Owning up

Slavia Prague were brought to their knees by financial chaos and mysterious ownership. Sam Beckwith reports that the Czech club’s future could be just as murky

The 2007-08 season seemed like a new dawn for Slavia Prague. Having finally qualified for the Champions League’s group phase at the sixth attempt, the Czech Republic’s oldest club went on to win their first league title since 1996. The following season, the popular Prague side moved in to their newly reconstructed Eden stadium and won the title again. Talk of the Sesivani (literally “sewn-togethers”) replacing rivals Sparta as Czech football’s dominant force seemed justified. Then it all went wrong.

Within two years, Slavia had lurched to the brink of bankruptcy, passed through the hands of a series of shady owners and suffered serious crowd trouble. For fans of a club with a reputation for gentlemanly conduct, among them Vaclav Havel and Oscar-winning director Milos Forman, it was particularly traumatic.

Slavia’s problems date from December 2007 when Petr Dolezal, then general director, told website euro.cz that ENIC, the British firm that owned Slavia at the time (and which also owns Spurs), had sold 61 per cent of the club to a Czech company, Key Investments. This came as a surprise to ENIC, who denied selling any of their 97 per cent stake.

ENIC were also taken by surprise when a general meeting was held the following month. Without ENIC’s permission, Slavia’s share capital was increased from CZK 618 million (£22m) to CZK 1.04 billion, allowing Key Investments to actually take control of the club.

Later, it was revealed that Key Investments had been acting on behalf of Dolezal and fellow board member Tomas Rosen, and that they, in fact, were the club’s new owners. At the time, the news was welcomed by Slavia fans, who had grown frustrated with years of stagnation under ENIC and were finally seeing success on the pitch. Soon, however, the debts began to mount, eventually totalling around CZK 220m, either because the club’s directors had gambled unsuccessfully on qualifying for Champions League again or, as some journalists alleged, because money was being tunnelled out of the club.

ENIC, meanwhile, went to the English courts to reclaim around CZK 110m in loans to Slavia, pushing the club to the brink of bankruptcy in April this year. Separately, Key Investments lost their licence to trade securities in the same month, and are now being investigated by the Czech National Bank.

Slavia’s inability to pay salaries caused another crisis in May, prompting the Czech FA to initially withhold the club’s licence for the current season. (Somehow, despite the chaos, coach Michal Petrous led the club to a mid-table finish last season.)

By this time, the question of who actually owned Slavia had grown even more confused, as Dolezal and Rosen had sold their stake to an unspecified new owner. Their identity remained a mystery until a previously obscure board member, Antonin Franc, announced that he was the main shareholder. The media met Franc’s announcement with scepticism, speculating that he was a front for controversial businessman Petr Sisak, who once employed Franc as his chauffeur.

Franc’s announcement did, however, pave the way for Slavia to be sold again, this time to Natland Group. This company was registered in one offshore haven, Cyprus, and owned by companies registered in another, the Seychelles. Enraged Slavia fans organised a demonstration at the club’s next home game, the first leg of a cup semi-final against Olomouc, demanding to know who really owned their club.

A pitch invasion prior to kick-off ended when Slavia’s players called on fans to return to their seats, but a half-time incursion turned violent, forcing the game to be abandoned. Olomouc were awarded a 3-0 win, effectively ending Slavia’s hopes of qualifying for Europe and landing the club with a hefty fine, all simply adding to the financial problems.

By June, however, Natland Group and minority shareholder Ales Rebicek announced that they had settled Slavia’s debts and bought ENIC’s stake in the club. Then, in August, Rebicek, a former transport minister, bought Natland’s share to effectively own the club outright. A lifelong Slavia fan, Rebicek is now a wealthy entrepreneur who owns a yacht, a Tuscan villa and an apartment in Dubai. He says his aim is to return the club to the Champions League, building a new youth academy along the way.

Rather than a new beginning, however, Rebicek’s ownership feels a lot like more of the same. The 44-year-old owes much of his success to Viamont, a construction company he owned then sold prior to his rapid rise through the ranks of the centre-right Civic Democratic Party.

Initially only a regional firm, Viamont won lucrative nationwide contracts during Rebicek’s time as a minister. Rebicek maintained, amid growing criticism, that his involvement with Viamont ended before he got the transport job in 2006. But, by 2009, he had lost his post in a cabinet reshuffle and left politics altogether soon afterwards.

Tomas Sacher, a journalist who covered Rebicek’s career for the current affairs magazine Respekt, fears the new owner will add still more layers of secrecy to the club’s financial dealings. “I’m really unhappy about it,” he says. “I’m convinced that this is something that could really harm the club.”

From WSC 296 October 2011