Jesús Gil

Buccaneering property tycoon and chairman of Atlético de Madrid
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The Independent Online

Jesús Gil hogged the limelight for most of his life, with his bullying style, foul language and crimes of embezzlement. Throughout his career as buccaneering property mogul, football club supremo and right-wing politician, Gil provoked fear and hostility, and was in and out of jail until his late sixties.

Gregorio Jesús Gil y Gil, businessman and politician: born Burgo de Osma, Spain 12 March 1933, married 1961 Maria de los Angeles Marin Cobo (three sons, one daughter); died Madrid 14 May 2004.

Jesús Gil hogged the limelight for most of his life, with his bullying style, foul language and crimes of embezzlement. Throughout his career as buccaneering property mogul, football club supremo and right-wing politician, Gil provoked fear and hostility, and was in and out of jail until his late sixties.

But his guile, wit and ability to seduce his supporters meant that when he died last Friday, this huge, ugly, ill-educated man prompted an outpouring of grief and affection that extended from the fans of his beloved Atlético de Madrid football club up to the Spanish royal family.

His origins were humble but his intelligence and business acumen swiftly emerged. At 17 he shared a boarding house with a priest and 19 prostitutes, keeping the establishment's accounts in lieu of rent. He mended gearboxes in his brother's car-parts business, then started trading lorries, later real estate.

In 1969 he built a huge apartment block in Segovia that collapsed, killing 58 people and wounding 150. The project had no plans, no architect, no surveyor, barely any cement. He was jailed in 1971 for five years for criminal negligence, but the dictator Franco pardoned him after 18 months. He borrowed a few hundred pounds and started again. In 1986 he took over Atlético de Madrid football club, the working-class underdog to mighty Real, becoming chairman and chief shareholder.

He relished brutal collisions with powerful figures, typically laying into the then boss of Real Madrid, Ramón Mendoza, when Atlético was enjoying a rare blaze of glory: "Whoever doesn't like Atlético in the lead," Gil said, encapsulating his view of the world, "can die."

In 1990 Uefa disqualified him for two seasons for calling a French referee a homosexual. "He was offered a blue-eyed boy. I know, I've seen him," Gil raved in a radio interview. And in 1991 the Spanish FA fined him the equivalent of £16,400 for screaming at a referee that he should see a psychiatrist. He racially insulted his own player, the Colombian Adolfo "El Tren" Valencia, threatening to cut his black head off. He was just "speaking figuratively," a contrite Gil said when he cooled down.

His appetite was prodigious: he could put away eight fried eggs at a sitting, and devoured 35 club managers in 17 years. Some lasted just days. One had a nervous breakdown. Another complained that terrorised players walked a daily tightrope over a lake of crocodiles. Former managers marvelled that his belligerence was outweighed only by his utter ignorance of football. "I might as well advise him on how to run Marbella," complained the Argentine Alfio Basile, who bowed out after four months in June 1995.

Marbella, Spain's glitzy Mediterranean playground, took Gil's fancy in 1979 when he attended a weight-loss clinic at the costa resort. He homed in with property deals with such disregard for regulations that in 1988 the town's socialist council declared him persona non grata. He got round that by standing for mayor. He created his own Independent Liberal Group (GIL) and won the first of three landslide victories in 1991.

Marbella's income soared through sales of green sites redesignated for building. Mayor Gil became the town's most prosperous property tycoon. He earmarked sites ravaged by fires for multi-storey blocks, and courted oil-rich Arabs and post-glasnost Russian millionaires who flocked to Marbella to fling new money into speculative development. Resident jetsetters like Sean Connery gasped in horror as walls of concrete blocked their Mediterranean views.

Gil cleared prostitutes off the streets with his police thugs, and threatened to corral them into a purpose-built "whoreodrome". He copied Franco's ruse of boosting public thermometers a degree or three to encourage tourists.

His heavy-handed law-and-order programme brought success for his party in town halls along the costa. His projects became ever more extravagant. He planned to buy a decommissioned Falklands war aircraft carrier for £600,000 as a floating casino in Marbella bay, which would have to be dredged for the purpose. When that fell through, he planned to build an artificial island, but Andalusian regional authorities vetoed that.

His business deals flourished, and he claimed to have lost all respect for money because he had "too much". He bought a mausoleum in the Almudena cemetery in Madrid with a garden and room for 69 bodies, and coined his epitaph: "Here lies a brave man who laughed at imbeciles." His finest hour was in 1996 when Atlético won the Spanish cup and the league. Gil led a victory march through Madrid astride his favourite horse, Imperioso, whom he said was more intelligent than most humans he knew.

But by the late 1990s, his twin fiefdoms of Atlético football club and Marbella town council came under scrutiny for corruption. Atlético was the only Spanish club to be sponsored by a town hall, and the name Marbella marched in huge black letters across players' scarlet and white striped shirts. Gil always insisted that his club's promotion of his city was free, but in January 1999 he was jailed over suspicions that Marbella - by now crippled with debt - was funding Atleti to the tune of £1m a year. He walked free within a week on £420,000 bail, pleading a heart condition. In a separate case, prosecutors accused him of doctoring the club's accounts to plunder its funds, defraud its members and the taxman, to fill the pockets of his family.

In 2002 he was jailed again, stripped of his mayordom and banned from holding public office for 28 years for emptying Marbella's coffers. In 2003 he resigned as club chairman after 18 years. He died with seven court cases against him still unresolved, but with the admiration of his fans, who went far beyond those of his beloved club, undented.

Elizabeth Nash