Matt Maher: Shining a light on to the men in the shadows

Early in Al Jazeera’s superb documentary The Men Who Sell Football, Chris Samuelson is described as the sport’s ultimate ‘man in the shadows’.

Tony Xia's purchase of Villa was under scrutiny in the documentary.
Tony Xia's purchase of Villa was under scrutiny in the documentary.

That is certainly a fitting description of his involvement at Villa. Samuelson and his company, Socfin, helped broker Tony Xia’s 2016 takeover of the club and in the early days of that summer there was an expectation he would have significant roles in the day-to-day operation at Villa Park.

Things never worked out that way and in September 2016, Xia was on social media claiming Samuelson was no longer involved.

While being filmed by undercover reporters during the documentary, Samuelson can be heard admitting to doubts about Xia’s wealth and questioning whether the money used to buy Villa and provide proof of funds to the EFL was all the Chinese businessman’s own. In 2018, of course, Xia ran into financial difficulty and Villa escaped administration by the skin of their teeth.

Yet the documentary does more than just shine a light on one of the darkest periods in the club’s history.

It provides a salutary lesson of the dangers which lurk whenever a club is up for sale, while giving perhaps the clearest evidence yet as to why rules governing the purchase of clubs must be strengthened.

While being secretly filmed, Samuelson puts forward a step-by-step guide as to how those regulations might be circumvented. A financier considered an expert in offshore investment, he also helped broker Anton Zingarevich’s 2012 takeover of Reading. Much like Xia at Villa, things went quickly pear-shaped, putting the Royals on the brink of financial disaster.

The uncomfortable truth is the game is full of middle men, whose names rarely appear in the public domain yet are involved in the background when takeovers are in progress, taking their cut and then exiting the scene, suffering few of the consequences.

In that regard, this documentary may well be one of the most important pieces of television ever produced about football. Every fan should watch it.

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