Property deals fire West Ham's international man of mystery

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The Independent Football

Eli Papoushado, the Israeli businessman who is considering bankrolling a takeover of West Ham United, is so guarded about his affairs that he will not even allow his staff to confirm his age, let alone the size of his fortune.

The best guesstimates that sources in Jerusalem could produce yesterday were "mid-60s" for his age and "very rich" for his assets.

"He is a private man, and I can't tell you, or even confirm, anything," his lawyer said. Whatis known is intriguing, not least how he built up a business empire from inauspicious beginnings, how he once took centre stage in a bitter seven-year land dispute between Israel and Egypt, and how one of his companies, an elite hotel chain, is expanding aggressively in London ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games.

This may contain a clue as to to why Papoushado - "Papo" to friends - is considering putting cash into West Ham. He has little knowledge of English football, and no previous experience in the sector, anywhere. Yet it is known that West Ham have hopes of moving into the Olympic Stadium after the 2012 Games, which would leave their current site up for development in a part of London that will supposedly be totally regenerated.

According to sources in Israel, "Papo" was born in Egypt but fled as a child as part of the exodus of Jewish Egyptians after the state of Israel was created in 1948.

"He's a self-made man who worked his way up," said one source, explaining Papoushado's rise, mainly in the hotel industry.

By the late 1960s he had founded the Red Sea Group, and he later became the head of the Israeli hoteliers' association. It was not until the 1980s, however, that he hit the big time with any major project. When he did, opening a luxury hotel in the seaside resort of Taba, he also hit the headlines.

The development was originally named Avia after his late wife. He has since married at least once more. The Avia was part of a bitter wrangle as Egypt argued that it owned that stretch of beach and Israel disputed it. Only in 1989, after seven years of acrimony and the intervention of America, was a deal brokered that gave the land to Egypt.

The hotel - renamed the Sonesta - was acquired by the Egyptian Tourism Ministry. Papoushado was paid $37m (then £21m) and allowed to continue running it for 20 years.

He expanded his business, turning it into a multinational property firm with interests in the United States, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Papoushado's portfolio includes a major shareholding in Park Plaza Hotels Europe. PPHE owns and operates more than 30 high-class hotels across Europe, including Riverbank Park Plaza on London's Embankment, where Papoushado is believed to have a luxury penthouse apartment. New hotels are planned for County Hall (2008) and Westminster Bridge (2010).

And Upton Park Plaza? Of course, nobody is saying. And given Papoushado's desire for privacy, perhaps Premiership football will not be the business for him anyway.

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