West Ham's Italian suitor faces scrutiny

Fit and proper person test could pose threat to Cagliari president's bid to buy club

The Italian tycoon Massimo Cellino, who is bidding to take control of West Ham United, will have to prove to the Premier League that his complicated past, in which he has been at the centre of a major legal case in Italy, does not preclude him from owning the club.

Cellino, already the outspoken president of the Serie A club Cagliari, will have to pass the league's "fit and proper person test" if he is to be allowed to buy West Ham having been identified as one of the frontrunners in a four-way race. A controversial figure in Italy, his position will depend on the league's interpretation of Italian law and its dealings with Cellino.

Between 1996 and 2000, Cellino and his sister Lucina fought a high-profile case against charges that they defrauded the European Union over a contract to ship grain to developing countries. Cellino, and other directors of his company SEM Molini Sardi, were accused of using EU finance to acquire low-quality grain and profiting from the difference.

The case ended in 2000 with what is known as a "patteggiare", effectively a plea bargain. Under Italian law, however, the plea bargain is not always an admission of guilt. The complex nature of the trial's conclusion would mean that the Premier League would have to seek legal advice to decide whether Cellino still met its criteria.

In the Premier League's rules for directors, which also apply to owners of clubs, it is forbidden for an owner to have a conviction from a court in the UK or abroad for "any offence involving any act which would reasonably be considered to be dishonest".

The league's executive has come under public pressure to take a more forthright stance on the suitability of owners after the debacle at Portsmouth. It has never publicly admitted blocking an ownership bid although there were doubts over whether Thaksin Shinawatra would have passed the test at Manchester City before he sold to Sheikh Mansour.

Cellino has owned Cagliari since 1992 but lives in Miami where he describes himself as a property developer. Cellino brought Gianfranco Zola back to his native Sardinia to play for the club in 2003 although the two men are not thought to have always seen eye-to-eye during Zola's two seasons there. There is a strong possibility that Cellino would sack Zola should he take over at West Ham. As Cagliari owner he has got through 22 different coaches, some more than once, in 18 years.

West Ham have also been the subject of interest from the former Birmingham City owners David Gold and David Sullivan, the Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes and the Intermarket Group. West Ham are owned by CB Holdings whose majority shareholder is Straumur bank, the key creditor to former owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson. CB Holdings value West Ham at around £120m, with the new owner expected to take on £30m-£40m of the debt within that figure.

22

The number of coaches the Cagliari president Massimo Cellino has appointed.

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