The News of the World will surely soon reveal Qadbak, Sardar Hyat, Ali Al-Faraj and all the other names involved in the welter of recent takeover tales, as part of an elaborate sting to expose the inadequacies of football’s “Fit and Proper Persons” tests. Sulaiman Al-Fahim, alas, you couldn’t make up). Certainly if you were going to operate such a scam, these takeover farragos would be the way to go about it. The Football League’s “thorough investigation” into the existence of their spine concluded successfully this week, to the surprise of many. Chairman Lord Mawhinney’s wonderful “if you want to place your money offshore and you want to have the anonymity, then don’t come and ask if you can play in my league” is the sort of thing that’s needed saying for years and this may complicate matters for a bit, but these takeovers will continue to sneak through. “Ali Al-Faraj” is already a “fit and proper” person, remember (how can you have a criminal record when you have no record at all?). And Mawhinney’s momentary resilience will be crushed by lawyers.
The takeovers have certainly followed a pattern of questionable credibility without, yet, descending into the obvious satire which might blow the paper’s cover. There have been the labyrinthine company structures, ‘investment vehicles,’ ‘family trusts,’ ‘wholly-owned acquisition companies’ and ‘Financial Overseas Fiduciary Funds.’ All registered off-shore (the British Virgin Islands being a favourite, almost to the point of being the home of English football); they have been a feature of the ownership smokescreens that have been set up. And who’d know I made the last one up unless if it wasn’t for those carefully placed and emphasised capital letters?
The company names have taxed the imaginations of those involved in the sting. There appears to be about 94 different Belgravia groups connected to the murky past of Notts County’s investors. And the name has come from the Belgravia currently being advertised on telly, the Belgravia Hair Loss Centre (“specialising in nothing…but hair loss”). While “Falcondrone”, the company that now “owns” 90% of Portsmouth, is a lift from the equally opaque “Falcon Equity” with which Al-Fahim was, during one lunch break last June, going to buy the club. Then there’s the actual “owners” who value their privacy to the point of obsession, which begs, but remarkably hasn’t yet raised, the question of why such recluses would choose to get involved with English, especially, Premier League, football clubs in the first place.
They all, at first anyway, have estimated fortunes in billions, the sort that make other fortunes look like “small change,” and are always quoted in euros or dollars first, so that it can make other fortunes look like small change twice. Also, they are all fortunes which seem to have been made without anyone else, even in the businesses and/or countries in which they were made, knowing anything about them. Background research into Al-Faraj has brought up, at the time of writing, one sepia-tinted image that screams “fake sheikh” at observing any cynic, and a number of people who only seem able to confirm about him what they’ve read in the Sun (so it must be true), including, predictably, the buffoon who sold Portsmouth to him.
Even Arabian Business magazine, faithful reporters of Al-Fahim’s every word and move, right down to his last kidney stone, hadn’t mentioned him until last Tuesday, even when “he” was in line to buy Portsmouth in August. All we do know for sure is that he was a 50-year-old before “his” takeover and that he has been 40 ever since. Which makes him…Benjamin Button. Every takeover has its ‘spokesperson’ – Al-Fahim’s Ivo Ilic Gabara providing the template. Whether they are always telling truth, however, is almost impossible to vouch for.
No sooner had Notts County revealed the identities, or at least the family trees and long-dead relatives, of some of their investors than they were apologising for publishing misleading information and naming, quoting, people who weren’t involved at all. A confused Matt Lorenzo, clearly not in on the sting, resigned his position as Communications Director after a couple of weeks, when one of his first communications attributed a gushing quote to an Anwar Shafi in Islamabad, whose next quote, to the Guardian, was “it wasn’t me”. But executive chairman Peter Trembling, a deep cover agent since he left Everton, has done the job with just the right mix of arrogance and ignorance to feed the most implausible party line, not least “I expect a statement of satisfaction from the league” (22 September) and “I expect 100% ratification” (7 October). Good, isn’t he?
So there are plenty of holes in all the takeover tales, plenty of opportunities for the Leagues to twig, opportunities they will waste, thereby making even more monumental fools of themselves when ratifying the deals. Which makes it a very well worked sting, as you might expect from a newspaper with such experience in such matters. Because it is all made up. Isn’t it?