Indian owners and European football: A reality check

The past year and a half saw an increasing trend of Indian business tycoons turning their eyes towards European Football teams. The growing popularity of them in their homeland was evident and thus investing money on such clubs was certainly a smart way to go.

Venky`s takeover of English club Blackburn Rovers in the winter of 2010 was perhaps the benchmark of future such takeovers and "attempted" takeovers. However, despite the initial hype and to be fair, some success in terms of increasing the recognition of the club, the Venky`s management has been considered as an utter failure, with the team fighting relegation this season and the fans quite visibly on an open rebellion.

Yet, they might consider themselves quite lucky to have the Venky`s as their owners, especially after contemplating what could have actually been if they weren`t!

In September 2010, what looked like a done deal, collapsed when the Bahrain based Indian property magnet Ahsan Ali Syed`s bid to take over the club was blocked. He was left disappointed but went on to acquire the 80% shares of La Liga outfit Racing Santander 3 months later.

Last Saturday marked a dark day for football in Cantabria as Racing, the region`s longest serving representatives in La Liga since 2002, were confirmed as the first club to be relegated from this year`s edition, following a 3-0 defeat to Real Sociedad.

However, it is not the relegation that puts the club, or in fact even India, to shame, but it is how their owner literally destroyed the club`s hope for any development for the future that should bother us the most!

When Ali took over the club, he promised great things, even going on to claim that he could take the club along the likes of country`s heavyweights Real Madrid and Barcelona. `Why shouldn`t it be the little club up on the Cantabria coast?` - were his famous words immediately after taking over.

He was a man with style and grace; travelled in his private jets with his name written on the wings; his fortune estimated to nearly $8-9 billion; and had a degree from the London School of Economics.

It didn`t take long for Ali to create a buzz around the Spanish footballing circuit, albeit not being in the most significant of ways. His wild celebrations from the director`s box, after a dramatic 3-2 win over Sevilla, was perhaps the most animated one has seen a club owner in a long time. While some felt it was a testament to how he cared about the club, others resorted to the more realistic interpretation - The man had just pumped in £3m to buy the shares of the club, why wouldn`t he celebrate?

The president of Cantabria and also minority shareholder at the club, Miguel Angel Revilla even admitted that standing alongside Mr Ali during a football match was a `different` experience all-together. He did not necessarily know much about football but was as enthusiastic as a kid. `Even a successful back-pass to a goal-keeper would make him stand in excitement`, he claimed!

The AS in Cantabria splashed `Ali the Saviour` in their cover and people spoke highly of him; but who would have known what was to follow next..

Pretty soon, Mr. Syed went missing! Yes missing!

The tycoon was suspected of fraud in a loan scam and an investigation was opened against him. The man who started out as a small time lawyer in Hyderabad, was alleged to have promised to make sizeable loans to struggling companies in Australia and Malaysia; had taken large fees for setting up the loans and then never released the funds. The Interpol wanted to interrogate him and since then people haven`t heard of him yet. He stopped turning up at matches, did not answer calls and even the board were left red faced when asked to explain the situation.

Fans expected him to be the next Sheikh Mansour, who would pour endless money into the club. Instead, his only signing proved to Giovanni dos Santos from Tottenham Hotspur on loan. Leave aside that, Racing still were binded by monthly repayments they had to make for a debt with the state, that was more than €10m. Ali had promised to pay off the amount but with him disappeared, the club was left stranded.

By the spring of last year, Racing had their entire board except the owner resigned, along with their manager as well. Attendances had fallen by 38% and the club was in massive debt and went into the administration. Legal processes began to take back the shares from Ali Syed, with Jacobo Montalvo, the former majority shareholder, too joining in.

Some said that the Bahrain political and economic crisis had taken the toll on him and has ruined his future investment plans and many others vociferously accused him of using the club as an `investment vehicle`.

Late October, the former club president Francisco Pernia, and one among the board members to resign, angered the club`s fans after revealing on Spanish radio that the owner had bought a luxury car at the club`s expense!

During the initial phase of their takeover, it was even said that the owner made promises of clearing off the dues of the players. And he even went on to show transaction receipts to the players, assuring them that the money was sent. Yet, no money were received by the players. Later Ali came down to the players and accepted that the money was indeed not sent. What was even more ridiculous that before a game against Levante, he offered bonuses to the players if they win. It was a laughable incident, given that he had failed to even keep the promises for the basic payments.

Of course, the off-field problems affected the team`s performance on field,and with changing managers, 3 to be precise, there wasn`t at all any stability in the club. Given what has unfolded over the course of Ali`s tenure so far, relegation should not be a shock to the football world; perhaps the least of their troubles; it was something that was waiting to happen!

Debjit Lahiri/