There’s a level of passion heating up around Hillsborough. The expectations of Hafiz Mammadov’s new ownership of Sheffield Wednesday feels practically tropical after spending far too long warming our hands on the five bar heater of football .
Then why do I feel a cold draft on my enthusiasm?
As a Sheffield Wednesday fan, the new ownership is the best we could hope for. In terms of continuity purposes, Milan Mandaric will stay on as Chairman and Mammadov will be the hands off multi-millionaire investor. The Azerbaijani businessman, like Mandaric, genuinely seems to be a football fan and he cares about the clubs he has invested in. Mammadov owns Azerbaijan team Baku FC and French Ligue 2 side Lens FC. He also has shares in Atletico Madrid and FC Porto.
Baku FC was created in Azerbaijan by Mammadov’s company, Baghlan Group, as a social enterprise scheme. The club even gives away season tickets to local children who cannot afford to pay for the entrance fee. (This was according the company’s website which has been unfortunately taken down).
Mandaric himself said ‘He (Mammadov) is a true football man and I have no doubt whatsoever I am handing over control to someone with a real passion for the game and the ability to carry on the work I started.’
Looking at his success with Lens this all seems to be true. Lens are eerily similar to The Owls, being a historically successful club but over recently years have failed to find substantial investment and suffered relegation through a series of poor choices. The French press even call them a ‘sleeping giant’. It’s easy to see why Mammadov felt an affinity towards us.
In one season and allegedly £20 million investment, Lens finished second in Ligue 2 behind Metz. It’s enough to warm the cockles of any football fan’s heart.
I’m sorry to say that my cockles remain on the tepid side.
When football fans look at ownership of clubs there are varying degrees of shadiness. There appears to be a level of what football fans will accept for success. When the Mammadov deal was struck I admit to thinking ‘we’re rich’ and celebrating with a big jug of Pimms.
In the past few weeks there have been sparks flying that have concerned me. First of all Lens FC had their promotion suspended until the league has clear financial guarantees for the season ahead. Allegedly £8 million was supposed to have been transferred to Lens by Mammadov, but the transaction was completed on a bank holiday, which surpassed the French league’s deadline. This payment has now been settled. Nothing too concerning but the rumours about whether Mamma was stretching himself too thinly financially, began to circulate.
Then the tug of love talk began from Lens President Gervais Martel, who announced to the footballing community that Mammadov had assured him that Wednesday were third in his affections behind Lens and Atletico Madrid. Whether ‘affections’ translates to investment is unclear.
On the 9th July 2014 rumours started to fly around that Mamma had been arrested in Azerbaijan. He released a statement shortly after saying,
‘It seems that false and malicious speculation over my situation is being used with the aim to create confusion and doubt over my financial holdings and commitments. There are no grounds for the allegations made by the press. I will take all necessary legal actions against whoever has initiated these false rumours with the aim to harm my family and me.”
Only two days later The Owls new shirt sponsor is revealed and unsurprisingly it is ‘Azerbaijan Land of Fire’. The same sponsor on all Mammadov’s teams. This is where my moral conscience starts to get blisters from standing too close to the fire.
In less than five years we’ve gone from highlighting a Children’s Hospital charity across the player’s chests to promoting a regime of dubious morality.
Mammadov has very close links with the government of Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan. The President has been described as a ‘man who combines the callousness of the classic dictator with the appearance and language of an aspiring sales executive who’s read one too many management manuals.’
There have been human rights allegations against the country for many years now including vote rigging in the Presidential elections and unfairly jailing political activists and critical journalists. There were also forced evictions to ensure that the country looked its best when they played host to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Hafiz Mammadov’s company, Baghlan Group, who specialise in transportation and construction of transport infrastructure, has been accused of monopolising government contracts through preferential treatment. There appears to be a certain level of nepotism from the Transport Minister Ziya Mammadov’s sons (no relation) who are business partners with members of Hafiz Mammadov’s family. The links between the two are so close the Baghlan Group’s website is allegedly registered at the same address as the Transport Ministry.
The word corruption is uttered but quickly dismissed. However it’s hard to argue against preferential treatment when our own government can be seen as dubious in it’s dealing with the Royal Mail sell off where many close acquaintances seemingly profited from the undervaluing of the service.
The human rights issues from the Land of Fire leaves me me cold. I want to be that football fan who rejoices that the team may at last be successful. It filled me with such hope when I read about Baku FC and it’s social conscience towards the local poorer fans. The passion is burning bright in S6 but are we being blinded by the smoke?