Destabilisation, value destruction, fan misery; the Europe -wide legacy of Roland Duchatelet
14th December 2022
Roland Duchatelet is responsible for this mess.
Another Christmas approaches and with it yet another crisis for Charlton Athletic. It becomes increasingly apparent that owner Thomas Sandgaard is not able to fulfil the grand dreams that he himself instilled in the fan base when he took over. There is now talk of him selling, although who would buy it and whether they would be good owners is at this stage completely unclear. Indeed the situation is complicated by the fact that when we refer to “buying it”, the question of what “it” actually is, needs to be resolved by a serious buyer.
The problem is that much reviled past owner Roland Duchatelet is still very much in the picture. He sold the football club for £1 to a gang of dubious individuals, splitting it from the key real estate – The Valley and the training ground. He had always talked about separating the football club’s real estate from the club itself to make them discrete businesses. When he began discussions with potential buyers in 2019 they were all confronted with this approach to the sale. They might nevertheless have been ready to buy both pieces of what should be a single business, had not Duchatelet displayed a completely fact-free opinion about the value of the real estate. His valuation of the club at £1 was rational in the sense that it was, like many such clubs, loaded up with debt and unlikely to trade at a profit unless the club could somehow reach the Premier League; the problem was that he valued the stadium and training ground together at £50 million. Those close to the matter understand that he reached this valuation based on some benchmarks he obtained for prime Central London real estate. Any chartered surveyor would tell him that this is a completely wrong way to come to a realistic valuation, even if it is sensible to separate a football club and its real estate. (how sensible it actually is can be gauged by the fact that the Fan Led Review proposals would seek to ban such separations). A further depression on the valuation which Duchatelet appears to ignore is that The Valley is not zoned for residential or general commercial use, and it is most unlikely that Greenwich Council would change this zoning in the teeth of opposition from fans; even though it is now 30 years ago, nobody in the Greenwich political world has forgotten The Valley Party. As a result more than one sensible potential buyer trying to negotiate with Duchatelet in 2019 walked away; in each case it seems they might have been prepared to pay around £30 million for the club (Including its real estate) but Duchatelet insisted on £50 million. Then along came ESI, apparently happy to pay the price so long as they had six months to pay the £50 million for the real estate. And we all suspended disbelief, at least for about six weeks. The rest is history, detailed on this website.
It’s therefore important to remember that this is why we maintain an (unpublished at present) Dossier on Roland Duchatelet and keep him on our map; he sold the club to a gang of individuals who are clearly, to put it mildly, not fit or proper people to own a football club, irrespective of what the EFL Owner and Director test stipulated at the time. Indeed it is partly as a result of this episode at Charlton that the EFL somewhat tightened this test subsequently. If he remotely lived up to his own lofty claims about his personal integrity in business, he would have done elementary due diligence on these characters and refused to sell to them. Doubtless they flattered him, as they flattered us; we imagine that they pretended to admire his visionary approach to valuing football clubs, by separating the real estate.
Duchatelet of course will claim that everything was both above board and entirely rational, but fans of every club that he has owned have discovered that his view of the world is singular. Unfortunately it seems to be accompanied by an arrogance that tells him that it’s because he is a visionary and the rest of us are incapable of seeing the wisdom of his visions. Nevertheless, it seemed that this failure of the entire European football world to share his vision had led him to the conclusion that he should exit football. That ought to be good news, however as usual with Duchatelet nothing is straightforward. As our review of his current interest in football show, his exit is slow and painful for fans of just about every club he is involved in. When Duchatelet bought Charlton he came with his vision of a network of clubs which would financially support each other through vaguely specified economies of scale and sharing of resources. Let’s review the status of each of those clubs.
1. Standard Liège. This famous and storied Belgian club was the jewel in the crown, many times champions and never relegated from the top league. Gradually under his ownership things went sour, and the fans in this proud steel city became increasingly vocal in their opposition to his ownership. Famously a group of them invited themselves to his office at the stadium for a cup of tea. (View here – all in French, and dominated by “merde” 🙂 ) He sold Standard to local businessman (and then club CEO) Bruno Venanzi. According to the Standard Socios fan group with whom we built good relations, he “emptied the bank account” before he left. Their evidence for this claim seemed to us to be a little vague, but it is true that Standard dropped to the bottom of the table within months of the takeover, a situation as unimaginable in Belgium as if the same thing that happened to Manchester United three months after the Glazers took over. Fortunately they revived, but remain a shadow of the dominant force they once were in Belgium football.
