x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Ali Syed has sights on raising Racing Santander's profile

But whether the colourful Bahrain-based Indian businessman, who took over the club in January, will be successful, only time will tell.

Ahsan Ali Syed, the club's new owner, waves to the fans.
Ahsan Ali Syed, the club's new owner, waves to the fans.

Top-flight Spanish football has seen several surprise takeovers this season. The Qatari Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani bought Malaga for a reported €36 million (Dh190m) last June and, after a troubled start, has seen the funds he has lavished on players starting to pay off.

Malaga have surged up the league table thanks to the performances of recent acquisitions such as Martin Demichelis, Julio Baptista and Jose Rondon, the striker.

Last month Getafe were bought by the Dubai-based Royal Emirates Group of Companies for a figure reported to be between €70-90m, though there are questions whether the deal has been finalised, and the new owners have yet to reveal their vision for the Madrid club.

In January, Ahsan Ali Syed, an Indian businessman, purchased Racing Santander, the 98-year-old club who are 14th in the all-time Spanish league table.

Most of the 16,000 faithful who every other week watch Racing, in a stadium overlooking Spain's northern Atlantic coast, rejoiced at a wealthy outside investor without a track record in sport saving their club from administration.

Then reports emerged questioning the Bahrain-based entrepreneur's integrity and past business deals in Australia and Malaysia which allegedly defrauded people of US$100m (Dh367m).

The Sydney Morning Herald said that Ali Syed had "duped victims into paying millions of dollars to obtain loans that never happen", while others have referred to him as "the Bernie Madoff [the jailed American former stock broker] of India".

"The allegations were all false and I have defended them," Ali Syed told The National. "Nothing has been proved against me, there has been no material evidence against me. I have given people enough chances to present allegations against me in court, but this has not happened. If I have done something legally wrong, challenge me legally. Take legal proceedings against me."

The Hyderabad-born businessman stoutly defended his innocence. "I have recently filed a case in Bahrain against the accusers because I am legally right and they are legally wrong," he said.

Ali Syed, who flies to most games in his own private plane with his name on the side, is savouring the ride as the Primera Liga's most intriguing owner.

"It's been exciting and I've enjoyed every minute," he said. "I'm taking one step at a time."

Why invest in football and in Santander?

"I like sport and I like football."

Which team? Which players?

"None in particular. I used to watch the English Premier League. I'm also a fan of Formula One and like horse racing, too. I own a couple of stables, one a very big one in Normandy and there's a smaller one in Bahrain where I am based.

"It has always been a dream to own a football club. The opportunity came my way to buy Racing and I took it."

Ali Syed said bankers representing Racing approached him with a proposal to invest in the indebted Primera Liga club. Racing owed €14.5m to the Spanish treasury, not a vast amount of debt for a top-flight football club in a major league, but the debts were being chased and Racing do not enjoy the same credit lines as bigger Spanish clubs.

"It fitted with my aspirations and business ideas," Ali Syed said.

Racing commissioned the auditors Deloitte and the Swiss bank Credit Suisse to report on the Indian's financial liquidity.

"They confirmed that his company had made $124m profits the previous year," said Miguel-Angel Revilla, the president of Cantabria, which oversees the football club in the region's biggest city, with a population of 200,000.

Ali Syed invested €3.5m from the outset and agreed to pay €1.4m to the Spanish tax authorities every month until Racing's debt is clear. The club's staff and players, who often had to worry about their salaries being paid on time, were understandably pleased.

The affable Ali Syed was happy to be seen by the public and he cut a gloriously different figure in the usually staid directors' box.

The tradition in Spain is for the respective club presidents to sit side by side and images of overweight, suited, 60-something men take up too much airtime because they do nothing but shake hands at the start and end of the game.

Ali Syed broke the mould and drabness by wearing a green Racing scarf and sunglasses. He high-fived his entourage and cheered wildly when Racing scored, like a courtside A lister at a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game.

"I am just being myself and being natural," he said. "I come from a country where we express emotions and happiness. Why should I not enjoy it? If the owner is not the biggest fan, then what is the point of being an owner?"

