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Thursday, December 21, 2006

One Year Ago: QPR Featured in International Herald Tribune - "Fans Bewildered as Agents Run Club"

From the New York Times/International Herald Tribune, one year

Fans Bewildered as Agents Run Club
By ROB HUGHES - International Herald Tribune - December 21, 2005

The way soccer has run its business over the past two decades - with cash draining straight from the television windfall into the pockets of players - it seemed only a matter of time before players, or their agents, became the buyers of the clubs themselves.
A ridiculous fantasy?
There is an English club fallen on hard times called Queens Park Rangers. Like many a European club, QPR floats around the borders of financial ruin, paying out more than it takes in.
Currently, it is owned by business consortiums based in Monaco. The club's debts include a loan of £10 million, or $17.67 million, with interest at £1 million per year, from a Panama City lender to prevent other creditors, notably the British tax authorities, from taking over the club.
The day-to-day running of QPR, which is based in West London, is conducted by Gianni Paladini, a onetime Italian agent to players. Another former agent, Antonio Caliendo, is in the wings apparently in line for his turn as chairman.
Carlos Dunga, who captained Brazil to the 1994 World Cup title in Pasadena, is on the board looking after the interests of Barnaby Holdings, one of the consortiums involved. As a player, Dunga was always where you expected to find him - the hard man and enforcer in midfield. As an administrator he is invisible. He lives in Japan.
Are you still with me?

The money men are in Monaco, the Italians are in the boardroom, the Brazilian is on the telephone, and the team is struggling through a season of mediocrity in the second tier of English soccer.
Soccer and its clubs are no longer the preserve of the fans or the community. The three main clubs of West London are all in foreign ownership - and all happen to occupy what would be valuable real estate land if the stadiums were shut down.
Chelsea, as anyone remotely familiar with soccer knows, is the domain of Roman Abramovich, who holds political office in far off Siberia and is the richest man ever to buy a soccer club. His millions have transformed a near bankrupt club into one that breaks every financial constraint in the global game. And there is talk of the oligarch buying a local hospital on Fulham Road because his plans to nearly double the size of Chelsea's stadium would require more space.
Further down Fulham Road you reach Craven Cottage, Fulham's quaint ground. It lies alongside the Thames and is not so far from Harrods, the department store in the fashionable Knightsbridge shopping district. The owner of both Fulham and Harrods is the Egyptian trader Mohamed Al Fayed.
Fayed comes with a genuine Egyptian appreciation of soccer fanaticism, and with his own aim to do as Abramovich does, scaled down to more prudent, but so far still faithful, club management.
He once articulated the dream of any big spender taking over a soccer club.
"I want to make Fulham the Manchester United of London," he said. He tried, he reined back, and now his neighbor is Abramovich, who exceeds everything Manchester United can afford, especially after the Glazer family from Florida took over.
So into this scary triangle of multinational ownership comes QPR.
In the mid-1970s, financed by a second-hand car dealer and with the team coached by Dave Sexton, Rangers were unquestionably the best team in West London. Later, when it was under the patronage of Chris Wright, a musical entrepreneur, the reality that soccer was unlike any other business struck Wright where it hurt.
"You can't relate what is happening here to pop music," said Wright, who made his fortune with the Chrysalis label. "There are a lot of pop stars - household names - making plenty of money through royalties. But they have to sell to earn."
"We have players on three- or four-year contracts earning £100,000 a year. They are not in the first team, Premier clubs don't want them, and they are not going to drop down a division. So they stay."
They stay, and they siphon any profits the club might hope to make.
Driven off by the tax man, the other creditors and the underperforming players, Wright moved his sporting interests to rugby.
To pay back some of what he invested in Queens Park Rangers, the next board took on the crippling loan with the Panama City company. QPR was between a rock and the hardest place: insolvency.
The Panama company twisted the knife and increased the terms to 10 percent per annum.
Who would want the ailing club that is a more-than-century-old institution in its own parish? An Australian entrepreneur came and reckoned he could turn the one asset the club has left, its Loftus Road stadium, into a home away from home for Aussies and New Zealanders.
His scheme was to lease the ground to the national teams of his own people, giving the players a base in Europe, where the best of them play. He shook hands on the deal and was never seen again in West London.
Soccer clubs are like Mr. Micawber; they always believe something or someone will turn up.
Enter, last May, the Italians. Paladini was first in, trading in his agent's license to invest £650,000 to buy a significant share of the ailing club. Caliendo - who once boasted that of the 22 players in the 1990 World Cup final in Rome, a dozen were "his" - followed suit.
FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, does not allow someone to control a club and hold one of its agent licenses. The Italians, saying they are in love with QPR, renounced their licenses. Not everyone loves the former agents.
Caliendo had a run-in with the Italian tax authorities in 1991 and was given a 10-month suspended jail term for alleged corruption. He was also investigated, but not prosecuted, in connection with the collapse of the Hellas Verona soccer club in 1992.
The past is the past, and the agents-turned-guardians are now in London town. It is, however, hard going.
Last August, days after stepping up to the chairmanship, Paladini allegedly was accosted by four men who held a shotgun to his head and forced him to sign a letter of resignation. He signed, but the police arrested and jailed four suspects and their alleged accomplices.
Last Friday, they appeared briefly in court and a trial is scheduled in spring. Meanwhile, a £500,000 installment of money owed to the British tax authorities was paid to prevent a shutdown order. Meanwhile, the team, alas, is losing, though the Italians say they will work the market for better players in January.
The faithful fans, some of whom put their own money into hiring players two seasons ago, stand like children with their noses up against the shop window.
"All we want is the truth," one member of the supporters' club said.
About what?
"How long do you have?" he asked. "We can't get straight answers to anything, from the future of the stadium to the day we might expect Carlos Dunga to put in an appearance at Loftus Road." NYT/IHT

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