Massimo Cellino is an Italy-born, Miami home-owning convicted fraudster whose eight months in charge of Leeds United have been marked by managerial turbulence, off-field chaos and legal controversies. Fans love him.
“Cellino has done a fantastic job”, supporters’ trust chairman Paul Keats enthused this week.
England’s Football League is less enamored. On Monday, the governing body disqualified him as the club’s owner because it deemed his conviction in Italy for evading import duty on a yacht – a “dishonest” offense that violates their so-called “fit-and-proper persons” test for owners and directors. The judge termed the scheme to register the yacht in Florida and bring it to Europe “Machiavellian.”
He has to resign within a month, but the chances are he’ll appeal. In any case, he likely can return to the helm next March, a year after the conviction, when the British legal system will consider it “spent.” For all intents and purposes, the offense will be forgotten, a sentiment that could apply to Leeds United.
Leeds is in its fifth year as a middling second-tier club, but it’s far more significant to English soccer than its current status implies. On a practical level, with a population of more than 750,000, Leeds is the biggest one-club city in England. The club’s in Yorkshire, the nation’s largest county, and Elland Road remains one of the most sizeable and atmospheric stadiums in the country.
Leeds is also one of the most culturally significant clubs in the nation, despite winning nothing of note since 1991-92, when it claimed the last league championship before the birth of the Premier League. It then sold Eric Cantona to Manchester United, its greatest rival. Whoops.
Thanks to wild overspending in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Leeds finished in the EPL’s top five for five straight season. Then, its Icarus-level hubris prompted a footballing and financial meltdown that saw the club plummet to the third division by 2007. It was a tragi-comic fall, a tale of excessive pride and ambition cataloged in detail by the amused London-based national media.
The irresponsible spending was symbolized not so much by colossal figures such as the $1 million in annual spending on company cards or the $800,000 per year in wages paid to striker Robbie Fowler – after he had been sold to Manchester City – but the $35 per month allocated to feed the chairman’s goldfish.
A former club executive claimed that senior officials became so desperate to reduce the wage bill they contemplated spiking one high-earning defender’s pasta with drugs disguised as Parmesan cheese and hiring Manchester United fans to break the right back’s legs in a pub parking lot.
So to current generations, Leeds are a carnivalesque and cautionary tale of excess; to older fans, they are notorious for the successful but aggressive “Dirty Leeds” teams of the 1960s under Don Revie and as the club where the great Brian Clough lasted only 44 days as manager in 1974.
Under Cellino, 44 days counts as a decent stint. The former Cagliari president, agricultural trader dubbed the “King of Corn” and sometime AC/DC tribute band rock guitarist …
… turned up in Leeds in January. Despite not yet owning the club, he reportedly told the manager, Brian McDermott, that he was fired. Fans blockaded Cellino inside the stadium. He changed his mind the next day, but McDermott exited in May.
His replacement, David Hockaday, who had no experience above the fifth tier, was fired in August, six games into the current campaign. Hockaday’s successor, Darko Milanic, lasted only 32 days and was replaced by Neil Redfearn. “Coaches are like watermelons,” Cellino explained to Sky Sports News. “You find out about them when you open them
The Italian fell out with the club’s former managing director, David Haigh, calling him “a son of a bitch, a witch. He’s dangerous. He’s a fucking devil,” as recounted in a long piece in British Esquire. The loyal fans, though, he likes. “You don’t buy feelings. You can buy a bitch for one night, but you don’t buy the love, my friend.”
Haigh was investigated but not charged by police this year following the discovery of surveillance cameras in various locations at Elland Road, which he claimed were installed in response to reports of class-A drug use in the boardroom restrooms. He is currently suing the club from a jail cell in Dubai, where he has been held without charge since May after being accused of corruption by Leeds’ previous owners, GFH, a Gulf-based investment bank.
Compared with these money men, Cellino’s hands-on passion plays well with the fans; hence, the enthusiasm of supporters like Keats. No one would disagree that the 58-year-old is colorful. But is he “fit and proper”?
The background check was introduced in England’s professional divisions a decade ago when sometimes obscure foreign owners with no emotional or geographical ties to clubs began snapping them up amid an economic boom linked to skyrocketing television revenue and property prices. Always a magnet for dodgy geezers, English soccer was being infiltrated by shady characters from overseas, not just shady characters from round the block.
It was a worthy attempt to boost transparency, but virtually no one has failed the test. The soccer authorities struggled conceptually and practically with forensically investigating complex business affairs and relied on would-be directors and owners to answer their questions honestly. The test only examines past actions, not future intent or current wealth. It assesses criminality, not competence. It did not prevent the likes of QPR, Coventry, Portsmouth, Blackburn and Notts County changing hands and hitting problems.
