Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Fulham Chairman's rant over Michael Jackson Statue

The oddest people choose to own soccer teams. Time was when the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker kept the local club going for reasons of pride, prestige and power in the hometown. Now, though, you have to be an American billionaire, a Russian oligarch or an Arab sheik to afford an English Premier League team.Sightings of the owner in his own stadium are as rare as a mirage in the desert.However, Fulham, the London club where this foreign ownership fad started, is different. From the day that Mohamed al-Fayed, the Egyptian-born proprietor who then owned the nearby Harrods store, saved Fulham from insolvency in 1997, it has been difficult to keep him away.He is chairman and banker and is omnipresent. Those he has hired and fired to coach his players will attest to the fact that the chairman is never short of an opinion or three about who they should select, and why.

But when the 78-year-old patriarch unveiled a larger-than-life, sequined statue of the deceased American pop star Michael Jackson outside Fulham’s Craven Cottage stadium on Sunday, it wasn’t to universal acclaim.

Some Fulham fans were outraged. Some were of the opinion that their chairman was as Wacko as Jacko, the headline nickname that some tabloids used for Michael Jackson, much to his dislike. But some simply accepted that without Fayed’s millions, the club would not have survived, so he can do what he likes so long as he keeps their precious team in the league of giants.“Why is it bizarre?” Fayed demanded to know when he unveiled the statue. “Michael Jackson was genius.“When he was on stage, everyone watched him. He had a rare gift that inspired people of every race, in every country.”

When journalists suggested that some fan groups do not regard Jackson as an appropriate fixture outside the stadium that to some is a second home, Fayed retorted: “If some stupid fans don’t understand or appreciate such a gift, they can go to hell. I don’t want them to be fans. If they don’t believe in things I believe in, they can go to Chelsea, go anywhere else.” There lies the crux of this whole ownership thing.

Does Fayed have any more right to do what he believes in than the supporters? Many were there before him, and will be there after he is gone.Soccer in England is family, and countless Fulham folk are fans of the club because their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers, belonged.It dates to when the boys of a local Sunday school formed a team in 1879. Fulham F.C. has played at its current location for 115 years, and part of its charm is the original cottage that is preserved at the stadium.Fulham without its history would never have appealed to Fayed. Fulham, without the estimated £200 million he has poured into the club, would almost certainly no longer exist.

Last year, alone, Fulham’s lost about £16.9 million despite the team reaching the final of the Europa League. The team’s balance books show that the income from the Premier League, its European success and its share of the gargantuan global television rights of the Premier League simply did not keep pace with the increased wages from higher player contracts.

Fayed has known throughout his 14 years’ stewardship that even at the best of times, Fulham isn’t going to be the financial equal of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal or Chelsea.

It was the arrival of the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who turned Fulham’s near neighbor Chelsea into the powerhouse nicknamed “Chelski,” that destroyed Fayed’s boast that he would turn Fulham into “the Manchester United of the South.” I recall spending two afternoons with him in October 2001. During the first, at Craven Cottage stadium, there was no chit-chat. The chairman forbade it.Match day, he said, was for football.He was too nervous, to wrapped in the emotion of the game. Before the kickoff, he paraded before the fans. During it, he sat as silent and still as the sphinx. When his team attacked, there was joy, expectation in his face. When the opponent threatened, his temples throbbed, his color paled.These emotions cannot be false. Whether the Glazer family of Florida or the ruling Abu Dhabi family experience the same — except when poring over the Manchester United or City balance sheets — we can only wonder. They watch, if at all, from oceans away.The day after the match, in his fifth-floor office at Harrods, Fayed invited any and every point of interrogation this visitor felt appropriate to raise.His rise from a street seller of fizzy drinks to a self-made billionaire, and his journey through Haiti to Dubai to London, is possibly one that will forever have opaque secrets.

We talked around it, but mostly we talked soccer from the banks of the Nile, where he played in his youth, to the Thames, where his team plays now. Fayed reckoned that day we spent at Harrods that his spending on the stadium, the training grounds and the players set him back £80 million.That amount has doubled, and is rising. There is no exit strategy. He may have sold the Harrods store, but letting go of Fulham would be like an amputation.Does that give him the right to tell the fans to get lost if they do not approve of Jackson? No, but it’s done anyway.The singer was Fayed’s icon. The fans paid for their own memorial years ago when they clubbed together to have Johnny Haynes cast in bronze.Haynes, who died in 2005, was Fulham’s finest player. He led the team for 18 years. He passed the ball better than any Englishman, perhaps ever. He was Fulham personified.

Michael Jackson passed this way once. He had shopped at Harrods and Fayed, its chairman, persuaded him to take in a game at Craven Cottage. For that, Jackson gets a memorial close by the real Fulham figure of note. To each his own.

No comments:

Post a Comment