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Chairman al-Fayed IS a Fulham fan

last updated Sunday 14th October 2001, 1:01 PM
Mohamed al-Fayed sits as still and silent as the Sphinx. He barely acknowledges anybody, although there is a cursory comment as Sven-Göran Eriksson leaves the directors' box 10 minutes before the end of the match. Al-Fayed owns everything before him - the stadium, the team, the management - all bar the opposition. He says he has invested £80m in Fulham Football Club so far.

He knows I am there, and knows I am watching him, but any conversation, he insists, will have to come at Harrods the next day. Sunday is for football. He is emotionally immersed in the game. When Fulham have the ball, he looks expectant; when the opposition threatens, his temples throb visibly; and when a Fulham goal is celebrated all around him, the chairman and owner of the club allows himself a slow smile.

Mohamed al-Fayed, Chairman and Owner of Fulham Football Club
  Mohamed al-Fayed, Chairman and Owner of Fulham Football Club
 
 
When it is over, he rises, passing an aide a silver flask containing spring water from his Scottish estate. He retires to the chairman's inner sanctum, away from the chatter, away from post-match joy or blues. I have come to find out whether al-Fayed is a true football man, as many who share his Egyptian roots are, or a billionaire trying to buy popularity in a land where he has lived for three decades but is still denied citizenship.

He is a football man. Whatever anybody might think of his business, his vituperative conflicts with the British establishment or his willingness to see his foes in court, one football fan cannot fake passion or disguise it from another. Al-Fayed's eyes never leave the ball. The expression reflects the action: skill brings lightness, ineptitude brings despair.

Later, he will admit that Fulham have been his great escape from grief. "After Dodi, you mean?" he asks in the fifth-floor grandeur of his private Harrods offices. Al-Fayed bought Fulham in May 1997; his son Dodi died together with the Princess of Wales in that tragic car crash in Paris on August 31 of the same year. "It [football] takes you away," al-Fayed answers. "You think of nothing else for the 90 minutes. No business, no problems, no sadness, no grievance."

But you suffer, as impotent as any fan when the team is struggling? "Yes. You want to go down and just kick the ball. You know they can deliver. You don't know what they were doing the day before. Tigana [Jean Tigana, the manager] is very firm with them in training, but the form of the player all depends on his private life."

There is mischief in the chairman's smile. In Alexandria, the port west of the Nile, his growing up had much to do with chasing footballs, girls and the first entrepreneurial enterprises that led him from street-trading for Pepsi to adventures in Saudi Arabia and Brunei. Today, his detractors say, he may be down to his last £750m. "They are guessing," he scoffs. "Those stupid people. They report that I lost a third of my investments by spending too much restoring Harrods, but it's just that I moved borrowings from one bank to another to get a better deal. It's business, you know."

We stick to Fulham business. For all the prodigious energy of Jimmy Hill's efforts to save the club by the Thames, it was sinking fast. Al-Fayed says it was hours from liquidation when he was offered the ancient ground and the remnants of a team that never recovered from being the butt of music-hall jokes and was relegated after the mastery of Johnny Haynes waned.

"I paid £20m for Craven Cottage," al-Fayed says. "We are building a great team and will build a great stadium because Fulham should be an institution. There are 100,000 fans, but we can accommodate only 21,000 people. We have to change anyway, because the Premier League says nobody must stand.

"We are giving the fans Fulham back from the dead. We don't want to be as good as Manchester United, we are going to be better. Real Madrid? Also better. The best. Look, when I buy the House of Fraser, I get rid of 90 department stores and invest £400m in restoring one, Harrods, the landmark of stores. When I buy the Ritz in Paris, I and my brothers make it the best hotel in the world. You ask what is the vision for Fulham . . . also the best."

He is, momentarily, the Mohamed al-Fayed you see on television. Outlandish, brash, the salesman. He reaches for mineral water and drinks from the bottle. "You see," he exclaims, "I am not upper-class like you. "

The boasting and the chip on al-Fayed's shoulder about British prejudices are interspersed through an exchange that lasts 90 minutes. But they are, to some extent, the public exhibition. There are times when his command of English is surprisingly vague, and times when he is evasive about actual sums in profit and loss on his businesses or his football expenditure. But who ever met a householder, much less a multi-millionaire, who gives the full account of his or her worth?

