Bristol Rovers and the Middle East connection

Doha (AFP) –


Bristol Rovers, a fourth-tier English league club with no major honours in 133 years, may seem an unlikely place to underline the growing importance of the Middle East on world football.

But the recent acquisition of Rovers by Jordanian Wael Al-Qadi means there are now Arab owners in all the top four divisions of English football.

Rovers, originally known as Black Arabs FC, now share a bond of sorts with mega-rich UAE-owned Manchester City, Hull City, bought by the Egyptian Allam family, and Sheffield United, the club of Saudi prince, Abdullah Bin Mosaad Abdulaziz Al-Saud.

All four clubs are mainstays of English league football with a combined history of more than 500 years behind them.

They are also now at the vanguard of a league transformed in recent years by foreign ownership.

More than one-third of the 92 teams across England's top four divisions have foreign owners or shareholders, though Qadi may be its first Jordanian owner.

"Do you know what? I never even thought of that," says the 46-year-old, whose family made its fortune in "banking, finance and tourism".

The likeable Qadi -- "please, call me Wael" -- introduced himself to Rovers fans last weekend running onto the pitch in the team's traditional blue-and-white quartered shirt and kissing the club badge.

It all seems an unlikely place for the Qatari-born, Chelsea fanatic to end up.

But Qadi studied at least three English clubs and it was not by chance he ended up in south-west England with Rovers.

- 'Born for this' -

"A lot of people encouraged me and told me you were born for this (owning a football club)," he told AFP. "We did our due diligence very well."

Qadi has taken 92 per cent ownership of the club.

He cites the club's fans as one of the reasons he bought Bristol Rovers, who are currently seventh in Division Two, and in with a chance of promotion.

"They have amazing heritage. They are mad, passionate fans who know their football. I feel it."

Qadi, whose family moved from Qatar to London when he was an adolescent, loves to tell of Rovers taking 40,000 fans to Wembley last season for a match which secured their promotion to Division Two.

Their home ground, the Memorial Stadium, formerly a rugby venue, has a capacity of just 12,000.

He says his immediate aim is to secure a new 21,700 capacity ground, which is the current subject of legal action.

So far, the Jordanian has the approval of those fans, known as the "Gasheads".

One, Bristol-born film director, Vadim Jean, told AFP his "arrival is wonderful for the club".

The 52-year-old has supported Rovers since he was eight and hopes things are about to drastically improve.

- 'Evolution, not revolution' -

"We've not really had a proper home since then, so the fact he will secure a home stadium big enough for all of us is amazing. Bring on the Premiership and local derbies with Bristol City on our way past them!"

But Qadi denies reports he is a billionaire or has limitless funds.

"The fans know that throwing money does not work," he said somewhat optimistically.

"The aim is for an evolution, not a revolution. We will start by restructuring the club and we will try to push the team forward."

And unlike new owners elsewhere, Qadi says he backs the current coach, Darrell Clarke, and won't be bringing his own man or interfering with the playing side.

His focus, though, is not just English football and he is currently in Zurich as part of the Jordanian Football Association's bid to get Prince Ali bin Al Hussein elected as the new president of FIFA.

Qadi also backs the Qatar 2022 World Cup but argues that it should have featured games across the Middle East region.

One problem he may not be able to solve is who to support if Rovers draw his beloved Chelsea in a cup competition.

Qadi fell in love with the London side when his family moved to the English capital in the 1980s and they became his local team.

It was a very different club then, struggling to survive in the second tier, yet Qadi was hooked.

And if the two teams meet?

"I hope it goes to a replay," he joked.