Commentary: Peter Lim’s romance with owning a football club appears in trouble
The Singaporean billionaire was seen as a saviour to get the club out of financial troubles, but now fans clamour for his departure, says John Duerden.
SINGAPORE: In 2014, Valencia fans chanted the name of Peter Lim as there was general delight at the Singaporean businessman buying 70.4 per cent of the Spanish club.
And why not? He was about to clear the club of about €200 million (US$234.5 million) of debt as part of a €420 million deal.
Peter Lim was hailed as the saviour of a struggling giant.
REGAINING PAST GLORY
Valencia was a force to reckon with in Spanish and European football from the pre-World War II years up until the 1970s winning numerous league titles and championships.
After a period of slump, they re-emerged as a footballing power in the late 1990s to the early part of the century.
From 1999 to 2004, Valencia won two La Liga titles, one UEFA Cup, one Copa del Rey, and one UEFA Super Cup, while reaching two successive Champions League finals.
Despite boasting top talent like David Villa and David Silva, Valencia never found their groove after this period and their footballing success dried up as did their finances, paving the way for Peter Lim to rescue the club from its financial difficulties.
There was hope that the club could return to the top of the La Liga and become a European force once again.
HONEYMOON PERIOD OVER
Nearly six years after Lim’s purchase of the club, his name is being chanted by fans again. But this time, in anger.
Supporters’ group Salvem Nostre Valencia (Let’s Save Our Valencia) called for a protest outside the club’s stadium on Wednesday (Aug 12) as the club sold two of its top midfielders, including captain Dani Parejo.
This anger was already seen at the end of 2019 when Lim was told by Valencia’s fans to get out of the club with its president Anil Murthy, the Singaporean ex-diplomat who Lim had appointed to handle the day-to-day running of the six-time Spanish champions, apparently receiving death threats.
After the 2019 to 2020 season in which the club finished ninth resulted in the dismissal of Albert Celades as head coach in June - the sixth permanent coach in Lim’s six years at the club - fans were up in arms once more.
If Lim can’t bring about a rapid change in fortunes on the pitch and relations with fans, then the best option may be to get out of a situation that is becoming increasingly unpleasant for all concerned.
INCURRING THE WRATH OF FANS
That is what a growing number of fans want after comments from the owner’s daughter Kim Lim brought the atmosphere around the club to fever pitch in recent weeks.
“Here again. Some Valencia fans are scolding and cursing at my family and I," Lim wrote in July on Instagram in a post that was later deleted. "Don't they get it? The club is ours and we can do anything we want with it and no one can say anything."
While Lim may have been technically correct by saying that the club, which celebrated its centenary last year, belonged to her family, its beating heart is the city’s 2.5 million population. Fans feel it is theirs.
Football clubs can often be bought and sold like normal businesses but there is an emotional connection with one of the key stakeholders – fans - that can run deep especially at a club that had averaged 40,000 fans in attendance at matches.
Telling fans who spend money, time and emotion following their club, that how it is run has got nothing to do with them and that they should stay out of that aspect of the club, hits a raw nerve - especially when it comes from faraway owners that are seen to have little or no connection to club, city or region.
"In general, the arrogance with which 'Meriton' - the group through which Lim controls the club - have behaved is now reaching a point where they are humiliating the fans of Valencia," former Spanish international and Valencia stalwart Santiago Canizares told football website Tribal Football.
“They are a provoking great disaffection and real anger amongst ‘Valencianistas' who now want Meriton out of their lives for good."
FANS CAN’T IDENTIFY WITH OWNERS
It has not helped that Valencia have sold a number of star players in recent years, the most recent of which was in early August when Ferran Torres, seen by many as the best player at the club and a fan favourite, joined Manchester City.
After leaving, he referred to “crooked people” at Valencia.
Spanish football writer Sid Lowe noted in July that the owners have not tried hard to win over fans, media, former players and local authorities in their eagerness to assert their authority.
“Many see Lim, rarely seen in Valencia, as an intruder with ulterior motives,” Lowe wrote on ESPN. “They distrust his business partners. They see the mistakes made, the direction taken, and fear the worst.”
IT’S THE RESULTS THAT MATTER
Lim is not the first foreign owner to have such issues.
At times, Manchester United fans have protested against their American owners, the Glazer family. Supporters of Arsenal criticise Stan Kroenke, the American businessman who is accused of not investing enough.
Yet most Manchester City fans are delighted with their owners, the Abu Dhabi United Group as are Chelsea with Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
Much depends on success on the field. Like Valencia, Chelsea go through coaches at a rapid rate but, unlike the Spanish team, the London-based club achieves regular success.
Fans rarely care where an owner is from if he or she brings titles and trophies but if that does not happen, everything else comes under the spotlight.
There were promising signs for a while at Valencia. In the two seasons before the one just finished, the team finished fourth, qualified for the UEFA Champions League and, in 2019 won the Copa Del Ray. It seemed that there was some measure of stability.
TRANSFER DECISION-MAKING QUESTIONED
But Lim’s decision-making at the club has ruffled feathers, giving the impression that business needs sometimes come before football.
For instance, he recently helmed the transfer negotiations of Torres since he has close relations with Manchester City’s owner Mansour bin Zayed.
People around the club saw that as a sure way to speed up the sale of one of the club’s most popular players and also gives the impression that Lim is using his ownership of Valencia to buy goodwill with other businessmen for his commercial interests in other areas.
Last September, Valencia sacked popular coach Marcelino curiously, after he brought the club to a run of good form where it even won the Copa del Rey.
According to media reports, the decision can be attributed to Lim’s disagreement with Marcelino for publicly questioning and criticising the club’s decision to sell important players.
Reportedly, it is not the first time that Lim has stepped in for transfer negotiations of players with clubs whose owners he has close relations with.
In 2018, he reportedly also led negotiations with PSG’s owners over the purchase of Portugese forward Gonçalo Guedes, who the French club was looking to offload.
RELINQUISHING SOME CONTROL
Lim’s preferred hands-on business style means having direct control over certain aspects of the club and extends to his appointment of Murthy as club president – someone who has had no experience managing a football club or a sporting entity before.
Though there is no evidence to show that the Singaporean is directly responsible for any of the club’s recent woes, those close to Valencia feel that more people with the right track record and professional background need to be brought in to manage it.
The departure of Mateu Alemany as general director last November was, a step in the wrong direction in this regard, according to Canizares.
"I believe that Valencia can only return to its best days if the club is run professionally. It was run professionally when Lim contracted Mateu Alemany…He professionalised the club and was given complete independence to make the decisions. Those two years were very successful.”
That means that there is still hope according to Canizares.
"If Meriton employ people with experience and talent to make the right sporting decisions and give them absolute independence, then we can start to believe again in Valencia being the club we all desire it to be."
Such change needs to happen quickly before the relationship between fans and owners completely breaks down. If the owners don’t want to let the club go completely, they should relinquish a little control.
At the moment, Valencia seem to be heading in the wrong direction. Indifferent results, players leaving, and coaches coming and going are bad enough, but comments from people in authority have made it worse.
“There are doubts not just about how the club is being managed but why,” said Lowe.
This is the question that perhaps the owners should ask themselves too. At the moment, nobody is happy.
Maybe Lim should just give up on the idea of owning a football club and focus on his other commercial interests where he has seen greater success.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).