Some embraced his style, others ignored him, others were more circumspect, but while some were keen to speculate that he would bankroll the club to glory, Ali Syed plays down such talk.

"We need to be realistic," he said. "I don't want people to prejudge, but our aims are to play attractive football and to finish higher than last season."

Racing finished 16th last term, the position they were in when Ali Syed took over. The new owner sanctioned the dismissal of Miguel Angel Portugal as coach and brought in Marcelino, a popular former coach. Racing were ninth in the table, before last night's games in the Primera Liga, and consecutive wins - 3-2 at Hercules on Sunday and 2-1 at home to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night, have virtually erased any relegation fears.

Giovanni dos Santos scored twice against Hercules. With Ali Syed's endorsement, the former Barcelona midfielder was signed on loan from Tottenham Hotspur and has been a success, scoring several crucial winners.

"I want to make Racing a self-sustainable club over a period of five years," Ali Syed said. "It is difficult, but not impossible. I also want every player to go on to the field to enjoy himself, stress free about the financial situation at the club."

But the financial stresses have not yet gone away. Wages have still at times been paid late since he took over and it has been suggested that he does not have the confidence of everyone at the club.

Would he be prepared to support the club financially if they were not in a position to be self-sustainable?

"The club will require an external source of support [because it doesn't break even]. We are more than happy to continue that," he said.

So how does a loss-making unfashionable club from a relative outpost become self-sustainable?

"We have to look at different approaches," he said. "We may expand the arrangements of the best seating or eventually the stadium [El Sardinero seats 22,222].

"We will also look for more sponsors and we want to increase the revenue by making the club more popular in the Far East and Middle East.

"And of course India, which has 1.2 billion people. If we could attract even five per cent of those people then that would be an achievement."

Football giants including Manchester United have tried to make inroads into the cricket-mad Indian market with sponsorship tie-ups, but is it achievable to promote a routinely lower mid-table Spanish side?

"Racing will not be Man United or Barca or Madrid, but we need to begin somewhere," Ali Syed said.

"I am happy with our approach. And if we are successful then it will be a good achievement for myself and for Racing. I understand that popularity comes from entertaining and winning football, from results. To promote my team, I need the team to perform."

Becoming a winning team in a league stocked with wealthier clubs is not easy if money is not lavished on better players.

"It's a challenge but it doesn't mean that we have to be aggressive in spending," Ali Syed said. "Some big names have spent a lot of money on players and are still not satisfied with the outcome. We need to provide an ambience and co-operation among the players so there is a team spirit, so the players work like a family.

"The mentality of each of them on the field should match. Without communicating they should be able to read each others' minds. I think we can produce a successful team.

"I will employ the right talent so that the club can spot the best talents. The coach needs to be a footballer by mind and a manager by mind. I am a manager by mind, but I'm not a footballer by heart. I have also kept the existing president Francisco Pernia. He is doing a great job."

Racing have not been adverse to promoting home grown talents. Eight of their first-team squad were born in Cantabria. Another, the outrageously talented Sergio Canales, 20, was sold to Real Madrid before the start of this season and has barely figured at the Bernabeu. Would a future Canales stay at Racing?

"The management today is different and they think differently. If I had been at the club I would not have allowed Canales to go to Real Madrid, definitely not," Ali Syed said.

Racing are not the first team he has been associated with in an effort to buy a club; he was linked to Blackburn Rovers, the English Premier League side, in 2009.

"I was very serious about buying Blackburn," he said. "But circumstances did not permit the sale. When the time is right I will come forward with the various reasons why I withdrew my interest in Blackburn."

So where does Ali Syed make his money?

"I am a student of Karl Marx," he said, "and I'm trying to have a diversified portfolio of investments. I invest my own money."

Where did the money come from?

"Real estate and various investments. I am very young [38] and I have fortunately been successful so far. I have also taken my chances on the stock exchange sometimes."

What does the future hold?

"Progress and success for Racing - Inshallah."

Not everybody is as convinced about that as Racing's flamboyant owner, but he intends to prove his critics wrong.