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The world has been turned upside down and Sunderland AFC are not immune from the turmoil

The billionaire co-owners of Sunderland AFC are drawn from a global elite that has been shaken to its core in the last few days. As Abramovich is set to sell Chelsea, what are the implications for our club’s future?

Always in the shadows... Sunderland and AS Monaco director Juan Sartori pictured in the background with AS Monaco’s Russian Vice President and CEO Oleg Petrov (L) Prince’s Albert II of Monaco (2nd L) at the match between AS Monaco and Reims at at the “Louis II” stadium in Monaco, on February 27, 2022
| Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images

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Oh, to have been a fly on the wall last weekend as Sunderland AFC and AS Monaco director Juan Sartori sat in the royal box at the Stade Louis II with his wife Ekaterina, and Oleg Petrov, the club’s Russian vice-president to watch the Ligue 1 match against Stade Reims on Sunday. I’m sure the names Charlie Methven and Stewart Donald did not feature in the conversation quite as prominently as those of Vladimir Putin or Roman Abramovich.

Reims arrived late for the match, the visitors leaving the Monaco side standing alone on the pitch for five minutes before they emerged in a protest, according to the French website So Foot, against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Reims club president, Jean-Pierre Caillot, told Amazon Prime:

I have always considered that a football match was a party, but given what is happening in Ukraine… I’m aware that this is a symbolic action but we must help protest however we can.

Once on the pitch, the players of both sides observed a hastily-organised show of solidarity with the people impacted by Putin’s military aggression. The match proceeded and Reims came away with a 2-1 victory.

The invasion of Ukraine undertaken by the Russian dictator, aimed at neutralising a neighbouring country and preventing it once and for all from following a path away from corruption and oligarchy and towards freedom and democracy, was rapidly reshaping the world as we know it.

Ukrainian Civilians Prepare Supplies In Kiev
People fill sandbags to build barricades on Maidan square, March 3, 2022, in Kiev, Ukraine.
Photo By Diego Herrera/Europa Press via Getty Images

The response from the economic powerhouses of the West was swift; the weapons of financial warfare were deployed deeply and decisively. It has left Russia’s economy reeling and many of those whose fortunes had been made in the anarchy of the post-Soviet sell-off of state assets, and who sought protection by serving whims of the kleptocrat in the Kremlin for much of this century, isolated.

As many Sunderland supporters will no doubt be aware, our club’s co-owner is married to the billionaire daughter of the former Russian pot-ash magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev, President of AS Monaco. Sartori’s host on Saturday, Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre Grimaldi, the Crown Prince of Monaco, is a business partner of the Rybolovlevs in the Monégasques.

Albert was at that point weighing up his options as to whether or not it was prudent for the Mediterranean tax-haven to join the EU, US, and other western economies in sanctioning the oligarchs, whose wealth was been dependent on their loyalty to the Russian dictator for the past two decades.

In the world of sport, FIFA and UEFA have banned Russian clubs and the Russian national teams from their competitions, the men’s Champions League Final has been moved from St Petersburg to Paris, the women’s team won’t play at this summer’s Euros in England, and Russian Paralympic athletes have been banned from the Winter Games in China. In sailing, Russian and Belarussian competitors have been banned, although Rybololev’s own yacht is still competing as it sails under a Monaco flag.

Within days of the invasion, the football world – and its finances – have been turned on its head as the man who started the Premier League’s spending spree, Roman Abramovich, decided first to recuse himself of custodianship of Chelsea FC and then to sell up altogether, taking advantage of the UK’s Conservative government's generous 30-day window for those Putin allies facing sanctions to offload their assets.

Putin’s pattern of brutally repressive behaviour can be traced back to Chechnya, through Georgia, to the bombing of Syrian civilians, the annexation of Crimea and covert takeover of eastern Ukraine – not to mention his corruption and links to organised crime, disinformation campaigns and networks of oligarchs whose wealth has been protected by the Kremlin and laundered through properties and other assets in London.

TOPSHOT-FBL-ENG-LCUP-CHELSEA-LIVERPOOL-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CONFLICT Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

France 24 reports that Monaco’s Prince Albert has now made his move, joining usually neutral Switzerland – where much of the Rybolovlev family is based and where Sartori was schooled – in imposing sanctions on Russian money in his Principality, although it seems unlikely that his friend Rybolovlev will be a direct target. He long ago divested himself of direct involvement in Russian business or politics, preferring to live the high life in the world’s most exclusive addresses and on the world’s most luxurious superyachts.

