Massimo Cellino: Is the King of Corn after Leeds United?

ITALIAN JOB: Massimo Cellino has been linked with a takeover of Leeds United.
ITALIAN JOB: Massimo Cellino has been linked with a takeover of Leeds United.
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Phil Hay profiles Cagliari owner Massimo Cellino who has been linked with Sport Capital’s bid to take control of Leeds United.

In Sardinia, Cagliari Calcio are the only show in town. They are the island’s national team. Since 1992 Massimo Cellino has run that show and more besides; an agricultural magnate whose nickname translates as the ‘King of Corn’.

He went global in 2005 by relocating to Miami, and by showing an interest in Leeds United, Cellino is following Italian football’s trend of doing the same. Two years ago, the Pozzo family – the owners of Udinese – bought out Watford. Aurelio De Laurentiis, the chairman of Napoli, is said to want an English club of his own. And in England, there are always clubs for sale.

Italian journalists believe Cellino has been looking at Leeds for some time. Last weekend, he and Cagliari’s vice-president flew to London with the intention of pursuing their interest closer to home.

Several newspapers in Italy, among them the respected La Gazzetta dello Sport, reported yesterday that Cellino had agreed the purchase of a 75 per cent stake and was effectively United’s new owner. Leeds denied the claim but admitted that discussions had taken place between Cellino and David Haigh and Andrew Flowers, the only named members of the Sport Capital consortium who have been bidding to buy United for two months. Cellino is believed to have attended last weekend’s defeat to Leicester City.

He is a new name in the saga of Gulf Finance House’s sale to Sport Capital but not a new name in England. Back in 2010, he tried to take control of West Ham United but was beaten to the punch by David Gold and David Sullivan amid scrutiny of his background and two convictions for fraud. At the time it was alleged that he would have failed to pass the Premier League’s Fit and Proper Person’s Test had West Ham taken his money.

Crystal Palace fended off approaches from him that same year but Cellino is back in the ring as Cagliari, as a team and club, stutter along. He has controlled the Sardinian club for 21 years and seen enough in that time to make his commitment worthwhile but life there is not as fulfilling as it could be. Cagliari are in a rut; to quote one Italian writer, “a small club with no stadium at the wrong end of a depressed island.”

For half a decade and more, Cellino has wrestled with Cagliari’s mayor and the local authorities for permission to move his club out of their decrepit Stadio Sant’Elia ground and into a new custom-built arena. Sant’Elia is a wreck, capable of holding no more than 5,000 fans for league games. Television footage of a Serie A match against Juventus two weeks ago made the stadium look completely empty.

In the intervening years the dispute was messy. Cagliari moved briefly to the Is Arena in 2012, only to see the stadium declared unusable and unsafe on several occasions. In February 2013, Cellino and the mayor of Quartu Sant’Elena, Mauro Contini, were arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of attempted embezzlement and false representation relating to the development of the ground. Those criminal proceedings have yet to come to trial. Before long, Cagliari requested that their home fixtures be staged in Trieste – some 800km away. They are back now in Stadio Sant’Elia, a ruin of a venue which Cellino has openly criticised.

Earlier this month Cagliari accepted an offer of around nine million euros from AS Roma for Radja Nainggolan, their Belgian midfielder. Cellino was more than willing to let the transfer happen, saying: “He has six or seven clubs looking (at) him and I can’t keep hold of him. It’s not an issue of money, as even if they give me less than his price-tag, he’ll still go. If he doesn’t want to go, I’ll send him away.

“We play in a stadium worthy of Serie C, the players had to travel all around Italy for two years because we weren’t allowed a home stadium. I can’t keep anyone in these conditions.”

It sounds like a club in crisis but reporters in Italy say Cellino is a popular figure with Cagliari’s brow-beaten supporters, in spite of his penchant for sacking managers – 36 employed by Cagliari during his 20-odd years as president.

“He’s very impatient with the trainers,” says Federico Casotti, a broadcaster and journalist with in Italy. “It’s very strange because he often keeps the same coach until the end of the season and then makes a change. But the change always comes.

“The head coach at the moment (Diego Lopez) is doing an average job with a squad which is quite average too so whenever they lose a game, everyone talks about a possible dismissal. It’s always like this with Cellino. When things go wrong, the coach is at risk.

“But he’s very popular at Cagliari. Cagliari Calcio in Sardinia is like Athletic Bilbao in the Basque region – there’s a close affection. He was around the club at the time when they played in the UEFA Cup semi-final and people remember that team fondly. They weren’t as good as the team who won the Scudetto in 1970 but they were good.

“The club got promoted back to Serie A with (Gianfranco) Zola and everyone else and he’s always managed the club in a wise way. He’s well known for being able to sell players for a very good price.

“But in Italy over the last few years, (football club) owners have been trying to expand their businesses abroad. You saw the Pozzos at Watford. It might be that Cellino is getting frustrated with Italian football and the authorities and wants to run a club in a sweeter environment.”

How likely he is to have that opportunity at Elland Road is far from clear. His suspended jail sentences would cause the Football League obvious concern and Sport Capital have not gone so far as to say that Cellino is fully on board with them, only that talks have been held between him, Haigh and Flowers.

Cellino’s son, Ercole, set tongues wagging on Wednesday night by publishing a picture of Elland Road’s East Stand on Instagram. Yesterday, he produced another from the director’s box inside the ground.

If a seat is found for Cellino there, the club should avoid giving him number 17 – an unlucky number in Italy. A superstitious man, Cellino apparently got rid of seat 17 in the main stand of the Is Arena, replacing it with 16B. For all the good it has done Cagliari Calcio lately.

Cellino was thwarted in West Ham bid

Massimo Cellino took a swipe at the “transparency” of English football after failing to buy West Ham United in 2010.

Cellino thought he had reached a deal to purchase the Premier League club and vented his fury after West Ham’s Icelandic owners sold a stake to David Gold and David Sullivan instead.

“I am astonished more than disappointed,” Cellino said. “In many years in football I’ve never seen anything like this.

“Everything was ready, I was poised to buy 100 percent of the club and instead this morning when I arrived in London I discovered they’d decided to sell to people they’ve been talking to for eight months – who have taken only 50 percent.

“I would have paid all the debts and I was ready to make some big buys. I think England didn’t want me.”

Speaking to the Italian press, Cellino added: “In England they don’t know how to run football. In Italy we really shouldn’t be ashamed as in London I found less transparency and on top of that we’re more efficient.”

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