Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know – Football’s Most Controversial Owners

Football news in England is currently gripped with stories of Financial Fair Play. These measures were introduced by UEFA to limit spending by football clubs and make them more sustainable. While FFP dominates the headlines, it got me thinking. What about the owners whose actions extend beyond the realms of club finances?

 

Which club owners are so controversial that they need their own half of fame? With that in mind, let’s delve into a list of football’s most controversial owners, ranging from tax cheats to literal murderers. Our story begins with one of the greatest and most controversial club owners ever. Former Italian Prime Minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

 

1. Silvio Berlusconi

 

How he got here – Berlusconi’s foray into football ownership started in 1986. After he made a fortune from construction, he purchased his hometown team, AC Milan in 1986. He proved to be a revelation.

 

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Impact on the pitch – In possession of bucketfuls of charm, charisma to match and very deep pockets, he turned the team into an icon.

 

Over the next three decades, an all-star cast including the likes of Marco Van Basten and Paolo Maldini helped the Rossoneri win an astonishing 29 trophies, including 5 Champions League titles.

 

Why he’s on this list – As well as a good owner, Silvio Berlusconi also happens to be one of the most divisive figures in modern Italy. He’s either been accused or convicted of just about everything including:

 

  •       Links to the Italian Mafia, including using political power to quash criminal charges
  •       €7m worth of tax evasion, only escaping prison due to his age
  •       Bunga Bunga – Being known to host huge prostitute-filled sex parties at his Porto Rotondo mansion
  •       Sleeping with a 17-year-old Moroccan prostitute then attempting to use his political influence to change the age of consent in Italy, ensuring he wouldn’t be convicted
  •       Using his resources to help AC Milan influence who would referee their Serie A fixtures – Calciopoli scandal

 

While he might’ve been a lot of things, dull certainly wasn’t one of them. Next, we travel to Turin, to the only Serie A team more dominant than AC Milan, Juventus.

 

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2. The Agnelli Family

 

How they got here – In 1899, Turin native Giovanni Agnelli was part of the group who started the Horseless carriage company FIAT. Yes, they turned into that FIAT. By 1923, the explosion of the automobile industry had made the family rich. They decided to use some of their millions to buy a controlling stake in local football club Juventus and have been there ever since.

 

Impact on the pitch – Juventus are the most dominant to ever play in Serie A. They’ve won 36 Scudetti, nearly the same number as both Milan clubs combined. Why? Because the Agnelli family have always made sure the team has the best of everything. Whether it’s managers, players or even the best stadium in the country.

 

Why they’re on this list – In short, scandal. The Agnelli family doesn’t always play by the rules. Perhaps the most famous instance of this is the Calciopoli scandal. Between 2004-2006 Juventus was found to have influenced referee selection to their advantage, resulting in the club being stripped of the 2005/06 Scudetto and relegated to Serie B.

 

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Then, in 2023, the club was deducted 10 points and removed from UEFA competitions for a series of offences including false accounting, market manipulation and artificially inflating the value of its players to allow it to trade despite carrying huge debts. I think that’s enough of Italy for now, we’re going 305 km west to the Riviera city of Monaco.

 

3. Dmitry Rybolovlev

 

How he got here – The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s left a lot of people poor, Dmitry Rybolovlev wasn’t one of those people. In 1995, he became chairman of struggling fertilizer company Uralkali and grew it to such an extent that by 2010 he was able to sell the company for around $6.5bn. He then used some of the money (a whole €1) to buy down on their luck Ligue 2 side Monaco the same year.

 

Impact on the pitch – When Rybolovlev took over Monaco in 2011 the once great French club was down on its luck and at the bottom of Ligue 2. They’ve since rebounded. They’ve spent over €1bn (still making a profit), won the league, been to 3 cup finals and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.

 

Why he’s on this list – This one’s all down to Third Party Ownership (TPO). All you need to know is it’s very shady and was outlawed by FIFA. The Russian magnate had been using Cyprus-based companies to illegally buy shares in Monaco players, inflating their values before selling them on, although he refrained from doing so following TPO’s ban on April 30, 2015.

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The best example of this was Brazilian midfielder Fabinho. Rybolovlev had started buying his rights before he moved to Monaco and used the system to inflate his value before the club sold him to Liverpool. Sticking with a French there here, we’re going slightly north to Nantes.

 

4. Waldemar Kita

 

How he got here Born in the Polish city of Szczecin, Kita moved to France in the 1970s. In 1986, he founded Corneal Laboratories; they specialise in the design of intraocular lenses (which help fix cataracts). The company grew to be the fourth largest in its industry by 2006, when Kita sold it for €180m. Kita then used some of the money to purchase struggling Ligue 1 side Nantes in 2007.

 

Impact on the pitch – When Kita purchased the former-8-time champions, they were in Ligue 2. His policy to fix this was simple, spend generously and don’t accept failure. His aggressive tactics didn’t always pay off. Between 2007-14 the club bounced between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2. Despite stabilising since 2014, becoming a Ligue 1 mainstay and winning the Coupe de la Ligue title, they’ve been a managerial merry-go-round, they’ve had 23 managers since 2007.

 

Why he’s on this listHe’s willing to pay transfer fees, but not his taxes. Since 2017, Kita has been embroiled in a legal battle with French authorities who claim he’s been engaging in aggravated tax fraud and owes them €15m as a result. Then, in 2023, he and his son Franck were at the heart of controversy once again.

 

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This time, the two are being accused of using their relationship with Nantes players agents as a way to help the club launder money. While charges have yet to be brought, it doesn’t exactly bode well for the Pole… Finally, I’ve saved the best till last with perhaps the most controversial owner of all time.

 

5. Jesus Gil y Gil

 

How he got here – A construction magnate specialising in gated communities, Gil already had a chequered past when he became Atletico president in 1987 including a prison sentence (more on this later). His time at Atletico was no different.

 

Impact on the pitch – In short, mixed. By the time Gil took over, the club hadn’t won the league in 10 years. While he was generous, he was both impatient and impulsive, the results were hilarious. In the 15 years Gil was in charge, Atletico:

 

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  •       Had 24 different managers
  •       Won two consecutive domestic cups in 1991 and 1992
  •       Avoided relegation on the final day of the 94/95 season
  •       Won the league cup double in the 95/96 season
  •       Were relegated at the end of the 99/00 season despite making the Copa del Rey Final

 

Why he’s on this list – Gil’s story is well, a bit crazy. A construction magnate, Gil spent 18 months in prison in 1969 when one of his poorly constructed apartment blocks collapsed, killing 58 residents. He secured early release thanks to a pardon from a friend, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. That’s not even the best bit either.  

 

Elected as mayor of Marbella in 1991, Gil’s highlight reel included: Being known for walking the streets of the town shouting abuse at the homeless, diverting public funds to Atletico, being so corrupt the Spanish government disbanded the whole Marbella city council in 2006, frequently referring to one of his political opponents as a whore and turned a blind eye to gangsters and even ex Nazis settling in the area.

 

So there you have it, some of the craziest football club owners to ever sit in the boss’s chair. A group whose antics won’t even be fixed by FFP.

 

By: Kieran Alder / @The_Own_Goal

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Angel Martinez – Getty Images / Soccrates Images – Getty Images