RC Lens to Push Out Azerbaijani Ownership

RC Lens to Push Out Azerbaijani Ownership

Hafiz Mammadov is the owner of RC Lens, FC Baku, and reportedly also has invested in FC Porto, as well as Atlético Madrid. As the chairman of the Baghlan Group, an oil and gas consortium, Mammadov is well placed within the Azerbaijani business world to act as an intermediary in arranging business deals between Azerbaijan and European football clubs—in this role Mammadov was instrumental in securing Atlético Madrid their sponsorship contract with the Land of Fire campaign.

It now appears, however, that Mammadov will be forced out of his ownership of the French team RC Lens. The Lens based blog Made in Lens reported on April 3 that proceedings had been opened by Lens’ president Gervais Martel at a Paris Commercial Court with the goal to force Mammadov out of the club.

Lens have mounting debts, and Martel hopes that Mammadov’s holding company could be forced by the court to sell the club to a new investor in the form of the Ivory Coast businessman Charles Kader Gooré.

Gooré, who also holds Omani citizenship, is the head of an investment consortium that includes the Oman Investment Fund. As part of Gooré taking over the club it is expected that Oman Air will become the new sponsor of the team.

The Azerbaijani news page Haqqin.az meanwhile has reported that Mammadov is experiencing financial problems. Yet he has refused to meet with Gooré to complete the deal, which would secure the financial future of the French club.

Mammadov has told Haqqin.az that “Lens only need €5 million. But I can’t find the money in Baku. Banks have refused to give me loans, even though I am willing to use properties for security. Very soon, because of the inability to cover the financial needs of the club, Azerbaijan may lose control over the French club.”

According to Mammadov he has until April 15 to secure the money otherwise “the French will take away my rights in the court. They are going to go to court and take away my right to own a club in the courts.”

It is understood that Mammadov has invested €20 million in the French club, which used to be an important part of the Land of Fire image campaign initiated by the Azerbaijani government in the build up to the European Games, as part of the country’s image campaign.

As part of this campaign Azerbaijan—often through third parties like Mammadov—invested in several European club, and aside from Atlético Madrid and RC Lens, Land of Fire also sponsored Sheffield Wednesday, and attempted to sign a deal with the Italian club Lazio Rome.

The Azerbaijani also attempted to sign sponsorship agreements with several South American clubs in Argentina and Uruguay. But deals with Racing Club de Avellaneda, San Lorenzo (both from Argentina), and Peñarol Montevideo (Uruguay) fell through because of demands by Azerbaijan to exclude Armenians from club politics.

Now, however, it appears that Azerbaijan’s football marketing campaign is slowly coming to an end. While Azerbaijan remain a sponsor at Atlético Madrid, for example, the slogan Land of Fire no longer appears on the front of the shirt, but rather on the back of it.

There are reasons for the slowdown in sport spending. The Azerbaijani economy is deeply intertwined with Russia. The fall of the rouble has sparked the return of many migrant workers from Russia, and falling oil prices have made it difficult for the regime to gloss over social problems by lavishly spending on foreign social projects.

This would explain why Mammadov could no longer find the necessary funding for his football project in France. Mammadov’s comments also highlight the involvement of the Azerbaijani government in the funding of RC Lens. Club officials in France now hope that Mammadov will sit down with Gooré and transfer his ownership.

Lens are currently sixth in Ligue 2, just three points behind third placed Le Havre, and could still be promoted to Ligue 1 this season. If the sale fails, however, Lens would have to declare bankruptcy and 180 club employees would be without a job.

By Manuel Veth –