7 October 2009 ~ Ali al-Faraj, the new Saudi owner of Portsmouth, is an "unbelievable football fan". So says lawyer Mark Jacob, an associate of al-Faraj's who is to join him on the club's board. That description is meant to reassure Portsmouth's supporters, reeling from an insane few months in which their club has been passed back and forth between various international entrepreneurs while teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, despite having raised £75 million in transfer fees. But the new boss is just crazy for soccer so everything will be OK.
Perhaps the football bug has bitten him even more deeply than Sulaiman al-Fahim, the man who has just sold a 90 per cent stake in the club for nothing. He was quite unbelievable too. When al-Fahim attended Portsmouth's first home game this season he was at the pitchside for an hour before kick-off in his XXL replica shirt, posing for pictures and signing autographs. Now he intends to traverse the globe spreading his passion for Pompey: "My job is to brand the club around the world, go to India, Asia, the Middle East and to Africa, build academies, bring players and create a new base." While he's doing all that, his successor Mr al-Faraj will have to deal with a £20m debt plus immediate running costs of another £15m.
Earlier in the week al-Faraj was described as holding a stake in Saudi Arabia's largest plc, a petrochemical company called Sabic, but that turns out not to be the case. Just about all that is known about him is that his wealth is inherited. Indeed there is only one known picture of him – in which he bears a passing resemblance to August Darnell, leader of the 1980s pop satirists Kid Creole and the Coconuts. It would fair to assume that despite his consuming passion for football, al-Faraj will decline to take part in photoshoots at Fratton Park with the bellringing man in the blue wig.
Portsmouth's chief executive Peter Storrie has yet to meet his new boss but has sought to reassure supporters by comparing him to another of the club's recent owners: "He is very similar to Alexandre Gaydamak in that he owns the club but wants to sit in the background." But that's really not much of a testimonial. As a report in today's Times points out, this is the same Gaydamak who took the baffling decision to sell to al-Fahim, despite the fact that the latter didn't appear to have any money, and who was seemingly prepared to allow the club to sink into administration. Al-Faraj has sailed through the notoriously rigorous fit and proper person's test but then so did al-Fahim as you're not required to prove that you have money. Meanwhile, the tabloids are already speculating on who might succeed Paul Hart as manager because the new owner "is keen on a bigger name in charge". Diego Maradona might be free soon.