English clubs are now good buys


  • Other Sport
  • Sunday, 02 Nov 2003

By ROB HUGHES

LONDON: The news on Wednesday that the Thai prime minister was contemplating a bid to buy Fulham, a century-old London soccer club, was coupled with a report that a Saudi Arabian sheikh might come to the rescue of Leeds, an ailing team in the north of England.  

Such is the lure of England’s Premier League on television around the world, and such is the thirst for cash among the Premier League clubs who are overspending, that we can – and should – believe anything that comes with a seal of foreign government approval.  

Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai Prime Minister who is also a telecommunications billionaire, spoke both to newspaper journalists and to national television in Bangkok. He confirmed that he had attended Fulham’s surprising 3-1 victory on Saturday against Manchester United, and that he had spoken to Mohamed al Fayed, the Egyptian-born owner of Fulham.  

‘‘I met Mr al Fayed,’’ Thaksin said. ‘‘And I teased him about asking a price for Fulham. He said if I am serious we should talk about it again.’’  

Thaksin then responded to a journalist’s question about whether the purchase of Chelsea – the neighbouring team to Fulham – by Roman Abramovich almost four months ago had prompted his curiosity: ‘‘I think it is interesting a Russian buying an English football club,’’ he said.  

Meanwhile, despite the customary denial at Fulham’s club offices later in the day, the proposal outlined by Thaksin bore a similar hallmark to the Abramovich coup.  

Fulham, like Chelsea, is mired in debt, and al Fayed, though he has hugely enjoyed the popular esteem of having saved the club from insolvency, has other businesses to run.  

Not least in his empire is ownership of Harrod’s, the exclusive department store in Knightsbridge. It is a few hundred yards from Craven Cottage, which was the old and dilapidated home of Fulham Football Club for 105 years until it was shut down for renovations.  

The work is adding to the club’s debts – and taxing al Fayed’s patience because of local residents’ objections to the rebuilding plan.  

Fulham is at the moment a club with no fixed abode, paying rent to a smaller team, Queens Park Rangers, and losing heavily while its future is uncertain.  

Thaksin, who gained a doctorate in criminal law in the United States and rose to the ranks of lieutenant colonel in the Thai police before venturing into technology and then government, says he follows the police cadet school motto: ‘‘Better to die than to live like a loser.’’  

He talked to the Thai news media about buying Fulham ‘‘if we can get a cheap price.’’  

He suggested he would not go it alone, but would invite a consortium of Bangkok businessmen and the public to join him.  

‘‘The price isn’t a problem,’’ he mused. ‘‘It will cost a few pennies, but we don’t have to buy a big club with stars like Beckham.’’  

This is a politician talking after a vacation in England where he saw firsthand the passion and potential for either ruin or riches of the British national sport.  

He has returned to Thailand, which teems with fans of the Premier League. As many as five ‘‘live’’ Premier League games are broadcast in Bangkok every weekend.  

It is a city where a statuette of David Beckham – in his circa 1998 World Cup hairstyle – is worshipped in the Pariwas Buddhist temple. The prime minister, who made part of his fortune building satellite technology to transmit educational programs to remote parts of Thailand, also speaks of Thai players coming to the world stage of London soccer.  

‘‘I try to think of how Brazil got their children to grow up to be footballers and play sport all over town,’’ he said.  

‘‘If children play sport, they will have spirit, they will stay away from drugs and they will have good health.’’  

Sport as the opiate of the masses is not a new concept. Nor is prime ministerial proprietorship of a soccer team – witness Silvio Berlusconi’s long ownership of AC Milan.  

At Manchester United, the most popular club in Asia with a huge fan base and a multimillion-dollar franchise of branded goods in Thailand, Amer Al Midani a Lebanese-born son of a millionaire, was a member of the board from 1991 to August 2002 when he was sued over alleged gambling debts of more than a US$1 million at a Las Vegas casino.  

The Spanish league may offer more fluent skills and Italy’s Serie A may provide greater tactical sophistication, but the English Premier League offers unmatched fervour and its lure is reported to have reached Saudi Arabia. There, Sheikh Abdul bin Mubarak al Khalifa, has apparently long been a far-off admirer of Leeds. He was at Elland Road on Tuesday night when Leeds lost a fluctuating cup game, 2-3, to Manchester United.  

It was 24 hours after Leeds posted an annual £49.5mil loss (US$84mil) adding to even greater overspending in the previous years.  

Leeds, it was said, was a club dying because a previous chairman had ‘‘chased the dream,’’ imagining he could buy the players to topple Manchester United and conquer Europe. His successor said on Monday that he had inherited the nightmare, a club going nowhere but down.  

If the speculation is true, and Sheikh al Khalifa was in town to invest £4.4mil in the club, then maybe there is yet a new star rising in the East.  

English soccer is a haven of mismanagement, but seemingly it can always rely on its friends in the East, the Middle East and East Asia. – IHT 

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