Portsmouth, takeovers and the fit-and-proper sideshow | David Conn

The real issue is why Premier League clubs are continually up for sale and living beyond their means

In the face of all the questions being asked of Sulaiman al- Fahim's proposed Portsmouth takeover, particularly the rumours, flatly denied, that Thaksin Shinawatra is behind it, the club and Fahim are holding firm. The due diligence – inspection of the books and the business – is going perfectly well, they say, and the deal is on course to complete next month. Portsmouth will then move on to their third overseas owner in just four years, with Fahim following Alexandre Gaydamak and Milan Mandaric into the boardroom at Fratton Park.

Fahim's spokesman, Ivo Ilic Gabara, emphasised that the deal "will comply with Premier League rules". They now require shareholders with 10% or more of a club to be named – only those with 30% or more, and directors, have to pass the "fit and proper person" test. "Al Fahim Asia Associates, the body negotiating to buy Portsmouth, has from the beginning been aware of the need to inform the Premier League of investors with more than 10% of the shares," Gabara said. "Thaksin Shinawatra, as he has stated, has never been involved."

Thaksin's participation has been rumoured from the beginning because the introduction of Fahim to Portsmouth was made by Pairoj Piempongsant, a deal-maker based in Dubai and Bangkok, who was for years an adviser to Thaksin. Pairoj was a Manchester City director while Thaksin owned the club, and last August he found Thaksin the deal to sell City to Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi, in which Fahim acted as Mansour's representative.

When Fahim, a Dubai property developer, declared he was bidding for Portsmouth, and Pairoj's involvement emerged, the rumours fired up that Thaksin, believed to live mostly in Dubai now, and who was paid £150m for City in that country, must be behind it.

Thaksin was passed "fit and proper" to buy City in June 2007 despite longstanding human rights abuse allegations and corruption charges against him, and with his assets frozen by the Thai authorities. But after being convicted of those offences in Thailand, he would no longer pass and has been refused entry to the UK. Thaksin himself declared this week, on the Arabian Business website, that he is close to Fahim and has given advice over the Portsmouth bid, but is not involved himself.

"As a result of the [Manchester City] sale, I naturally became acquainted with Dr Sulaiman al-Fahim," Thaksin wrote. "He is a businessman I greatly admire, and ... I consider him a close friend. Earlier this year he told me he was looking to invest in a Premier League club himself. I gave him some advice and wished him well – that was the end of the conversation. It is correct that some of my associates may have helped with the introductions for Dr Sulaiman. Why not? I know a lot of people in soccer, and was more than happy to pass on any contacts I could. That doesn't make them investors. Again, I am not involved, nor are my associates."

The Premier League chairman, Sir Dave Richards, has been challenged over why he met Fahim privately before the Champions League final in Rome on 29 May, apparently to give advice about the takeover. The Premier League, however, has said there was nothing irregular in this, and last week a more formal meeting was held between Fahim's representatives, Richards and Mike Foster, the league secretary.

Gabara stated this week that Pairoj is not an investor, nor are any of the Abu Dhabi royal family, which could have posed a problem given Mansour's ownership of City. Fahim, as yet, has not named the potential investors, however, fuelling the speculation.

Al Fahim stated initially that his newly formed vehicle, Al Fahim Asia Associates, would buy Portsmouth, and that the money "has been raised through the network of Falcon Equity from Asian and Middle Eastern investors." Falcon Equity is an investment fund based in the low tax financial centres of Switzerland and Jersey, of which Al Fahim himself is the non-executive chairman.

After that, he said that Al Fahim Asia Associates will, in fact, be providing the money itself and Falcon are acting only as advisors. Yesterday Holger Heims, Falcon's managing partner, confirmed that.

"Sulaiman Al Fahim will be raising the money," said Heims. "We are not raising a fund to buy the club. The finance at many Premier League clubs is in flux at the moment, and we are advising particularly on how Portsmouth will be financed after the takeover."

Heims said, too, that the Premier League rules will be complied with.

The League insists it does not simply accept bare declarations about who clubs' owners are, and will insist on convincing proof.

Yet the focus on whether Pompey's proposed new owners are "fit and proper", while important, is a sideshow from the central issue, which is why Premier League clubs are continually up for sale. The test is narrow anyway, barring people from being football club directors or 30% shareholders if they have an unspent criminal conviction. It very rarely applies: Thaksin is freakishly unusual to be rich enough to invest in a club, and have recent convictions.

Portsmouth are for sale because it was running at a huge loss, £17m last year, to pay millionaire wages to players Harry Redknapp wanted but the club could not otherwise afford. Peter Crouch complained over the weekend about where the club is heading, with Redknapp, Lassana Diarra and Jermain Defoe all gone, but Crouch, bought for £9m from Liverpool last July, was himself one of Pompey's galácticos.

Gaydamak funded the overspending, with £28m in loans, according to the chief executive, Peter Storrie, but the owner was hit by the economic crisis last year and could no longer fund the shortfalls. Loans and overdrafts owed to Barclays and Standard banks had risen to £44m by 31 May last year, and Standard Bank's £20m facility was due for repayment this summer. With Gaydamak at his limit, Diarra and Defoe were sold in January to begin balancing the books; the club was facing a summer reckoning. "We've lived beyond our means," Storrie acknowledged of the period which furnished Redknapp with a side to win the 2008 FA Cup. "We were overstretched, particularly with only 20,000 fans in our stadium. It was a risk, but that's what the Premier League is all about, trying to do better."

Storrie said he knew Pairoj through City, approached him once Gaydamak's fortune crunched, then Pairoj introduced Storrie to Fahim, in Dubai, as long ago as February. At the time, when Pompey sacked Tony Adams as manager, they were just one point above the relegation zone. Storrie admitted that had they dropped out of the Premier League, the banks would have wanted their full loans repaid.

"Things were very worrying and bleak," Storrie accepted plainly. Fahim, he said, had been waiting to see if they would stay up, and was unlikely to buy if they did not. Storrie insisted, however, that had they been relegated, Pompey would not have collapsed into administration, but only by selling all their major players. Having survived, even if Fahim had not moved in, Storrie said Portsmouth would have had to sell just one player to reduce the debts – yesterday's £18.5m agreement with Liverpool over Glen Johnson will ease the pressure. Gaydamak, he added, is writing off around £15m of his loans and will take a price for the club lower than he paid, to cut his losses.

If the due diligence goes well, and Fahim and any co-investors have the money, and they satisfy the Premier League's rules, then Portsmouth will change hands again. Another owner will provide wherewithal to allow the club to live beyond its natural means. Relegation, as Mike Ashley is finding out at Newcastle, is football's equivalent of a merry‑go-round crashing through the floor. But even within the Premier League, the music may just stop one of these days.



David Conn

The GuardianTramp

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