Arkan's lawyer has ambitions to take over Northampton

Friend and business partner of notorious Serbian warlord ready to close deal for Second Division club

Northampton Town occupies a cherished niche in English football culture, as the original home of the supporters trust, whose chairman Brian Lomax, a Cobblers director for seven years, went on to spearhead the Government-backed initiative Supporters Direct, spreading the gospel of mutual ownership to fans across Britain. So what could be more natural, now that Northampton are losing money and up for sale, than for the club's next owner to be a friend, business partner and lawyer of Arkan, the notorious Serbian warlord and alleged war criminal?

Bizarre but true: Giovanni Di Stefano, an Italian lawyer who was deeply involved in Serbia during its brutal civil war and is currently advising the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic on his prosecution for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, has also been talking to Northampton Town's solicitor about buying the Second Division club.

An Italian brought up in Northamptonshire, Di Stefano is far from shy about his associations; he talked to me at length about his activities this week and has pounded various Cobblers websites with his credentials and plans for the club. He went to Serbia in 1992 with the bloody war raging and United Nations sanctions in place, and was granted a passport by Milosevic himself. The address on his Serbian passport was, and still is, Tolstojeva 33, Milosevic's own home address.

He was preparing to defend Arkan in The Hague against the indictment for war crimes when Arkan was assassinated in January 2000, and insists Arkan died an innocent man, because the charges had not yet been heard. Along with interests in the media, banking, airlines and housing in war-torn Serbia in the 1990s, Di Stefano co-owned with Arkan a local Belgrade football club, Obilic, which, amid widespread allegations of intimidation, which Di Stefano denies, progressed through the divisions to win the Yugoslav championship in 1997 and qualified for the Champions' League. Di Stefano then disposed of his interest in Obilic, who are still owned by Ceca, Arkan's folk-singing widow.

Various allegations have been made against Di Stefano; he was arrested in Serbia in 1994 for alleged currency offences and in Rome in 2000 on a British warrant for fraud, but he did not face trial in either case. The only conviction against his name, he said, was in this country, for fraudulent trading with the old white Rhodesian regime in the 1980s. He served three years at Ford open prison but the conviction was subsequently overturned by the Court of Appeal.

"People can make allegations," he said. "But I have no convictions. I am proud of having served the Serb cause."

Di Stefano said he is absolutely serious about the Cobblers; his plan is to bring in Yugoslav, Italian and Scottish players via the contacts he has made in football and expects Northampton, who narrowly avoided relegation to the Third Division last season, to be in the First in two years and thereafter in the Premiership. He said he will meet the directors on Wednesday to close the deal.

"Do the people I know," he asked, "make me an unsuitable person to own a football club? John Fashanu [understood to be the other front-runner to buy Northampton] was also tried and acquitted of criminal charges, and nobody says he is unsuitable.

"If anybody produces any admissible or even inadmissible evidence which suggests I am not a suitable person to own Northampton Town, let them bring it, and I'll answer it."

The club's chief executive, Gary Hodder, confirmed that talks have been conducted with Di Stefano by the club's solicitor: "Talks have been continuing. No deal has been done, but Mr Di Stefano has not been ruled out."

That silence is understood to have infuriated Tony Clarke, the local MP and Brian Lomax's successor as the supporters trust's elected fan on the board. He is horrified: "I'm making my views clear," he said. "The day he comes into this club is the day I'm walking out the other door."

Northampton has become the third British football club in which Di Stefano has publicly expressed an interest, following Dundee in 1999, and Norwich City last summer. Both clubs appear as links from the website of his law firm, Studio Legale Internazionale, but they publicly rejected his overtures and Dundee flatly deny the rumour, encouraged by Di Stefano himself, that he has some involvement with them.

The darker rumours, though, seethe around his time in Milosevic's Serbia, where he became a nationally renowned figure. He arrived six months after UN sanctions were imposed, promising to invest millions in hard currency in the country. Di Stefano said he had first met Zeljko Raznatovic, commonly known as Arkan, in a London hotel 25 years ago. Arkan was an armed robber, who amassed convictions in Belgium, Sweden and Italy, before returning to Yugoslavia, where he became president of the Red Star Belgrade supporters' club. The Hague Tribunal's indictment, which charged Arkan with 24 counts of murder, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, says that he used the Red Star fan club as: "A base for the establishment, on 11 October 1990, of a paramilitary organisation known as the 'Serbian Volunteer Guard', or 'Arkan's Tigers'." The alleged murders, rapes and beatings by soldiers in this group formed the substance of the charges against Arkan.

Di Stefano became a general in the Serb military, although he did not actually fight, was a close advisor to Milosevic and was in business with Arkan at Obilic and elsewhere – he passed to Arkan ownership of the Penguin radio station in Belgrade in 1996. He was arrested in Serbia in 1994 for allegedly trading illegally in hard currency, but released without charge. He explained this week that he concocted the affair with the Serb establishment, to deter people from attempting to move currency out of Serbia.

Of Arkan, he said: "Yes he was convicted of armed robbery in several countries but people can be rehabilitated. He died with The Hague's charges unproven. I was his lawyer and I did not see any evidence, whether admissible or inadmissible, which would have convicted him." He added that although Mr Milosevic has not appointed lawyers because he is refusing to recognise The Hague's jurisdiction, Di Stefano is giving him legal advice.

Di Stefano also boasts a career in Italian politics, currently as secretary general of what he described as the "right wing but not fanatical" Partito Nazionale Italiano (the Italian National Party). He said he was against discrimination of all kinds but believed "ordinary, white, heterosexual people" were discriminated against by London councils who give preferential grants, welfare and housing to "blacks, Asians and homosexuals".

He argued he had been victimised by the British and US governments for his political affiliations: "Nobody publicises the good things: the humanitarian aid I have given to Yugoslavians and Iraqis, my role in securing the release of Australians being held in Yugoslavia during the war. They only write about the bad things."

All of which seems a terribly long way from the Sixfields Stadium and dear old Northampton Town. Having gone into receivership in 1994, the club was saved by a handful of directors and a communal effort organised around the supporters trust, which raised £80,000, enough for a seat on the board, which Lomax occupied with distinction. Among the accomplishments which he most proudly relates to crowds of fans at launch meetings for supporters' trusts nationwide, were award-winning, ground-breaking anti-racism and equal opportunities initiatives.

The club, while not laden with debt, is losing around £400,000 a year and the chairman, Barry Stonhill, and the other directors have had enough and put the club up for sale. ITV Digital's collapse has removed another £400,000 from the next two years' coffers, and made the sale more urgent. John Fashanu, the former Wimbledon striker turned businessman and players agent, backed by a billionaire Nigerian chief, Sonny Odogwu, has been linked with a deal since December, along with several others. Many people believe Di Stefano is simply garnering easy publicity by claiming to be interested in football clubs, but he insisted he is serious:

"Northampton are one of the best prospects around, which is why there is so much interest." Of his reputation, he said: "I quote Mussolini: 'They write good about me, they write bad about me, as long as they're writing about me, that's what matters."

davidconn@freeuk.com

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