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Sep 22, 2010

Mysterious motivation at Vitesse Arnhem

With a goalless draw against NAC Breda last weekend, Vitesse Arnhem won their first point under their new owner Merab Jordania. The former president of the Georgian Football Federation is the first foreign investor in Dutch football, keen to benefit from the Netherlands' renowned youth development culture.

His aim is to bring young foreign talents to the club and let them prosper before selling them on for a significant profit. It is a great idea in principle, but whether Vitesse are really the best vehicle to reap the fruits of his investment remains very much to be seen: the club is riddled with debt.

Once respected as one of the frontrunners in the early years of Dutch football, the arrival of chairman Karel Aalbers in 1984 helped the club soar from the bottom of the First Division on an Icarus-like voyage to the sun.

On borrowed money, Vitesse surged into the Eredivisie and secured European Cup football during the '90s as Aalbers managed to build a network of sponsors, who also financed a multi-purpose, 25,000 capacity stadium. The GelreDome, famous for its retractable roof and pitch, opened in 1998 but became a financial disaster in the following years as the mortgage on the building loans could not be paid.

At the same time, the club ran into similar trouble when it could not make the repayments on a multi-million loan from energy company NUON. The calculated sale of European top scorer Nickos Machlas for €40 million to balance the books never materialised. Aalbers was arrested over fraud allegations, while NUON fired one of its board members for bankrolling the club.

The city council and some wealthy supporters have had to step in to save the club and stadium on several occasions in recent years and even the Gelderland provincial council had to chip in.

The GelreDome is just too big for the club and the stadium is barely able to survive as a multiplex venue as Vitesse need the facilities every other weekend. That inflexibility of the main tenants makes it very difficult to stage a musical, a convention or a series of concerts for several days in a row.

The city of Arnhem was very well aware that the bankruptcy of one - either the club or the stadium - would also mean the end of the other, and two years ago the city council had to agree on a debt clearance of Vitesse, in which it lost about €20 million.

But still the club kept losing money and, in 2004 Maasbert Schouten, who made his fortune in consumer credit banking with AFAB, stepped into buy up enough shares to become Vitesse's new chairman. Schouten sold the club to Jordania in August 2010 for a reported €4 million without consulting anyone.

At a hilarious press conference, Schouten seemed to be more than happy to get rid of his shares, with the club heading into insolvency once again. The ex-chairman then claimed that the Dutch title and a subsequent Champions League ticket were to be expected in three years' time under the new owner in an ill-fated attempt to win over doubters of the deal.

Jordania, a former director of Dinamo Tiblisi, was pitched as a billionaire who had grown to love Vitesse in less than three weeks. The hyperbolic presentation exploded in Schouten's face when reporters dug into Jordania's history to find some jail time and a story in which he allegedly pulled a gun in a board room.

For a billionaire, Jordania had remained quite anonymous but, when a story filtered through about how he had been arrested in 2003 over a tax issue and again in 2005 for transferring €837,000 from Georgian football club Dinamo Tbilisi to a private account in Switzerland, it became clear that, despite his claims that the allegations were politically motivated, questions needed to be asked about the man behind the desk.

The Georgian investor could afford to buy the club, but he would never be able to pump the balance up to the standards of Dutch football's title challengers, although Jordania himself never suggested he would.

The negotiations for the takeover had started on the night of the World Cup final, but only finished two weeks before the summer transfer window closed. In the meantime, Vitesse had sold players but not bought any for the start of the season and had a squad of about 15, mainly young, players.

In the remaining two weeks of the transfer window, players' agents flocked to Arnhem, where they thought that a pot of gold was waiting for them to unload their portfolio. Several names went through the media: Marko Pantelic, Afonso Alves, Kaka Kaladze and Rivaldo, which stirred up season ticket sales. The only actual transfer was for Stromgodset IF's 20-year-old striker Marcus Pedersen, with several other players signing on loan.

It is widely reported that unofficial players' agent Vladi Lemic, a friend of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, is one of Jordania's backers. Two years ago, he was banned from PSV's training ground, De Herdgang, by director Jan Reker, when his influence within the squad became unhealthy, according to the club. The existing relationship between PSV and Chelsea came to an end, but this August stories first began surfacing that Chelsea were looking to forge an affiliation with Vitesse.

Lemic certainly appears to be installing his players in the Eredivisie, several of whom are lurking in the shadows of Chelsea's training ground. Slobodan Rajkovic, Matej Delac and Nemanja Matic are the first Blues talents to move to Arnhem, while Lemic-boy Ismail Aissati came from Ajax.

Where it leaves Vitesse in the long term is unclear. For the time being, Jordania needs to spend millions on the club's many debts and a structural €2 million deficit on the annual budget to keep it afloat.

The average attendance has dropped a quarter since the start of this season and has not recovered. Talented Netherlands international goalkeeper Piet Velthuizen signed for La Liga newcomers Hercules after he had negotiated with Jordania about a new contract, despite the Georgian claiming he would do anything to keep him at Vitesse.

Jordania has stated his intentions for Vitesse to compete at the top of the Eredivisie in three years - though heavier financial backing will surely be required. In a recent interview, he denied that Abramovich is involved in helping him achieve his goal, but did claim that the funds of the Russian tycoon Alexander Chigirinsky are available to him.

What mystifies everyone is how Jordania can make a profit from Vitesse as no one has ever earned a penny in Dutch football before. The transfer market has collapsed, while the value of television rights has dropped significantly. In Arnhem, the fans are not sure what to think of Jordania, but they are happy that Vitesse appear financially safe for the moment.


• You can also follow Dutch expert Ernst Bouwes @TotalfootballNL

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