Some may suggest Wael al Qadi is a glutton for punishment. In 2016 he and fellow Jordanian Prince Ali attempted to oust the seemingly immovable FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Although the presidential election bid was unsuccessful it ultimately led to the toppling of FIFA’s notorious House of Cards.
Shortly after, Al Qadi took the helm of Bristol Rovers, a club whose ship he is now trying to guide through the choppy waters of life in England’s League One.
Swapping FIFA’s ivory tower in Zurich for the boardroom of the Memorial Stadium was a dramatic shift in environment but three years later Al Qadi is still with Bristol Rovers and very much planning for the long-term.
“The idea of buying a club had been on my radar for a while,” Al Qadi explains to Sport Industry Insider. “I looked at clubs in Belgium and Spain but the UK is the best environment for investment, its laws are more mature and of course the passion for football is unparalleled.
“A friend of mine introduced to me Rovers and it was immediately clear that the club is a sleeping giant. It’s a really well established community, a huge fan base in the second biggest city in the south of England. Bristol as a whole hasn’t had much success in football before so this potential was something really exciting.”
On hearing that an owner from the Middle East was arriving in Bristol, there was a clamour of excitement and the rumour mill went into overdrive. Forums and phone-ins were awash with people wondering if it would be Sheikh Mansour mark II – hoping Al Qadi would plough an endless stream of cash into the club and propel Rovers all the way up to the glitz and glamour of the Premier League.
“Rather ridiculously, there were these huge expectations because the media basically blew everything out of proportion saying Rovers would be ‘the next Man City’,” Al Qadi recalls. “If that was the case we’d have bought a club in the Championship or Premier League, not one that had just been promoted to League Two!”
Doing his best to ignore the lazy comparisons with Gulf neighbours in Abu Dhabi, Al Qadi set about restructuring the club – determined to create a business model that could last.
“Our whole aim has been to build Bristol Rovers up but do so in as sustainable a way as possible. We’ve focused on making the academy stronger, introduced a development squad to feed into that. There are so many clubs around us in the lower leagues who try to throw money at their problems but it’s not healthy.
“Fans are fans and I think a lot of the time they expect owners to burn their own money and basically just spend, spend, spend on improving the first team. They almost see that as your duty as an owner. But if you don’t spend in a sustainable way, fans won’t have a club to follow any more.”
The much-publicised plights of Bury, Bolton and lately Southend United illustrate the dangers of taking the risk-reward approach to club ownership, something all too common in the English Football League.
“What has happened at Bury, at Bolton, it’s disgraceful,” Al Qadi says. “It is gross mismanagement and makes me angry and very sad because you can see how devastating the impact is on the community. Imagine that happening to a club you love and support? It’s awful. We have to work to prevent such things happening in the future.
“I think governing bodies need to do more because there’s a lack of protection for clubs in many ways. Take the academies. If we have talent in the Bristol Rovers academy, someone we have huge hopes and expectations for, a club higher up the divisions can just swoop in and poach them.
“Then of course there is the distribution of wealth. There is way, way too much money at the top. You’re hearing about a transfer fee of £80 million for a central defender. For that money you could basically buy League One and League Two combined. That growing gap, coupled with clubs now folding, shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with football that needs addressing.”
While negative headlines abound at the moment, it is not all doom and gloom. Some clubs are endeavouring to do things the right way.
“Clubs like Sheffield United you look at and have to admire. They were where we are in League One just a couple of years ago and now they are in the Premier League – they have managed to compete and dramatically increase the value of the club due to prudent, sensible management.
“This may not sound exciting but honestly I think the most important thing for any football club owner is to make sure that the club can survive and grow organically. There are many, many challenges out there and we have definitely experienced a lot ourselves. But equally there are a lot of good stories in the Football League.”
That Al Qadi comes from a background of sports governance is undoubtedly a major factor in his more considered approach to football club ownership. His previous role with Prince Ali saw him work with the Jordan Football Association, UEFA and, of course FIFA.
Just as the disparity between the wealth of the Premier League and the Football League is disconcerting, the disconnect between FIFA’s infamous former leadership team and the rest of football was the motivation for Prince Ali to run against Blatter in 2016.
“It was very difficult because you campaign for somebody who wants to bring change for the better and try and improve things but those in the organisation don’t want to change,” Al Qadi says. “They were dedicated to maintaining the status quo and really it felt like an impossible task to change that.
“When I see what has happened since, I feel happy. We were basically trying to knock down a brick wall and as time has gone on that brick wall has begun to crumble. FIFA seems to genuinely be changing now and though there are still some not so good people there, they are being found out.
“I really believe Prince Ali played an important role in cleaning up FIFA – he was out there in public challenging what Blatter and others were doing. Hopefully one day he can be FIFA president because really he has great values, great leadership skills and I’m sure he can help make the organisation better.”
Al Qadi certainly seems to have made his own organisation better, having watched Bristol Rovers achieve promotion from League Two to League One at the end of his first season at the helm. Three seasons of consolidation followed but off the pitch, there have big changes.
“A lot of work has been needed to restructure everything and put effective systems into place. Before it was a very old school way of doing things, which hadn’t changed for many years. We had to have a big upheaval, particularly on the commercial side of things.
“A new technical kit supplier has been brought in, and we have upgraded the ticketing system – we now have cards, electric scanners at the gates as well as improvements to the bars, club shop and the installation of a pitch side LED advertising system and big screen. We brought in Tom Gorringe, an experienced Premier League Commercial Director, from Brighton and he is making many important changes, notably to the sponsorship structure.
“The hardest decision came last season when we parted ways with [then manager] Darrell Clarke. We were bottom of the league around Christmas and after constructive discussions with Darrell it was mutually agreed the timing was right to make a change in the interests of both parties. Under the stewardship of Graham Coughlan, we managed to stay up so I’d say it was the right decision. But it was really tough to part company with Darrell because he was a club legend who had done a lot for Bristol Rovers, for which we, and all Gasheads [Bristol Rovers fans] will always be grateful.”
The club’s fans are now eagerly awaiting the next step forward and many are not shy in reaching out to Al Qadi to express their opinions. The Jordanian is active on social media and while managing supporters’ expectations can be difficult at times, he believes open dialogue is vital for the health of any club.
“In my experience, the vast majority of fans are really good people and I want to have a direct line to them and from them – social media is a great channel in that regard.
“I came in as a custodian of this club but I think I’ve become much more. During my time here, I have seen first hand, just what a special club this is and because of that, Bristol Rovers will always have a place in my heart. I am determined to do all I can during my time here to improve the club as much as possible for the future generations and I will always be a Gashead.”