Nevertheless, despite reportedly having turned away from Russia in recent years since selling his stake in the Uralkali, Papa Rybolovlev’s name appears prominently on a list of people targeted for sanctions in the Putin Accountability Act currently being considered by the United States Congress.

In 2018, he was named on a US Treasury Department list of Putin allies along with the three oligarchs he sold his business to in a unique private deal in 2010, Suleiman Kerimov, Filaret Galchev and Alexander Nesis.

His property dealings with disgraced former POTUS Donald Trump – he bought his Palm Beach mansion for $95 million in 2008 – raised eyebrows, ensuring that the “very stable genius” was able to stay just about solvent by making a $54 million profit on the deal only a few years after buying the house.

Trump, it was reported in 2020, was reportedly keen not to have this Russian connection exposed at the time, and the incident has lingered in the background ever since – suspicions compounded by Trump and Rybololev’s overlapping trips during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, which the Russian insisted was pure coincidence.

That Trump’s election to the White House was aided and abetted by the Russian state’s interference and information warfare has been proven beyond doubt, but it is very clear that no wrongdoing has ever been proven in the personal connection between vendor and buyer in the Palm Beach property deal.


The relevance to SAFC? Little discussed, but potentially of huge significance

The link between fertiliser and food is intrinsic, one cannot exist without the other, but why does any of this matter to a Sunderland supporter – beyond that fact that the wife of one of our owners will, eventually, inherit part of the Rybololev fortune of over $6 billion?

The big foreign money behind Sunderland AFC’s ownership is a fascinating and little-discussed aspect of the ongoing saga at the club, but it is arguably of much greater importance to our future as a club than exactly when we see the backs of the two Englishmen whose names motivate such ire on Wearside.

Stewart Donald, we should remember, was only brought into the deal to buy the club from Ellis Short because it was feared that Juan Sartori might struggle to pass the owners and directors' test. Charlie Methven is the link between the original Madrox partners – he is Sartori’s mate.

When questioned about why Sartori had been gifted 20% of the club for £1 on those infamous Roker Report podcasts back in 2018, Donald said it was because Juan could bring in the big money investors further down the line.

We understand that Juan Sartori, whose shareholding in Sunderland is held by a company based in the US Virgin Islands tax-haven, is a very close family friend of the Louis-Dreyfus clan.

It was he who introduced Kyril Louis-Dreyfus to the opportunity of investing his money and his passion for football in Sunderland AFC in 2020, so in that sense, Sartori has served his purpose and it’s no surprise he is the only one of the Madrox three that has taken a seat on Louis-Dreyfus’ executive board.

Sartori is the link between AS Monaco, Sunderland AFC, Donald, Methven, and Rybololev. He’s the quiet man of the group, rarely giving English language interviews and hardly ever quoted regarding his intentions about football.

Big questions, therefore, remain as yet unanswered about what his role is in running Sunderland AFC, whether his 20% is working with Louis-Dreyfus’s 41% to control the club, and where his priorities lie.

In simple terms, what comes first when it comes to his time and expertise, Monte Carlo or Monkwearmouth? Perhaps once the fan groups report back from their meeting with the chairman yesterday we will be given a clear answer.

Sunderland v Charlton Athletic - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

All of this background is pretty well established and doesn’t hint at any obvious and immediate risks to our club.

But, what is undoubted is that we are entering a new era in the ownership of, and transparency around, football clubs. The Abramovich-fuelled era of excess is, hopefully, drawing to a close. Where the money in football comes from, the ethics of how it was earned, and the implications of how it is spent, is going to come under increasing scrutiny from fans, authorities and media.

Yesterday, the Guardian reported that the Premier League have belatedly moved towards the implementation of a human-rights compliant owners and directors test, after meeting with Amnesty International – albeit after the Saudi Arabian horse has well and truly bolted.

We are not yet at the point of banning states, or those closely associated with state actors, or politicians from other countries, from owning European football clubs. But the mood in favour of greater scrutiny, accountability, and fan involvement is growing in the UK and beyond.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus is a young man born into inherited wealth, as is his brother and Sunderland AFC director Maurice. That’s not his fault, and he’s doing what you, I, and any other football-loving person would do if we had – by no more than the lottery of birth – acquired a massive trust fund, contacts in the game across Europe, an expensive education, and a desire to build something for ourselves in the world.

