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Our friends in… Bucharest

Whenever Charlton fans have mobilised in the past to protect the club from existential threats, we’ve usually been well supported in our efforts by the media. This time was different. We had good coverage from the redoubtable Richard Cawley in the South London Press; but such a newspaper doesn’t have the resources to dig into an apparently complex ownership issue. Time after time, reporters from national outlets talked to us, and in one case helped us behind-the-scenes; but none felt able to really get to grips with the ESI saga. The evidence of wrong-doing was still elusive, they said. We don’t have the resources to dig for evidence, they said. And, though they didn’t say this, Charlton does not generate the clicks that Newcastle or “Wayne Rooney’s Derby County” does. So they shied away from the story, which is why we embarked on this project. In the full dossiers (edited versions of which are the heart of this website) most of the material comes from our own research or from social media posts from trusted sources. No major media outlet weighed in with any revelations which took the story forward.

With one exception: Gazeta Sporturilor.

Who??

Yes, exactly. The most extensive research, the most revealing reports about, and interviews with characters in the saga so far, have been presented by a Romanian football newspaper, in two lengthy and devastating articles that had us all struggling to take in the implications of what we were reading. 

And that’s only the half of it. Because a year later, we were startled to discover that this “sport” newspaper was one of the heroes of a harrowing Oscar-nominated documentary film about the scandal of the Bucharest night-club fire in 2015, and the exposure of corruption in government which had led to more avoidable, horrible deaths of those who had survived the fire. Gazeta Sporturilor is no ordinary “sport newspaper”, and we’d like to pay our respects to them here by telling you what we learnt from them, and later about them.

Nimer goes to Bucharest

It started with tweets from a Romanian freelance football writer. By early February, having only just apparently completed the deal to buy Charlton, Tahnoon Nimer was in Bucharest, assumed to be pursuing a purchase of Dinamo, one of Romania’s top clubs. For the Charlton fanbase, still with fresh memories of Roland Duchatelet’s misconceived European network of clubs, this was disconcerting news. Did he have the money to buy two clubs? Why so soon after buying Charlton? Why Romania? Would Dinamo be a dominant partner over Charlton, as initially Standard Liège was under Roland Duchatelet before the Standard fans invited him to dégager? 

But Romania was harder to get to grips with than Belgium. The Dinamo story seemed to have no legs, but general concern about Nimer was fuelled by a photo from a Romanian tabloid showing him at dinner with a nephew of the notorious deceased dictator Nikolai Ceausescu. February turned to March and the action swung back to the UK and The Boardroom Standoff. 

But before we had really had time to absorb what had happened to ESI, along came Gazeta Sporturilor ..…

First article: “They are crooks. Their investment fund is a fake” (read the original here)

  • NImer is said to be Syrian; and other newspapers are quoted as source for the claim that he is the “illegitimate son of one of the sheikhs of the Al Nahyan family”
  • Elusive ESI director, Jonathan Heller, claims Nimer asked him for help in obtaining a South African passport
  • Heller says of Nimer’s ADBD investment fund: “..ADBD was presented to me as a private equity investment fund, but I can say with certainty that ADBD is not that. A private equity fund has money”.
  • The takeover plan “has a real-estate component” (an image was shown of the Peninsula development)
  • The Dinamo story is revived, with our first introduction to Claudiu Florica.

Second article: “Accusations of murder, scam, and hidden real estate plans” (read the original here)

  • Nimer sent GSP a document from a law firm asserting that Southall was investigated by Manchester police for trying to hire an assassin to murder Chris Farnell
  • Heller claimed he had been made “CEO” of ADBD without prior consultation and without being made an employee.
  • Heller claimed that when the EFL were dissatisfied with Nimer’s “evidence of funds (some of which GSP reproduced) Nimer refused them permission to contact the banks where his funds were supposedly held.

It was absolutely devastating stuff, but among other things it vindicated those fans who had already inspected ADBD’s website and found it highly unconvincing. It also gave us a heads-up to learn all we could about Claudiu Florica. And there was quite a lot to learn.

Looking back on the articles now, one thing shines out. GSP were the only media outlet, anywhere, to get Southall, Nimer and especially the otherwise invisible Heller to talk, extensively, and with explosive claims. Furthermore the first article at least would only have been of interest to Charlton fans. The Florica connection – of great interest to Romanian readers-  came in Part 2, but GSP did not concern itself with the lack of local “clicks” from a story about a lower league English club. For all that we understand the resource constraints on modern British journalism, we hope some of them will reflect on this fact: that the only detailed, publish -and -be- damned expose of the people who had taken over Charlton was published in a Romanian newspaper. 

And a sport newspaper too…or so we thought…

World class investigative reporting, wrapped up inside the football news?

Truth be told, we were a little wary when we first came across Gazeta Sporturilor. The UK never had a national sport newspaper, although most of us had come across L’Equipe in France. Given how the UK media were telling us about their lack of resources, we wondered how a sport-only paper in Romania could really have the financial clout to employ “investigative” journalists. But the reports stood the test of time, and we moved on to ESI2, and then this long web project. GSP’s work enriched our dossiers on Nimer, and Heller, and pointed us towards Florica’s murky past.

Over a year later, we noticed that the BBC Storyville series was to air an Oscar-nominated Romanian documentary called “Collective -Unravelling a Scandal”, and to our great surprise it appeared that the investigative journalists featured were from our very own Gazeta Sporturilor. The film showed how they uncovered a terrible scandal after the equally terrible Bucharest night-club fire in 2015. The revelations brought protesters onto the streets, chanting the name of the editor Cătălin Tolontan, and eventually provoked arrests, and the downfall of the government; and, this being Romania, brought threats to the lives of the journalists for their troubles. 

The film is a difficult but compelling watch, a quite remarkable fly-on-the-wall documentation of appalling things, but it takes a while to understand how these journalists could take this story on, when they basically work for a football paper. At one point in the film we see the latest, mind-boggling report of the scandal at the Ministry, in the middle pages, with the front and back pages featuring, as usual, all the football. It’s as if “4-4-2” would break a huge corruption story at the heart of government. But as this article on the film explains very well, the media in Romania is very different. So many big newspapers had been bought by oligarchs, and become mouthpieces. Gazeta Sporturilor had originally run accurate stories about corruption and scandal in football – and showed no favouritism, no matter which club was involved. People started to see it as the one newspaper they could actually trust. Cătălin Tolontan survived the Kolektiv saga as editor, and GSP is now owned by Ringier, the German publisher – which we hope continues to allow him free editorial rein.

So these are the guys that brought us more concrete insightful information than all the national UK media put together. We thought they were a bunch of sports journalists, and they turn out to be Romania’s modern version of the Washington Post, just with added football! Which, when you think about it, would be a better combination of content for many readers than it might seem. 🙂

Our story was just another day’s work for them. But we will try to contact them, show them this article, and express our thanks. You never know, they might have more to tell…

At the time of writing, “Collective – Unravelling a Scandal” is available on BBC iPlayer for another 5 months, but it can also be found on other sites, using the Romanian spelling, “Kolektiv”