As he has a contact book that reads like George W Bush's most-wanted list, Giovanni di Stefano's decision to take over Dundee has raised some eyebrows, including those of Ken Gall
The arrival of Giovanni di Stefano on the board of directors at Dundee FC marks, depending on one’s viewpoint, either a slightly sinister turn of events for Scottish football or a unique opportunity for a provincial club to match, if not surpass, the Old Firm in financial clout. (A third possibility – that Di Stefano is in the process of perfecting some kind of alternative comedy routine – cannot be ruled out, as we shall see.)
Anyone who feels that their current circle of friends is a touch mundane would do well to avoid the company of Di Stefano, a man whose contacts book contains – but is certainly not limited to – Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Slobodan Milosevic and Dr Harold Shipman (for whom he worked on a potential appeal). However, it was the public uproar at his close association with another charmer, the Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan, that brought to an end Di Stefano’s initial offer of investment in Dundee in 1999.
During what might fairly be described as an entertaining press conference in early August, the controversial Di Stefano (the adjective apparently is mandatory) showed that he had not been twiddling his thumbs during the past four years, although it should be pointed out that he was widely believed to have played some part in Dundee’s unprecedented wave of foreign signings, including that of Claudio Caniggia.
Pausing only to lash out at a fly for failing to pay an admission fee prior to entering Dens Park, the Italian lawyer with the gorblimey accent and the Serbian passport hit the ground running, proposing a Pop Idol-style phone-in to allow Dundee fans to pick the team; calling for the scrapping of the Scottish and FA cups in favour of a merged tournament, as well as the creation of a unified UK national XI; and revealing that Saddam was a keen viewer of satellite coverage of SPL games. (The thought of Saddam grumbling at Dougie Donnelly’s half-time inanities is almost too much to bear.)
After raising the possibility of Dundee joining the Old Firm in any move to the Premiership came the most interesting statement of all: the pledge to spend the curiously precise figure of £26 million on his new club. The obvious comparison to be drawn is with Roman Abramovich and no sooner had Chelsea’s zillionaire owner been mentioned at the press conference than Di Stefano was claiming to “know him well”. At this point, one felt that if the late Dame Thora Hird been referred to, Di Stefano would have instantly flourished a picture of himself helping the old dear into a stairlift. As with Abramovich, however, many feel that there are still a few questions that need answering.
If Dundee fans were concerned at the prospect of a man with no known connection to the city, who has seen their club play on just one occasion and who has suggested in the past that he has little or no interest in football becoming a director, there was little sign of it. Blinded perhaps by mooted moves for Carlton Cole and Motherwell prodigy James McFadden, the fans seemed reluctant to ask where Di Stefano’s fortune had come from and why he would choose to spend such a whopping part of it in Scottish football, an investment choice that falls some way behind a local building society account in terms of potential returns.
Indeed, one excitable punter was quoted in the press as saying that di Stefano’s background would not matter to the fans if Dundee were top of the SPL. How unlike the situation at Northampton Town, where a proposed investment by Di Stefano prompted a public statement of opposition from the club’s supporters’ trust. Di Stefano’s subsequent investment in Norwich City – of which he has now divested himself – also provoked disquiet, leading to speculation as to whether anyone else could possibly combine the friendship of Slobodan Milosevic with the enmity of Delia Smith.
Only one cloud might darken the horizons of the currently goggle-eyed fans. With Saddam and Bin Laden unavailable, Milosevic and Shipman incarcerated and Arkan, alas, deceased, the news that Di Stefano was also a Conservative party donor shows his eye for a winner may not be unerring. This story, as they say, will run and run; God alone knows what will happen.
From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month