This article is not intended to be a hatchet job, a warning shot, or make unnecessary trouble – there’s enough of that around already. But there are some facts that maybe not every Sunderland supporter is entirely aware of that are important to be mindful of in the current climate.


The Louis-Dreyfus Company, and Sunderland’s long term

We know that shortly before the deal that saw Swiss heir Kyril Louis-Dreyfus buy that “controlling stake” in our club in 2021, the family firm – the venerable 171-year-old Louis-Dreyfus Company (LDC) – made a historic move.

In November 2020, as rumours of the KLD deal for Sunderland began to surface, Kyril’s mother, Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, decided to sell a 45% stake in the global commodities trading giant to the state investment fund of Abu Dhabi, the first time that outsiders had been allowed to buy into the business.

This, it was said, would help MLD to pay for the $1bn loan she took out to buy shares in the company from other family members and would allow the United Arab Emirates greater food security as it took a huge chunk of one of the “big four” world traders in agricultural products. She took a $428m cash dividend from LDC that year.

These figures make the £30-odd million her kids – shepherded by the family consigliere Igor Levin – paid for a chunk of an ailing English football club look like pocket change. Since then, the pandemic has helped transform MLD’s financial position, the Bloomberg reporting earlier this year that her net worth has risen to over $3.3 billion.

We have to be very clear about this – the UAE has a chequered human rights record, to say the least. Amnesty International reports, for example, that a UK court “found that head of government Mohammed bin Rashed Al Maktoum had abducted and detained two of his daughters”, and yet his son in law owns Manchester City and its state airline sponsors both Arsenal’s stadium and the men’s FA Cup.

LDC itself is generally seen as a decent example of a massive global capitalist enterprise, certainly in comparison to some other corporations. In 2020, it was accused by Swiss advocacy organisation Public Eye of both environmental destruction and workers' rights violations in its Brazillian orange plantations, an accusation that the company refuted vehemently. In 2022, it committed to ending deforestation in its supply chain in the next three years.

None of this is anything near the atrocities carried out by either the Saudi Arabian or Russian states in their various wars of aggression or their murders of dissidents at home and on foreign soil.

Nothing stated here should be taken as whataboutery or the drawing of false equivalency with goings-on at other football clubs in our region, in England, or the rest of Europe. But the reputation of our club is now inexorably tied to that of LDC and Union Agricultural Group, Sartori’s own commodities trading empire.

Brazil Frost May Crimp Orange-Juice Industry Margins
Brazilian oranges, just one of the commodities that the Louis-Dreyfus Company trades

When Messrs Donald and Methven finally depart the scene – repaying the remaining proportion of the £20 million loan Madrox took out of the club along the way – we will all breathe a collective sigh of relief and perhaps have a drink or two to celebrate the end of this torturous and rather tedious saga. Only those who’ve sought to build their brands on the back of fan discontent have any interest in their continued presence at our club.

Perhaps then, as a fanbase, we can focus our attention on ensuring that the fundamental reforms to football governance recommended by the Crouch Report – especially the Golden Share (see Brentford) and Shadow Board (see Liverpool) – are implemented immediately at Sunderland AFC and then put on a statutory footing by the UK Government as soon as possible.

If the Louis-Dreyfus family and Senator Sartori are serious about being custodians of our club, if they are serious about reconnecting the club with its fanbase and deriving its philosophy from the people of our city, there can be no reason for delay. They can do this tomorrow. The templates are there, it just needs them to act.

We should demand these changes as a minimum. In order to protect our club from the blowback from the forces of global capital and geopolitical upheavals that it is undoubtedly, although thankfully tangentially, embroiled in, we need this day-to-day input and long-term guarantee of our future.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, we could somehow collectively get together the £1.5 million it would cost to buy at least 5% of the club from that brokerage and get ourselves a seat on the board. That way an elected Sunderland fan would be around the table when investment plans are drawn up, season ticket prices decided, and managerial recruitment processes implemented.

We have a Supporters Trust. But if we are to be so bold as to actually go for it, it is up to us, the members, to instruct it to act on our behalf.

Who knows who else might be in the market for some shares?


As a weird quirk of history, the Haas F1 team that was embroiled in a sponsorship row with Rich Energy a few years back, this week looks like it will lose Rybololev’s former company Uralkali as its main sponsor. The Haas driver Nikita Mazepin is the son of the largest private shareholder in Uralkali, and faces being banned from competing in the UK under the sporting sanctions.


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