By Andrew Warshaw
October 13 – Arab investment in European football has become commonplace in recent years with the likes of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates taking over a number of leading clubs. But further down the pyramid, a Jordanian businessman is reaping the rewards of putting his faith in a lower-league English team.
Until 18 months ago, Wael al-Qadi was best known for founding the Arab Jordan Investment Bank (AJIB) as well being instantly recognisable as a prominent team member of Prince Ali bin al Hussein’s ultimately doomed FIFA presidential election campaign.
But these days, al-Qadi is putting all his efforts into transforming the fortunes of Bristol Rovers, insisting he is in it for the long term and should not be treated as some glory-hunting foreign owner whose only interest is to line his own pockets.
Well before he became a highly successful businessman, al-Qadi harboured dreams of owning a professional club. But why Rovers, positioned in England’s third-tier League One, rather than an established top-flight side? “It’s the potential of the club,” he says. “They had just come out of the (non-league) Conference but they ticked all the boxes, not least a strong loyal fan base in a huge catchment area. They were pretty much rock bottom when we took over. The only place to go was upwards.”
“I had spent a long time seeing how I could enter the industry. I had to persuade my family to join me but I think they realised it was a strong investment. We looked at clubs in Belgium and Spain before realising something which I actually already knew: that the UK was the most ideal place in terms of one’s investment being protected by the laws of the country, much safer than anywhere else.
“Once that was determined, it was about finding the right club. We were never going to go in and buy a Premier League club or a Championship club because the numbers are just astronomical. So it was about finding something of value where your investment can be enhanced by building the club up. We looked at two other clubs which did not work out before I was alerted to Rovers.”
Such is the history and tradition of Rovers that al-Qadi had to compete with around a dozen other interested parties. “They wanted someone to take the club forward and luckily determined that Rovers would be safe in our hands. It wasn’t about our bank balance. It was about the future of the club.”
What swung it for al-Qadi and his family was not just absorbing millions of pounds worth of debt but also his ability to see things through the eyes of the fans. Even now he often takes his place among the supporters to watch games. “I’m one of them. When I go to watch football I like to enjoy it, I don’t like wearing a suit and tie and sitting in the directors’ box, where you are limited in terms of expressing your emotions. I’d much rather sit with the fans and sing and chant.”
How did they react in Jordan, where he is an executive board member of the national FA, to him owning an English club? “There were some voices back home asking why I bought an overseas club but people who know me know what I have contributed to Jordanian football. Besides there is no structure in Jordan that allows you to invest in a local club. They are registered as charities.”
Al-Qadi says running a professional club, for all its complexities and stresses, is far more enjoyable than football politics. He should know having enjoyed considerable experience from his time with Prince Ali. “Anything is refreshing compared to what goes on at FIFA,” he says. “I know we’ll have some turbulent times ahead at Rovers but I’m ready for it. Whoever tells you they have cracked the game is lying. But that’s why we love it.”
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