In March this year, Carson Yeung, the Birmingham City owner, was jailed for six years in Hong Kong for money laundering after years of investigations. The test’s nadir came in 2007, when the deposed prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra (above, right), was allowed to buy Manchester City despite fraud allegations and concerns about the country’s human rights record under his leadership.
Leeds was bought in 2005 by an offshore investment fund whose leaders were so obscure, no one seemed to know who they were; not even the then-chief executive, Shaun Harvey (now chief executive of the Football League), who told an incredulous committee of British politicians in 2011 that even he did not know who owned the club.
Now Leeds is again back at the center of the fit-and-proper debate. The league’s enforcing its rule, but on a man who is popular with many fans, has invested in the club and will presumably simply sit on his yacht for a few months while a proxy runs things, then retake control in the spring. Is that in anyone’s best interests? Might a convicted fraudster, in fact, be more fit and proper to run Leeds than a mysterious overseas consortium who saw the club simply as a business proposition?
A more stringent background check process would require crystal ball-gazing and subjective judgments about the character and business philosophies of potential owners. Are the Glazers (Avram and Joel, above) fit and proper owners of Manchester United? Well, the club’s won the Premier League five times and the Champions League once since they took control in 2005. Then again, given that United was bought using debt loaded on to the club, more than $1 billion in bank fees, loans, interest and other financial costs have been wasted. It’s money that could have kept ticket prices lower, or allowed the team to sign better defenders than Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
As he bankrolled Wigan from fourth-division obscurity and crowds below 2,000 to Premier League soccer in a new 25,000-seat arena and an FA Cup win, Dave Whelan seemed like the dream owner. Now he’s more of a nightmare, having been charged by the English FA with making antisemitic comments.
Whelan has threatened to quit if the FA punishes him, but there’s no sense of an irresistible tide of outrage rising up against him across the league; no consensus of disgust as there was when former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was outed for making racist comments. There is no feeling that the FA will make Whelan’s position untenable and force him to sell, as the NBA did with Sterling – if such a tactic were even permissible under British law.
European soccer has an instinctive resistance to regulation, as we’ve seen in the widespread opposition to UEFA’s financial fair play. The big clubs are so rich, powerful, independent and long-established, they don’t much like being told what to do, especially when the stands are packed and the money’s pouring in. In such an aggressive capitalist environment, government regulation feels like a heavy hand holding back the free market.
That’s partly because of the far looser association in Europe than in the U.S. between owners and leagues. After all, weak ownership test aside, there’s little to stop anyone from buying a British club. If the current owners or key shareholders want to sell to you, and if you have the money – or are a champion bullshitter – then it’s yours. Clubs may be venerable cultural institutions but they can be bought and sold as if they were supermarkets, hardware stores or restaurant chains.
But leagues such as the National Football League are exclusive groups, and wealth alone is not enough to gain membership. The league scrutinizes the finances of potential new blood and existing owners decide whether to approve a sale in a sort of informal character assessment. This approach naturally promotes a homogenous set of owners: few mavericks, few foreigners. Ageing male white American billionaires with successful business track records welcome in more of the same to preserve a lucrative status quo.
Darwinian-style turbulence is an essential component of soccer outside the U.S. In the absence of parity, it’s what provides the thrills. If Stoke City’s ownership goes nuts, spends $100 million on Mario Balotelli, replaces Mark Hughes with the janitor and the club implodes, why should Aston Villa or Newcastle care? In fact, they’d benefit. That’s one relegation place sorted, and Stoke’s best players would soon be available cheap.
But in U.S. sports, a weak link — a Chivas USA, or a Los Angeles Dodgers under Frank McCourt — damages the whole chain. It tarnishes the entire brand. American sports are run like cartels, and given the high level of cooperation, control and revenue sharing, stringent self-policing is inevitable.
Though it might be a legal minefield, perhaps English soccer’s rulers could try harder to stiffen their criteria. Forgiveness for past crimes is a noble principle, but a doctor convicted of serious malpractice wouldn’t be allowed to treat patients again. A corrupt attorney would be barred from practicing law. However, the fewer people eligible to buy clubs, the smaller the prospect of owners cashing in from a lucrative, no-questions-asked sale. Given how few British clubs turn a profit, selling the business for more than you bought it is almost the only way for owners to make money.
As things stand, the “fit and proper person” test is little more than a nice idea. It’s a nostalgic nod towards teams’ historical roles as soulful community-based institutions whose owners are guardians acting in the best interest of the fanbase. It’s done nothing to stop clubs being callously treated as transient investment vehicles for shady speculators and the global super-rich. Or, in Leeds’ case, the plaything of a passionate fraudster.