Sixteen years ago, a rich outsider purchased Fulham when it was bobbing in the depths of the English football league. The outsider made aggressive promises about a planned ascendency, and then delivered on them, pushing the club from the nation's third division to the Premiership in just four years. Mohamed Al Fayed then oversaw a long period of consolidation, funding the club's now 13-season stay in the top league in the land, the eighth longest current stretch of any club.
Despite initial reticence about a wealthy, eccentric Egyptian buying into England's most provincial boys club -- soccer team ownership -- Al Fayed turned out to be a consummate throwback owner: dedicated and passionate, understanding of his role as guardian of the club, willing to put his money where his mouth was, but not intrusive or controversial (Michael Jackson statue aside). When he sold the team last week to Pakistani-born Shahid Khan, the media reports and message board tributes were unilaterally positive. How many clubs in the modern era would be able to say that about their outgoing chairman?
Given Al Fayed's success, his open endorsement of Khan, and Khan's initial public words about the takeover, the amount of media blowback from the other side of the pond was somewhat perplexing.
The English have a well-documented level of self-propriety about the sport they created, but it's not even clear they know exactly what their issue is with respect to Khan, even as he's billed as the latest example of the globalization that's supposedly ruining British soccer.
Outlets immediately lamented the further infiltration of U.S influence on their league, one in which six clubs are now owned by current or former NFL owners or other Americans. But although he attended college in the United States and amassed his billions here, Khan spent the first 16 years of his life in Pakistan, a note not missed by that nation's soccer governing body, which already is leaning on Khan to look there for developing talent.
So maybe it's the NFL thing, with our country's brand of money-fueled football serving to further influence England's. Well, to this point, Khan isn't like any of the other American Premiership owners. He hasn't leveraged his club to the hilt like the Glazers. He's not yet been labeled as content with profitable status quo, like some Arsenal fans do with Stan Kroenke. He hasn't disappointed anyone yet like Randy Lerner at Aston Villa. He's not a financier or a Middle East oil scion. He's an engineer who carved out a mega-fortune in the extremely competitive U.S. automotive market, and now wants to apply similar business tactics to sport.
After Kroenke exercised his right of first refusal on the Rams after Khan's attempted purchase of the franchise in 2010, Khan ended up being approved to buy the Jaguars in Jacksonville, one of the toughest markets in the NFL. He's spent his initial time there overhauling processes and implementing new-era strategies. The team went 2-14 last season and fired its first-year coach, yet every Jags fan that reached out to me (openly a Fulham fan for the past decade) after last week's deal was announced loved him as an owner. They said he hasn't yet put a foot wrong down there, even as he has committed to moving one of his home games in each of the next four years to London.
What of the possible use of Fulham as corporate synergy, as a lever through which Khan and the NFL can keep ramming a decidedly American sport down the decidedly ethnocentric gullets of the English public? There's nothing wrong with using one company you own to promote another. Fulham in past seasons has sported odd-looking green kits in tribute to Harrod's, Al Fayed's previously-owned superstore, and orange ones last season in deference to Dutch manager Martin Jol. Would it be so horrible if the club accented its normal away black with some Jaguars teal at some point down the road, or showed Sunday NFL games on a screen at Craven Cottage?
The rapidly increasing international flavor of the Premier League -- on the field and in the owners' boxes -- combined with the ongoing mediocrity of the English national team and the regular overrating (and overpricing) of English prospects has made any further change like this a flashpoint. But it seems with Khan, the complainers don't even exactly know what they're actually complaining about. It's just easier to fit him into a predetermined box and gripe about it as part of the macro effect that is impacting the league. Whether Khan is anything like Roman Abromovich or Sheik Mansour is besides the point. He's rich, he's not British, and he owns an NFL team. How dare he want in (on the relative cheap) on a league with exploding TV rights fees and a massive global audience, with the opportunity to further entrench himself in the London sports market.
Sixteen years ago, there was similar trepidation about Mohamed Al Fayed, even without these huge, current-day benefits incentivizing ownership. Now virtually every club in the land would have gladly taken his stewardship. With everything Khan has shown so far, both with his actions for decades before this purchase and his words so far after it, Fulham seems to have found its way into the right successor's hands. Another Al Fayed with more money? The denizens of Craven Cottage could only be so lucky, even if many of their countrymen would remain aghast at the prospect.
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