Briatore in line of fire as League gets tough

Disgraced F1 boss likely to be thrown out of football in 'fit and proper person' crackdown with Notts County and Leeds also under scrutiny
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The Independent Football

The Football League will today seek a legally watertight way of disqualifying Flavio Briatore, the owner of Queen's Park Rangers, from the board of the club.

Lord Mawhinney, who will chair the meeting which will consider the Briatore case and also decide whether the owners of Notts County and Leeds United meet the League's "fit and proper person" test, knows that the first of these provides the most searching examination of ownership rules to date.

The test bars individuals who are the subject of a ban "from involvement in the administration of a sport by a sports governing body or such other similar forms of disqualification as may operate from time to time." The latter of the two appears to provide Briatore with no get-out, with the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) having refused to recognise any teams or drivers engaging him in "any capacity".

The best course open to Briatore and his lawyers, who have tabled their case in his defence, would appear to be an argument that he should not be banned ahead of the outcome of any appeal into the WMSC's ruling. Mawhinney, the Football League chairman, knows the significance of the case at a time when profound questions are being asked of both the Premier League and Football League "fit and proper person" regimes. "We need to have legal clarity if somebody is in difficulty with a different sporting organisation as to exactly what the nature of that difficulty is before we try to apply our regulation," he said yesterday.

"This is complex and complicated. I have taken legal counsel's advice, we will be going into the meeting with the benefit of that advice. It isn't simple, and it isn't straightforward. But I've been around a bit, I have quite good hearing, I understand what's being said and we will reflect that as a board."

Leading sports lawyer Adam Morallee, whose specialisms include governance, said: "The question at issue will be whether the [WMSC] ban is a permanent ban or one subject to appeal."

The League's decision carries huge significance for QPR. Though Briatore brought Formula One rights holder Bernie Ecclestone and steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal on board at Loftus Road, he is the one seen regularly at the club. A disqualification for the flamboyant Italian could see all three of them seeking a way out and QPR being put up for sale.

It will be a day of major significance for the issue of football club ownership in general. The decision for the League in the Notts County case is whether the club's new owners, the investors in the Qadbak investment fund, registered in the tax-haven of the British Virgin Islands and of which little is yet known, may pass the same test.

The Leeds case relates to chairman Ken Bates' acknowledgement of his mistake in saying he jointly owned the club's holding company, the Forward Sports Fund. In fact, Forward, registered in the tax-haven of the Cayman Islands, has 10,000 shares, whose owners are yet to be ascertained. Mawhinney said of the latter case: "The law of the land allows money to be 'hidden' offshore for tax purposes. Personally, I do not believe that owners' identities should also be hidden from the League, as the representative of fans, if their clubs want to play in our League. But as everyone in the League recognises this tradition will not be easy to change."

The League's decision comes amid questions over the identity of the newest Premier League owner and his financial viability: Ali al-Faraj, who became proprietor of Portsmouth this week. It is understood that the Premier League adjudged him "fit and proper" six weeks ago – shortly before he was beaten to the ownership of the club by Sulaiman al-Fahim, who was also adjudged "fit and proper" though his investment in the club never materialised.

The Premier League is comfortable with the decision on Faraj and consider the absence of published information on him to be a reflection of the private nature of business in Saudi Arabia. Pompey insist that Faraj is the individual to drive the club on. Further inquiries by The Independent in the Middle East yesterday were unable to establish whether he is a source of money, or actually a front man for another investor.

One deal-maker, who has been involved in discussions with the Football League over a prospective move to bring an investor to a major club, said yesterday that neither it nor the Premier League had the resources to submit prospective owners to a due diligence process so as to make the fit and proper person test a rigorous one. "It's a fallacy that it's called a test," he said. "It's a form you fill in and essentially you self-certify. The form doesn't get 'approved' as such but no one ever generally fails. If it transpires that you have a murky past, then they are down on you like a ton of bricks."

Fit and proper: Ownership regulations

The Football League was the first Governing Body in football to introduce a 'Fit and Proper Person Test' in 2004.

It is a breach of League rules to be a director or hold a majority interest in a club if you:

* Are subject to a ban from a sports governing body relating to the administration of the sport.

* Have an unspent conviction in relation to fraud or dishonesty.

* Are disqualified as a director of a UK registered company.

* Are currently subject to a bankruptcy order.

* Have been a director of any club that has been in administration twice during a five-year period.

Katie Nixon

What next? How the ruling may affect QPR

What decision does the Football League have to make today about QPR's ownership?

Whether to declare that the club's chairman and major shareholder, Flavio Briatore, now fails its 'fit and proper person' test (FAPPT) of ownership because of his antics in Formula 1; and if he does, whether they can force him off the board and to dispose of his stake.

What precedents are there?

None. This is a landmark case in terms of assessing whether and how to force a majority shareholder to relinquish shares and control.

Does the League have the right and legal power to force Briatore out?

By the letter of its FAPPT, if his ban from F1 is upheld (and he is appealing that, which complicates this case), he should no longer be chairman or owner of QPR. The League has leeway to give Briatore a certain time period, yet to be determined, to step down and sell his shares. How they can enforce that is a different, legally complex issue if he does not go quietly.

Would QPR miss him?

He's the minnow of the three main owners in wealth terms. Lakshmi Mittal (who owns 20 per cent), is reportedly worth £18.4bn, Bernie Ecclestone (15 per cent) £1.5bn, and Briatore (34 per cent) a relative pittance at £110m. Arguably a bigger loss than his cash would be the 59-year-old's strategic and management experience in building brands, attracting sponsors and marketing the club in a global environment he knows well.

James Mariner

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