2. STVV Sint-Truiden. This was Duchatelet’s first purchase, and is effectively his hometown club. In order to avoid conflict of interest when he bought Standard, he sold the club – to his “life-partner”! This was apparently all OK for the Belgian authorities, but perhaps less so for the fans, who saw him put into action his “vision” of separating the club from its stadium – he took control of Stayen stadium. We Charlton fans have of course carefully inspected this piece of real estate; commercially what he has done with it would make a lot of sense in the hands of a less eccentric owner. There is a large four-star hotel in the stadium complex, with rooms that look out on the pitch, as well as office space which brings in significant revenue. Unfortunately that revenue does not automatically go towards financing the football team; Duchatelet (sorry, his L-P) sold the club to a Japanese consortium, which pays rent to play there. Two years ago, reports emerged of a dispute between Duchatelet and the city council about the development of the South stand, which was an empty space at the time we visited. His comments on the matter are as usual full of self-pity, and exasperation with the lesser mortals who fail to buy into his vision.
“If those types think they can put me under pressure like that, then they’ve come to the wrong place”, Roland Duchâtelet continues. “I did indeed want to build the stadium and finish the complex, but that will not happen. I don’t feel like putting extra millions into this project anymore. I was willing to give this gift to the fans of STVV and the city. Elsewhere, cities pay for grandstands. Roland Duchâtelet does that here. Excuse me, he did that.”
3. AD Alcorcon
Well since you ask , Alcorcon is a suburb of Madrid. When Duchatelet bought it, at the same time as he bought Charlton, it was in the second division of the Spanish league. It was never obvious why he bought this club; the stadium has a capacity of 5000, and is rarely more than half full. It’s perhaps not surprising that we never established contact with any fan groups there, nor heard a peep from them.They seemed to tread water in the same division during his tenure, but we read that he invested in a new roof for one of the stands. In the summer of 2019 reports appeared that Duchatelet had agreed to sell the club to a consortium including David Blitzer and Josh Harris, of Crystal Place “fame”. Oddly, or perhaps not given that the transaction involves Roland Duchatelet, it appears that this was dragged out over three years and the transaction only went through finally this summer. That’s particularly unfortunate for the fans as in the meantime the club was relegated at the end of last season. So Alcorcon quietly became another example of the Roland Duchatelet legacy, whereby he leaves every club in a worse position than when he bought them.
Unlike Alcorcon, Ujpest is a storied, legendary club, respected by fans of its Hungarian rivals. Duchatelet bought it in 2011, but installed his son Roderick as the boss of the club. Roderick’s reign there has been every bit as turbulent and hostile towards fans as those at Charlton and Standard. Particularly ill judged was his decision in 2017 to change the club badge without so much as consulting anyone, and for no good reason. (you can read his reason here, but don’t expect it to make sense, and don’t blame it on Google Translate – it clearly didn’t make sense to any fans). Organised fan groups embarked on protracted boycotts which cut into already mediocre attendances. On the pitch the 11 year reign has brought little cheer. Ujpest has won the Hungarian Cup three times, but it is not an important competition, not generally yielding any route to European competitions. Only once has Ujpest finished in the top 3 in the league, under Duchatelet’s reign, and twice it has finished 13th in a 16 club league. In January 2022 it was announced that Roderick Duchatelet had agreed the sale of the club to local businessman Zoltan Kovacs; but in July Kovacs announced that the necessary finance had not been raised due to the global effects on local financing possibilities. So once again, the Duchatelet family’s exit from football is protracted and complicated.
5. Carl-Zeiss Jena
Roland Duchatelet bought into this famous East German club at the same time as he bought Charlton and Alcorcon. It was a big name in East German football enjoying European clashes with Swansea among others, but like nearly all the Eastern clubs, it struggled badly after the Wende and plays in the 4th division, which is regionalised. But here Duchatelet could only gain a 49% share, by buying the commercial part of the club. This meant that the Club owners (the fans) were able to politely tell him where to stick his network idea. He seemed happy enough to instead concentrate on “doing a Stayen”, building up the commercial elements of the stadium, including a hotel. Having visited “Paradies” we felt that his plan was something that could really benefit the club, as it also involved covering all four stands (currently only one covered stand overlooks an otherwise open ground with a running track). But of course he still had to annoy everyone by announcing that the Ultras would have to re-locate from their position on the “south Curve” because that was where the hotel was going to be. In March this year Duchatelet announced that a new investor was buying 45% of Spielbetrieb GmbH, the commercial part fo the club, with Duchatelet retaining 50% and assuming a more “passive” role (according to him).
