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Recipe for disaster

A lucky escape for Norwich as Giovanni di Stefano, an associate and confidant to the likes of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, was clearly not the sort of buyer they were looking for. Graham Dunbar reports

You can’t fault Giovanni di Stéfano for his frankness. The man with the name that sug­gests he played in the European Cup against Mel­chester Rovers in the late 1970s has of­fered Norwich City fans their traditional slice of midsummer drama.

Usually it’s the saga of a star striker sale or the search for a new manager. This year it was the attempt by a best buddy of gangsters and dictators to buy into Delia Smith’s pet project. Di Stéfano is, or has been, a lawyer, business associate and confidant to the likes of deposed Yugoslav president and war crimes defendant Slobodan Milosevic, Iraqi leader Saddam Hus-sein, assassinated Serbian warlord Arkan and the government of Colombia. These are not facts that had to be dug up during intense in­vestigations by the local media.They were tru­m­­­peted by the man himself as part of the sales pitch to woo Norwich City fans and sharehol­ders, along with the promise that he could de­liver quality players from Italy, Yugoslavia and, of course, Iraq. Frank to a fault, you might say. He had also been imprisoned in England on remand for fraud charges that were later drop­ped and found time to run a hotel on the Nor­folk-Suffolk border.

Di Stéfano’s plan was to buy a six per cent stake in the club, namely the majority of the nine per cent block held by the Jones family, owners of the Pleasure Beach amusement park on Great Yarmouth seafront. Family pat­riarch Jimmy Jones was the right-hand man to the loathed former chairman Robert Chase for a decade until 1995 and so should know a thing or two about dictatorships, benevolent or otherwise.

The man who would be Delia’s partner troop­ed into Norfolk on a media blitz (staying well clear of Carrow Road) with the aim of get­ting a place on the board for his 21-year-old son Michele. Other shareholders were then to be persuaded to give Michele and his brother Mi­lan voting rights, with the club being forced to make unreleased shares available. Legal ac­tion was even threatened, which seemed a strange way to win Delia’s trust.

For the club this was tail wagging dog and its public reaction was a mixture of bemusement and cool irony. Denouncing Di Stéfano for his associations was not really an option as two years ago City cosied up to the Amir of Bahrain – a dictator for more than 20 years since abolishing democratic government in his own land – for money it desperately needed to fund an over-ambitious Academy project.

Norwich City have discovered, like Man­chester United with Fergie’s horseracing mates, that there is not much you can do to stop apparently undesirable influences buy­ing into football corporations. What is more disturbing is that characters like Di Stéfano can wander the land trying to seduce cash-strapped clubs and emotionally vulnerable fans almost undetected from one failed bid to the next. (He holds shares in Dundee, who went a fair way down the line with him two years ago, and Celtic.) When a club wants rid of a player it finds the time and means within minutes to alert every other professional club about his availability. And yet football’s early warning system to swap information and warn of approaches from modern day snake oil salesmen appears non-existent.

The middle of the First Division is fertile ground for predators, littered as it is with “sleeping giants” or, like Norwich City, clubs that believe their “rightful place” is in the top flight. All are looking for a quick fix to get up. One good season brings promotion and a TV, tickets and merchandise windfall likely to send a club’s value rocketing. Handy for those who got in early. Even handier for Norwich City is that, weeks after the publicity hype and promises that the six per cent deal was done, club officials still have not received paperwork for the stock transfer to the Di Stéfano family.

From WSC 175 September 2001. What was happening this month

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