English club ownership in the spotlight after expose
Damning investigation reveals how ‘criminal’ was close to buying Derby
The ownership of English football clubs has come under the spotlight, after an investigation revealed the loopholes which enable dubious investors to take control of teams.
In a documentary released on Monday (Aug 9), Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit showed how an influential financial fixer was prepared to enable a fictitious criminal investor to buy second-tier side Derby County for £99 million (S$186.5m).
This, despite the English Football League’s (EFL) Owners and Directors’ Test barring anyone with an unspent conviction that carried a custodial sentence of more than 12 months from buying a club.
The middleman in question, Christopher Samuelson, had previously been involved in Tony Xia’s purchase of Aston Villa in 2016 and Anton Zingarevich’s acquisition of Reading when they were English Premier League-bound in 2012, as well as his failed bid to buy Everton a year earlier.
Both Zingarevich and Xia left their clubs in a precarious financial state, with the latter in a jail in China pending a police investigation.
Samuelson reveals in the documentary that he knew Zingarevich did not have the money to finance the Royals without his father’s backing. He also said he was “sure” Xia “was a front” and did not have the finances he claimed.
The 74-year-old Briton also alleged that in 1982, he was on the verge of helping England’s World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore buy Chelsea.
He also claimed that he advised Roman Abramovich to buy the Blues in 2003 to burnish his “image” and “protect” himself ahead of political change in Russia. The oligarch’s lawyers have disputed this.
The success of the EPL has led to an influx of overseas owners, such that the majority of clubs in the top two tiers of English football are foreign-owned, including Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool.
“Posing as representatives of a Chinese criminal with convictions for bribery and money laundering, undercover reporters from (Al Jazeera’s) investigative unit (reached) the brink of striking a deal to buy Derby County, twice English league champions and one of England’s oldest football clubs,” Al Jazeera said in a statement.
The broadcaster said its undercover reporters met with “Samuelson, an offshore trust expert and football deal maker”.
They said: “Our reporters tell Samuelson that Mr X, as we call our fictitious investor, is very rich, was sentenced in absentia to seven years imprisonment and smuggled his money out of China though Macau casinos.
“Now he wants to buy an English football club to launder his money.”
Samuelson proceeds to give a “step-by-step guide on how he can use offshore trusts to hide our criminal investor’s money and identity”, including by illegally obtaining a Cypriot passport.
One of the web of brokers in the scheme to obtain the European Union passport was ex-Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams’ sister.
The 74-year-old also highlighted how he used a former Scotland Yard detective, Keith Hunter, to obtain private telephone records of journalists, members of a club’s hierarchy and even EFL figures.
On his involvement with Villa, Samuelson said: “We were monitoring what the Football League was saying behind the scenes. They didn’t know this, of course.”
In response to Al Jazeera’s investigation, Samuelson’s lawyers said that he had never been told that Mr X had a criminal conviction and had he known, he would have ended discussions.
But Ben Cowdock of Transparency International said: “It’s the most brazen example that I’ve seen.
“Football fans should be angry about this investigation because it shows the entire vulnerability of the English football system to funds from dubious origins and unsuitable owners for their clubs.”