From the moment he took control of Cardiff City Football Club in 2010, it was clear that Malaysian tycoon Vincent Tan wanted to do things his way.
As the man who way back when introduced the McDonald’s Big Mac to Malaysia, and built a multibillion-dollar business empire on the back of it, he must have known a fair bit about culture clashes and how to sell an alien idea to customers hooked on a certain way of doing things.
But this was a Welsh team playing in England, a passionate and proud capital city club playing in the professional league of another nation which until relatively recently considered soccer not so much a business but a community project.
For better or worse, tradition is not so much stamped on the DNA of British soccer, it is the DNA of British soccer.
It is also an area of operation where the bulk of the people who pay at the gate definitely do not consider themselves “customers”, but fans. If a customer doesn’t like what a shop is selling or the price tag, they take their custom elsewhere. A fan doesn’t, a fan is for life.
So when Tan changed the club’s badge and colours not long after he took over, the negative response was hardly a shock. Likewise, it didn’t come as much of a surprise when he was forced to change them both back again after a sustained campaign of opposition.
Then Tan sacked Malky Mackay, the Scottish manager who had earned almost legendary status among the club’s fans by taking Cardiff into the footballing nirvana that is the English Premier League, and a cup final to boot.
An unsavoury scandal over allegedly racist and homophobic text messages sent by Mackay to his player recruitment chief, Iain Moody, left Tan with no option but it is clear that there was bad blood before the text message scandal put an end to Mackay’s time at Cardiff.
Such a turbulent entry into British soccer might have put many a man or woman off, but now Tan – with close ties to former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad – is making it quite clear that he is not a man to back down in a fight.
Tan and Cardiff City are pursuing a claim for £10 million (HK$95.7 million) damages in the High Court in London against Mackay, Moody, and three other men accused of a dishonest conspiracy centred on player transfers.
And not just any other men. Three of the most powerful soccer agents in the European game – David Manasseh, Rob Segal and John Inglis – are named in High Court documents.
The case focuses upon two transfers in particular, involving England defender Steven Caulker’s £8.5m switch to Cardiff from Tottenham Hotspur in July 2013 and Peter Odemwingie’s £2.5m move from West Brom to the Welsh capital in September that year.
Cardiff claim that all five men conspired to defraud the club over the transfers. Mackay and Moody, the club alleges, were in charge of transfers, but their action is against the five men, who all deny any wrongdoing.
Cardiff City want the damages case heard in public at the High Court, but there is a move from some of the defendants for it to be dealt with by the UK’s Football Association at an arbitration – which would involve a hearing behind closed doors.
It all comes – purely coincidentally – at an awkward time for Mackay, who has just been given the job of reinventing and reinvigorating soccer in struggling Scotland as that nation’s FA perfomance director. It is his first big job since the text scandal.
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Tan is one of several foreign club owners accused by supporters of all stripes – plus a growing number of social commentators and politicians – of cultural vandalism.
A similar situation has developed at another English club, Hull City, when owner Assem Allam wanted to change the club’s name.
Then there was Hongkonger Carson Yeung Ka-sing’s controversial rule of Birmingham City, which finally had the owners admitting football was “a business different in kind” from others, because “the aspirations of supporters have to be taken into consideration”.
Yeung, a former Kowloon hairdresser, is now in prison in Hong Kong after his appeal against a conviction for money-laundering failed.
This Week in Asia made several attempts to contact and put questions to Tan, Cardiff City chairman Mehmet Dalman, the club’s chief executive Ken Choo, and lawyers representing the club for this story, but received no response. ■