Al-Fayed says his input so far into Fulham amounts to £20m for the property, a further £10m for the state-of-the-art Motspur Park training ground and academy, £50m committed to renovating and modernising Craven Cottage, and then the transfer fees to buy in players, which this season alone are running at £32m. That is, in total, and with wages for a staff of 150 people? "Let's say £80m," he answers.

He's smiling, and he knows he has lost me.

"There is," he says, "more to come, God willing." How much more? "What it takes." If tomorrow Tigana comes to Harrods and suggests he can lure Lilian Thuram, the most versatile and accomplished defender in football, for £20m more of the al-Fayed fortune? "No problem. Everything within reason. I understand the game, I see the tapes. When Tigana comes with an idea, I know what he is looking for. He goes to bed at one o'clock, two o'clock in the morning after watching videos from everywhere. It's unbelievable what he is doing. At Motspur Park he's looking at 100 youngsters. Some of them are really going to be great champions of Britain.

"That is our future. In England today there are 75% foreigners playing football. I understand why. When you look at this guy [Gianfranco] Zola, it's fun and it's fantastic quality. When you see Louis Saha, it's exciting. But from the top, like from the bloody MI5 or MI6, all you get from the FA is secrets. They are only cashing in, not supporting or funding the clubs in the First Division or Second Division who are suffering."

But Fulham no longer are. For years the Cottagers, a hard core of fans as permanent a fixture as the 19th-century building that still serves as the club's main office, existed in the shadow of Chelsea, never mind Manchester United.

And on home match days, when al-Fayed ritually walks out of the tunnel, into the adrenaline rush of the crowd's applause, the populist paymaster pressing the flesh, those supporters know it is a scarcely believable chapter in Fulham's history.

They have shed their suspicion of the Pharaoh who came promising them the gift of parity with the neighbours. They think he will stay, but even if he does not, the adventure has been irreplaceable in their lives. The fans who stand, at least until they are made to sit down when the ground is redeveloped from next May, sing two new songs: "We're Not Real Madrid", which is a homage to Chairman Mo; and a ditty that runs "Ti-gan-a! Ti-gan-a! Ti-gan-a!" to the tune of La Marseillaise. And, as supporters do, they capture the essence of what is happening. Fulham have two driving forces: the benefactor who runs a shop round the corner at Knightsbridge; and the manager who chews on a toothpick while raising standards on the pitch. The first coming, of course, was Kevin Keegan, but when al-Fayed declared that he would give up his charismatic team-builder "for the nation", he shopped abroad.

Al-Fayed took counsel from those he trusts in the game. He refuses to say who directed him towards Tigana, the aggressor in the fabulous French quartet of Tigana, Alain Giresse, Michel Platini and Luis Fernandez in the 1980s. Some say it was Eric Cantona, but the owner says that although Cantona did come to see him, and was interested in the job, his view was not decisive.

Tigana was summoned to Harrods. The chairman and the prospective manager spoke mainly in French. The one-time street boy from Alexandria, and one raised on the streets of Marseilles had, al-Fayed says, a chemistry. "Tigana said to me, 'Shake hands, I'm coming, I'm your man'."

He still is. Not just Tigana, but, crucially, Christian Damiano, Tigana's mentor at the school of French football. To appreciate that Tigana is young and headstrong and dependent on his own team is insider football knowledge. "I told him, 'Bring your Professor Damiano. Bring all your people, your physician, everybody; bec-ause then you have no excuses'," says al-Fayed.

Al-Fayed sells Tigana's own white wine from Provence at Harrods, although he admits he once told Keegan not to venture into football cafes but to stick to managing. And he told Keegan bluntly what he thought of Ray Wilkins (or Wilkinson or Wilson, whatever name comes to mind) because he blames the coach Keegan hired for two lost years of progress at Fulham.

Speaking of progress, where will Fulham play next season while Craven Cottage is being modernised? Loftus Road, Upton Park, even Stamford Bridge? "It is up to Tigana. He is the guy. I pay the bills; the manager has to live in the stadium. He likes to relax the players, to bring them to the ground early to eat, to train, to prepare. Where we go is up to Tigana. The business depends on the team."

Al-Fayed has a helicopter to catch. We part with this thought. There are no shareholders in his companies. "I'm the boss," he confirms, "only me, and God. We're doing our best."
Source Sunday Times by Rob Hughes
Since 1998
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