Foreign ownership of Premier League teams turned full circle over the weekend with the sale of Fulham FC.
The deal was done in private between billionaires, and the only way we will get to know the value of Fulham is if it suits one of them to tell us the figure.
“That’s confidential,” said the buyer, Shahid Khan, as he posed beside the seller, Mohamed al-Fayed, at the club’s venerable old ground.
Khan is Pakistani-American. Fayed was born and raised in Egypt. And Craven Cottage, where they sealed their handover on Saturday, predates the soccer club established by the River Thames in West London.
You feel the Englishness here more than at any other stadium in the country. Fulham has played here since 1896, but the old cottage, originally a hunting lodge, is almost two centuries older. And local bylaws insist that, no matter how worldly or how ambitious the owners are to expand and modernize the stadium, it must always be planned around the historical landmark.
I love it. An Egyptian owns the club for 16 years; a man born in Lahore who made his fortune in the United States buys the freehold. But the cottage and the ground retain an essence that you find nowhere else on Earth.
For what it matters, Fayed paid a reported $10-million (U.S.) for the club and the stadium when it was close to bankrupt. He once joked that he must have been certifiably insane to have sunk the greater part of $315-million into buying players and renovating the stands. Among the other possessions that Fayed, the son of a primary-school teacher, bought and sold along the way were London’s top superstore, Harrods, and the Ritz Hotel in Paris. He craved British citizenship, and was always denied it, but anyone who has ever spent time with him in the chairman’s office at Harrods or the boardroom at Fulham knows that he felt as much at home as any Englishman in his castle.
Now 84, and ready, he says, to retire to play soccer with his grandchildren, Fayed was in fact a pathfinder. He set the template for foreign ownership in the Premiership.
There was Sam Hammam, a Lebanese exile who took Wimbledon into the top division before Fayed, but the difference was that Hammam made a quick buck in passing the deeds on to Norwegians, who then sold the stadium ground, and sold out Wimbledon’s heritage. Fayed, say what you will about his other business enterprises, unquestionably stabilized and sustained Fulham when its existence was threatened.
That cycle now passes to “Shad” Khan.
Born in Lahore, but moving to the United States to study at 16, Khan is, like Fayed, a self-made billionaire. Both of them lived on their entrepreneurial wits to work their way up from the shop floor to riches in foreign lands.
Fayed made his first dollar by selling lemonade on the banks of the Nile. Khan eventually bought the first company he worked for, making bumpers to fit pickup trucks and turning that into an automotive spare parts empire.
Fayed had soccer in his blood, and has black-and-white photographs of himself playing the sport back in Alexandria. Khan probably has cricket in his psyche, but he already owns the Jacksonville Jaguars in the National Football League.
The lore of the Premier League appears irresistible. It is sometimes, incidentally, miscalled the English Premier League - but English was never part of its title. In keeping with its priorities, it bears the name of its sponsor, Barclay’s Bank.
Seven-tenths of its players are imported, and 11 of its 20 teams are now owned from abroad. Six of those are bankrolled by Americans, and the others from Russia, Abu Dhabi, Malaysia and Switzerland. Another team, Hull City, has an owner who is Egyptian by birth.
The newest foreign owner, the 62-year-old Khan, said Saturday that he was a beginner in soccer. Decisions about the team management, the playing personnel, even the statue of American pop idol Michael Jackson that the former owner erected outside the stadium, will need to be evaluated.
“I’ve been an owner less than a day,” Khan said when questioned about removing the statue that Fayed installed against the wishes of Fulham fans. “We have to preserve and respect history, but we have to move forward. I’ll reflect on it and listen to the fans, then decide.”
Fayed was walking close by. He was holding a spoof mustache to his upper lip, lightly mocking the handlebar mustache of Khan. “Are you listening to me about Michael Jackson?” the outgoing chairman asked out loud. “You promise now? Otherwise I will take your mustache off.”
It was an old man’s chiding of the young pretender on his throne. Time will tell what Khan thinks of that statue, and whether he runs with or changes the methods and the players who have sustained Fulham as a comfortable mid-table side in a league where the opponents have stadiums twice the size and capacity, and budgets more than twice the size of Fulham’s housekeeping budget.
Like Roman Abramovich, the Russian owner of Fulham’s neighbor Chelsea, Fayed turned an acquisition into an obsession. Calling it love might be pushing things, but this old game does grip those who get involved.
It tweaks more out of them than they possibly intended to pay, in cash and in emotions. We scarcely know what Abramovich feels, or what Arsenal means to its American investor Stan Kroenke, or Manchester United to Malcolm Glazer or Manchester City to Sheik Mansour.
They are secretive owners. Fayed was more outgoing, and he leaves a club in better shape than he found it. The fans wait to see how Khan picks up the baton of ownership.