Who is Massimo Cellino? The controversial Italian vying to take over Leeds United

Suspicious of the number 17, a lover of the electric guitar and quickly making waves at Elland Road

Dylan Fahy
Tuesday 04 February 2014 18:36 GMT
Massimo Cellino was sacking people and trying to sign players as soon as he thought Leeds was his
Massimo Cellino was sacking people and trying to sign players as soon as he thought Leeds was his

It didn't take long for Massimo Cellino to make an impression at Leeds United. The Sardinian was blocked in at Elland Road on Friday night as furious fans descended on the ground to protest his decision to dismiss manager Brian McDermott before he'd even officially purchased the club. He then pleaded with McDermott to return while claiming he never sacked him before jetting back to his home in Miami.

The dramatic series of events made headlines around England, but for supporters of Cellino's other team, Cagliari, the entire scenario would be nothing out of the ordinary. Since buying his hometown club just over two decades ago, he has sacked a remarkable 35 managers. There has never been a dull moment with the chain-smoking 57-year-old wannabe rock star fixated with superstitions involved.

Cellino inherited the reigns of his father Ercole's successful agricultural company and also heads several other prominent firms specialising in corn and wheat. Despite being branded a 'mangiallenatori' - a manager-eater - he has proven himself to be a shrewd operator in keeping modest Cagliari in Serie A for a large part of his stint at the helm. In 1994 they even reached the Uefa Cup semi-finals. For the most part he's highly respected and in some cases even a celebrated figure among Rossoblu supporters.

He also has a tendency to interfere with matters closer to the pitch. One of the alleged reasons for dismissing McDermott was that he wouldn't allow former Middlesbrough and Cagliari defender Gianluca Festa to sit on the Leeds bench for last Tuesday's match against Ipswich. In 2010, Cellino froze Italian international goalkeeper Federico Marchetti out of the Rossoblu setup for months after the shot-stopper admitted that the prospect of a transfer to a bigger club might appeal to him.

His more eccentric personality traits include a fear of the number 17 - with Cagliari's stadium not having a seat 17 but instead a 16b. He also plays the electric guitar in his very own rock 'n' roll band "Maurilios". However, in recent years Cellino's more extravagant exploits, particularly in relation to their stadium problems, have had serious repercussions on the club and football in Sardinia as a whole.

The Rossoblu had several stadiums before constructing the Stadio Sant'Elia in 1970 - England played at the venue on three occasions during the 1990 World Cup. In recent years serious dilapidation at the ground has plagued the outfit. Cagliari mayor Massimo Zedda took a backseat on granting funding to repair the commune-owned stadium after reportedly being personally offended by Cellino.

"It's a war of the titans," asserted Cellino on his prolonged dispute with the council regarding the Sant'Elia. The Rossoblu thus began planning to build an alternative venue called the Karalis Arena in 2011. It would have received vital funding should Italy have secured the 2016 European Championships. The entire project soon fell by the wayside when the tournament was awarded to France and authorities deemed the plans for the stadium would interfere with nearby Elmas airport.

Cellino was forced to take drastic actions as conditions at the Sant'Elia worsened and a member of staff was electrocuted. He moved the entire team 500 miles away from their designated home to the complete opposite side of Italy and the Stadio Nereo Rocco in Trieste at the backend of the 2011-12 campaign. The side played several matches at the stadium with virtually no supporters present.

The prospect of an entire season on the border with Slovenia was simply unsustainable for Cagliari - with the players even threating a boycott before the 2012-13 season. In a desperate attempt to bring the team back to Sardinia, Cellino funded the building a makeshift stadium called the Stadio Is Arena. Up until that point only local amateur teams in Quartu Sant'Elena used the development, and from the onset the temporary nature of the terraces made of steel tubing caused serious safety concerns.

Brian McDermott faces the media to explain his 'sacking'

The Is Arenas required a safety certificate from the local authorities on a game-by-game basis and as a result many games were played behind closed doors and if it was given the all clear it was only ever able to host limited capacity of a couple of thousand. Cellino subsequently outraged authorities by openly inviting the public to attend their fixture with Roma in September 2012 despite the strict regulations. The match was ultimately abandoned and the capital club awarded all three points.

Cellino was then arrested along with the mayor of Quartu Sant'Elena Mauro Contini and public works commissioner Stefano Lilliu in February 2013 for attempted embezzlement and fraudulent misrepresentation after an investigation into the building of the Is Arenas. He was held in custody at Buoncammino prison for just over two weeks in a case that remains unresolved, while a devoted group of Cagliari fans stood outside chanting: "There's only one Cagliari president, one Cagliari president!"

In his first public appearance after being released from prison, Cellino beamed: "It's pretty good in there, anyway sooner or later you'll [journalists] all end up in prison." This term the midtable team remains in the Is Arenas with very limited attendances as renovations are being planned.

It remains to be seen whether Cellino's purchase of Leeds will go through at all, as it's improbable he will pass the Football League's fit and proper test for owners. The arrest warrant on the charges relating to the Is Arenas called him a man of "marked criminal tendencies … capable of using every kind of deception to achieve his ends". He also had two prior criminal convictions for deceiving the Italian Ministry of Agriculture out of £7.5m in 1996 and for false accounting at Cagliari in 2001.

The confusion surrounding McDermott's position at Leeds has seemingly been resolved, but should the ownership of Leeds officially pass into Cellino's hands, fans can only expect more madness to come.

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