A Duchatelet exit is never smooth and never serene.
That’s the rather grim conclusion one has to make after studying the worrying similarities in the stories of each of these clubs – and potentially the next chapter at Charlton too. He has claimed in a recent interview in Belgium (paywalled) that “When you close out life’s gains and losses, the key question is, have I been more happy than unhappy? Obviously it could have been better, but I still managed to keep myself and my immediate neighbors reasonably happy. I have always actively paid attention to that, including by stopping what made me unhappy, such as football and politics.”
if this were a normal person speaking, you might assume that this person will take all reasonable opportunities to get out of football as quickly as possible, and given his wealth, not to be too dogmatic about the value of the sale. But Roland Duchatelet is not a normal person, and sadly the experience at all of these clubs indicates that negotiations with him – or nominally his son – are likely to once again be protracted and frustrating for potential buyers, particularly if they are normal people with good business intentions. Can we do anything about it? Well it is clear from his various comments over the years at different clubs that he sees himself as a brave visionary staving off unwarranted attacks from the great unwashed. So it’s possible that demonstrations or intimidating visits to Sint-Truiden may be counter-productive. However it’s also clear that he has a massive ego, and certainly wants to be admired at least by the higher echelons of Belgian society whom he might deem to have sufficient intelligence to appreciate all his great deeds.
“Closing out “ Duchatelet’s gains and losses from football.
Duchatelet likes to espouse to journalists his “philosophy” of life (see the example above). Often he likes to leave the impression that he is rich enough that he doesn’t need to worry about money. The big mistake is to take him literally, especially regarding his involvement in football. He neither likes nor understands the game, still less its “customers”. Anyone who works in business measures their personal performance by the numbers. Duchatelet regards himself as a business genius. Therefore he will seek to “close out” any business involvement with a personal profit. His behaviour suggests that he regards such profit as an entitlement, and any suggestion of exiting graciously, cutting win-win deals, or accepting failed investments, is, as Mr Spock would conclude, irrational. Can we make any conclusions about his personal close-out at the various clubs?
- Standard. The Socios certainly believe he left with a profit. There are dark mutterings that he had third-party ownership clauses in the sale contracts of some Standard stars – although we never saw convincing evidence of that. Meanwhile on the pitch Standard is a shadow of its former self
- STVV. The stadium itself has become a business hub for him, as well as the place (with after match “dancing”) where he can indulge his ego as Sint-Truiden’s Mr Big.The football club belongs to someone else, who pays him rent (just as now at Charlton). On the (artificial) pitch STVV bumbles along much as before.
- Alcorcon. He built a stand, made a profit on some players such as Serbian international keeper Marko Dmitrovic, who briefly played for Charlton, and then exited. But taking three years to close out with Blitzer/Harris may or may not have optimised his profits. Meanwhile his final gift on the pitch was relegation to the Third Division.
- Ujpest. It’s hard to see how he has made a profit up to now, and the sale has fallen through. But doubtless he will blame all that on poor Roderick! Meanwhile on the pitch a legendary name is an underperforming shadow of its former self, similar to Standard.
- Jena. “50+1” has limited the damage. He cannot ‘do a Stayen” in the sense that he does not and will not own the football club in any form. He still expects to be involved on the commercial side, so we can expect the fans and the City Council to encounter regular future frustrations. On the pitch? Still in the regional 4th Division.
- and then there is Charlton; a club separated from the beloved Valley and the training ground, which he retained after selling the club itself to a gang of villains. When he bought Charlton it was a Championship club, now it faces possible relegation to the 4th Division – lower than it has ever been.
So when we close out our summary of Duchatelet’s involvement in football we see a trail of destabilisation, value destruction and fan misery ( aka customer dissatisfaction) inflicted on football clubs across Europe, which may or may not have made him significant profit. It’s not clear how he could have been stopped – the Fan-Led Review plans, fully implemented would not have stopped him purchasing Charlton, although they would have prevented his £1 sale. There is no Europe – wide agreement on these issues of course. Germany has better protection so Jena have suffered less than the others.
What then can be done? We’d say the best result for football is for a light to be shone on his reign of incompetence across Europe. We hope that our blogpost can provide the background work for journalists in all the affected countries to shine that light on him. He hates that. It might just help him to conclude that at 75 (an age at which he once said that he was statistically scheduled to pass away ) that it’s better to get out now and enjoy himself in a way that does not further upset thousands of innocent European citizens who just want their favourite football club to enjoy stability.