Portsmouth appoint yet another new chairman as financial crisis looms

October ended well for Portsmouth with back-to-back 4-0 wins, against Stoke in the Carling Cup and Wigan in the League. They had seemed to be certainties for relegation after losing their first seven matches but on present form may have a good chance of hauling themselves away from the bottom three. While Paul Hart’s team were reviving their season, they acquired a new chairman.

Saudi businessman Ali al-Faraj was described as an “unbelievable football fan” by his lawyer Mark Jacob when in the process of taking over the club. That description was no doubt 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.

Perhaps Mr Al-Faraj had been bitten by the same football bug that had sunk its teeth into Sulaiman al-Fahim, the man who disposed of 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 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.” Al-Fahim also claims to have the right to buy land adjacent to Fratton Park which the club will need if they are to revive recently shelved plans to redevelop the stadium. 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.

Shortly after his takeover, Al-Faraj was described as holding a stake in Saudi Arabia’s largest plc, a petrochemical company called Sabic, but that turned out not to be the case. In fact there is almost nothing in the public domain about a man of whom there is only one known picture; even after his consuming passion for football had been announced, no one could reasonably expect him to take part in photoshoots at Fratton Park with the bellringing man in the blue wig.

Al-Faraj sailed through the Premier League’s fit and proper person test but then so did Al-Fahim as you’re not required to prove that you have money. Portsmouth chief executive Peter Storrie sought to reassure supporters by comparing his new boss 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.”

That’s really not much of a testimonial. 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. But then some had suggested that Alexandre Gaydamak was never more than a proxy for the club’s real owner, his father, Israeli-Russian businessman Arcadi Gaydamak. He has also been in the news recently having been sentenced in absentia by a French court to six years in prison for his role in illegal arms sales to Angola. Gaydamak senior had publicly spoken of his connections to Portsmouth, despite the club denying any involvement.

Any sense of renewed optimism that the Al-Faraj takeover may have prompted among Portsmouth supporters lasted for just over a fortnight. On October 23 a statement on the club’s website said they would take legal action against the UK newspapers that had just published quotes attributed to Al-Faraj in an interview with Saudi paper Asharq Al-Awsat.

In the interview Al-Faraj says that he had to borrow the £5m needed to pay the club staff’s wages for September and that he planned to sell in six months: “Purchasing the club was purely an investment. We are investors and have no relation to sports.” A day later Portsmouth retracted their legal threat while claiming their owner was not aware that his comments would be published. It’s hard to see how Al-Faraj could expect to make a profit on such a short association with the club, especially if Portsmouth don’t stay up this season.

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”. In view of the madness that has enveloped the club, it will count as a surprise if Diego Maradona doesn’t get approached.

From WSC 274 December 2009

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