point, the prosecution rests.

Edwards finds Al Faraj passing the “fit and proper” test “a mystery”, given that no-one anywhere had ever heard of him at all, ever – although part of the ‘mystery,’ of course, was Richards’ urge for him to pass. But, logically, the ‘test’, with its focus on evidence of specific financial wrongdoings, could hardly be failed by someone about whom there was little evidence of…any ‘doings’ at all. Edwards expertly dissects Al Fahim’s involvement and goes into well-researched detail on key characters in Portsmouth’s fraught close season last year, pinpointing the roles of such as Daniel Azougy and his criminal history of fraud and methodically explaining how current owner Balram Chainrai became involved.

As “Portsmouth for beginners,” the piece is terrific. But while excellent on the “hows”, “wheres” and “whens,” he ignores the numerous “whys” completely, which will disappoint those whose appetites were whetted by “Al Faraj didn’t exist” headlines on newspaper stories about the article. Maybe all that is for a follow-up piece, as he soon enough returns to the fun and frolics of ‘interview’ with Al Faraj’s ‘interview with Ashraq Al Awsat’s Mohamed Alayed, via speakerphone in Al Faraj’s brother’s car. Edwards focuses on Al Faraj’s comments about staying “for less than six months” and “purchasing the club purely as an investment… it’s not a secret to hide, we are investors and we have no relation to sports.” And his revelations focus on Jacob getting his verbal knickers in a twist over the interview’s veracity. Edwards has fun with these, as Jacob moves from bravado legal threats to “let’s not read too much into this silly incident” in two paragraphs. But this overlooks the nature of the interview, as transcribed by Alayed. On the speakerphone, ‘Al Faraj’ is not only “utterly confused”, as Edwards notes, but is anxious throughout to return the conversation to his brother Ahmed, who, as is stated more than once in the published extracts, is “authorised” to speak for him.”

Indeed, Al Faraj comes across like the hidden Osmond brother vigorously imagined in one episode of the BBC comedy quiz QI, stuck in the attic so as not to be seen by the Osmond pop group’s adoring public. I guess you had to be there. Edwards ends with his grandest allusion to Al Faraj’s non-existence, noting that since he was elbowed out of the Portsmouth picture “nothing has been heard of Ali Al Faraj,” adding, pertinently, that “nothing had ever been heard of him before.” Does it matter? Edwards doesn’t answer that question, although you can guess at his instinct. For instance, he mentions that the one Ali Al Faraj picture that any of us has seen was supposed to come from the “well-known Getty Images library” but that “Getty Images said it had no record of ever owning such a picture.”

That’s not what the article is about. But it does matter, of course. If Ali Al Faraj didn’t/doesn’t exist, it means that:

  • The current Portsmouth owner, Balram Chainrai, became part of the Portsmouth “saga” when he loaned money to a company owned by a man who didn’t exist, making Chainrai complicit or careless to the point of negligence;
  • The chairman of the Premier League, Sir Dave Richards, whether he exceeded his authority or not, declared a literal non-entity (as opposed to the suit full of FA” that he is, in football) “fit and proper”, making him complicit or careless to the point of negligence
  • No-one in the entire Premier League organisation stopped Richards doing this twice, despite he being embarrassingly wrong first time around, making them complicit or careless to the point of negligence ; and
  • There remains plenty for Portsmouth’s administrator Andrew Andronikou to investigate when Portsmouth City Football Club is liquidated, unless he decides to renege on promises to do so, making him… you get the message.

It also means I got one sort of right. Not important in the overall scheme of things. But still… wahey!

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