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Portrait: Gérard Lopez, the sulphurous investor behind the takeover of the Girondins

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A time close to Vladimir Putin, indicted for forgery and use of forgery in Luxembourg, the Hispano-Luxembourg businessman who has led the “rescue” of the Girondins de Bordeaux since its takeover in 2021 is a controversial figure in sport in chaotic journey.

The Girondins de Bordeaux can (almost) start to blow. The Commercial Court has validated the agreement between the club and its creditors, the first part of the plan to avoid compulsory liquidation. This agreement involves a capital increase of 10 million euros by the current owners. Last step: the decision that the French National Olympic and Sports Committee (CONSF) must make this Thursday, to validate the maintenance of the club in the second division.

Behind this “rescue plan” is Gérard Lopez. He bought the club in the summer of 2021, when it was placed in receivership by its American owners, who cited the drop in income due to the pandemic and the failure to pay TV rights by Mediapro. Also owner of Boavista FC (Portugal), and formerly of LOSC Lille and Royal Mouscron (Belgium), or even the Lotus Formula 1 team, the Spanish-Luxembourg businessman has become a controversial figure in sport in Europe over the past fifteen years.

Friend of Putin, Brexit and legal affairs

The main Spanish daily El Pais reserves a portrait of him in 2015, to present the one who, then little known to the general public, is decked out with the nickname “the invisible millionaire”, the invisible millionaire. From the outset, the daily presents him as a “serial investor” became “Vladimir Putin’s Friend”.

“Through motor racing, he met and befriended Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whom he invited to drive one of his cars to a secret location in Russia. He is now part of his inner circle and his new dream is to attract investment in the Yamal region in the Arctic, the largest gas reserve in the world, where everything remains to be done and where the financial returns on its investments can be immense. »

This story did not remain in the planning stage: in June 2014, then president of Rise Capital, he signed an agreement with the governor of the autonomous district of Yamalo-Nenets (the largest gas reserve in the world) allowing Rise to become a key partner in attracting investment from Asia and the Middle East to the region. Since then, Rise has built a portfolio of energy and infrastructure projects worth more than $12 billion.

Gérard Lopez is also close to the judicial authorities: a case, in the course of proceedings, has just been revealed by D’Lëtzebuerger Land, a Luxembourg political weekly. Investigators have looked into transfers of hundreds of thousands of pounds between Lotus’ former UK operations, a Luxembourg football club and a Hong Kong-based investment firm. According to a Luxembourg spokesperson, “The Luxembourg public prosecutor’s office has requested Mr. Lopez’s referral to a criminal court. The offenses in question are forgery and the use of forgery.”

He was also in the spotlight in 2016, after making the largest donation to the Conservative Party (£400,000) before the Brexit referendum. Although not possessing British nationality, the activities of Lotus had enabled him to register on the electoral lists, and therefore to make such a donation. His links with Vladimir Putin were then seriously questioned by the British authorities.

First steps in sports

Gérard Lopez built his fortune in the early 2000s. Co-founder of Mangrove Capital Partners, he was one of the first investors in Skype. The worldwide success of the communication software will allow him to make a fortune, before beginning his peregrinations through European sport. Passionate about sport, he became President of CS Fola Esch, a small club in the Luxembourg championship, where he played during his youth. He held this position from 2007 to 2017.

His first big adventure in sport led him to the head of the British Formula 1 team Lotus, which he bought in 2009 through the company Genii Capital, founded in 2008 with Eric Lux. The results are mediocre but above all, the money problems begin. Right in the middle of the 2013 season, the team’s star driver, the Finnish Kimi Räikkönen (2007 world champion) threatened to leave the team because of unpaid wages since the start of the season, the sum amounting to several millions of euros. Räikkönen left the team the following season. Yet sponsored by Microsoft or Coca-Cola, the situation becomes untenable for Lotus, which will end up being sold in 2015 to the Renault group, which sees the opportunity to return to Formula 1, for a symbolic pound.

His activities in Lille called into question by Football Leaks

Gérard Lopez decides to forget Formula 1 in 2016, and to turn to football. He officially became the owner of LOSC Lille on January 26, 2017. He implemented a financial strategy there based on player trading, but the health crisis and the failure to pay TV rights in 2020 hit the club hard. In December 2020, Gérard Lopez was forced to sell by his main creditor, the American investment fund Elliott Management. At issue: a debt of 120 million euros borrowed for the purchase, not repaid. However, in the summer of 2020, LOSC transferred Victor Osimhen to SSC Napoli for a sum which fluctuated between 70 and 80 million euros, one of the highest sales ever made by a French club. Almost no trace of the money in the coffers of LOSC, however: the newspaper l’Equipe reveals in 2021 that only “ten million euros” ended up in the club’s coffers. In reality, the sum was lowered by including Napoli players in the exchange. Only one will play there (one match), some will never even have been to Lille. The Italian justice has taken up the case, and the investigation is underway.

Another investigation conducted by Mediapart, Médiacités and France 3 Hauts-de-France (“Football Leaks”, equivalent of the “Panama Papers” in football) published in 2017, also casts doubt on the structuring of the takeover of the club, made with a complicated arrangement of opaque companies registered in tax havens. He will be cited there a second time in 2019, to raise gray points on the arrivals and departures of several players at the club, then a third time, as part of an investigation which reveals how the entrepreneur helped the club. Englishman from Manchester City to circumvent FIFA rules on the transfer of underage players.

Gérard Lopez offered himself another football club, in the Belgian championship this time. He bought Royal Excelsior Mouscron in July 2020, and made it a subsidiary club of LOSC, which he still owned at the time. He keeps the Belgian club despite the sale of the northern club, but not for long. Relegated to the second division, the club declared bankruptcy on May 31, 2022: information that goes almost unnoticed in the French sports press, which is more busy following Gérard Lopez’s adventures with the Girondins de Bordeaux. It’s not an end of life but almost for the Belgian club: it will have to start from scratch, at the amateur level. A fate close to that reserved for the Girondins, if the club does not manage to save its place in Ligue 2 this Thursday.

Leo Marchandon

Photo: Shutterstock

Published on 07/21/2022

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