10 Sleeper Clubs Who Could Dominate Europe If the Right Investor Came on Board
Like it or not, there are still many sleeper clubs out there that could become the pet project of billionaire business owners.
Takeover bids have become the new promotion bids for struggling teams. Also-rans are suddenly pushed into the limelight and given unimaginable amounts of money to spend on the world’s best players.
It’s not as simple as just buying a team and expecting success, however, although that doesn’t stop some from trying. QPR and Reading have money, but the Premier League is proving difficult to negotiate.
There needs to be a strong foundation in place of supporters and directors already in place, as well as a base of players who can get the job done around the new talent that is inevitably brought in.
The right ownership is essential to a team’s development. There could be all the money in the world available, but if it’s thrown around by someone with no clue of how to run a football club, everything goes wrong.
Ten clubs that fit some or all of these criteria are included here.
Olympique De Marseille
Nobody expected Marseille to start the year like this; probably not even them. After a season where the team finished in 10th place, Didier Deschamps quit as manager amid frustrations with sporting director Jose Anigo.
Players also left the club in the offseason, prompting talk of relegation and a dreadful 2012. Instead, Elie Baup came on board to manage the team and has moulded them through teamwork and accountability, which has reaped rewards.
Marseille currently sit on top of Ligue 1, three points clear of Paris St. Germain after eight games. With this sort of improvement, it surely won’t be long before the French side captures the imagination of billionaires worldwide.
The sale of Paris St. Germain showed that French football is a viable commodity, and that is is likely to be the next market to develop through investment from the East.
Marseille is a club that is steeped in history and success, so investment here would be made on solid ground.
Owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus admitted she didn’t know much about the club she inherited from her late husband, Robert, and also threatened to sell up last year when the team wasn’t performing.
The recent success may have changed her mind, but if an investor with a good knowledge of football came on board, the potential for Marseille is huge.
Levante Union Deportiva
Levante have quietly risen up the ranks of Spanish football since their relegation season of 2007/8, to the point where they sat on top of La Liga in October of last year.
They qualified for the Europa League for the first time in club history when they finished an impressive sixth in the 2011/12 campaign.
The club hasn’t currently got the sort of finances that enable them to compete with the giants of Spain, but with the right investors, they could certainly mount a challenge.
The sale of Malaga proved that the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid hasn’t put off potential owners, and the glamour of La Liga would certainly prove attractive.
When the Cypriot club reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League last year, the world sat up and took notice of the achievement.
Nicosia battled their way through the qualifying rounds to end up in a group with Porto, Zenit St. Petersberg and Shakhtar Donetsk. Startlingly, they topped that group and then went a stage further by beating Lyon on penalties.
The team eventually lost to Real Madrid by an aggregate score of 8-2, but their European adventure could be just the start of a successful period.
This might not be enough to seriously invoke the interest of investors, and the Cypriot Championship First Division still continues largely unnoticed by the rest of world, but it shows that there is huge potential there, should someone be willing to take a chance.
Most commonly known as a satellite club for Bayern Munich and a feeder club for the rest of the world, Alkmaar continues to develop good players and is worthy of investment.
Gertjan Verbeek gets the best out of his team, which is why there are always a few Alkmaar players on transfer rumour lists before each window.
Currently it’s Jozy Altidore and Adam Maher who are drawing the attention of bigger clubs, with the latter being most recently linked to Tottenham Hotspur.
A significant investment into Alkmaar would enable them to keep their star players, as well as challenging the dominance of Ajax and PSV for the Eredivisie title.
AZ claimed the league title in 2008/09 for only the second time in their history. FC Twente won it the next year—for the first time ever—but there is a definite hierarchy in Dutch football, with Ajaz and PSV (and to a lesser extent, Feyenoord) at the top.
The Eriedivisie is already a well-respected league and AZ are already a well-respected team. The opportunity is there to take the team beyond that and assert themselves over the European competitions.
Most English football fans had paid no attention to Molde until Ole Gunnar Solskjaer signed for Manchester United from the Norwegian side in 1996.
Solskjaer has since returned to Molde as a manager, leading them to their first ever Tippeligaen title in 2011. This got the attention of the media, with Solskjaer now linked with managing Bolton, and players such as Jo Inge Berget linked with the likes of Newcastle.
Molde are clearly a team on the rise; however, a significant investment must be made in order to make them competitive. They would likely need a new stadium, as well as large sums of money for transfers—and a manager, should Solskjaer choose to move on.
Nevertheless, it’s worth keeping an eye on MFK, especially with the publicity they get in England through Solskjaer and his ascendancy as a manager.
This might seem a strange choice, considering Newcastle already have a wealthy owner in Mike Ashley and finished a very respectable fifth in the Premier League last year.
However, all is not well on Tyneside, with the fans’ hatred of Ashley well-publicised. Their frustrations not only stem from his decisions seemingly made only to aggravate (i.e. the ill-fated re-naming of St. James’ Park) to his tight grip on his finances.
Every year the transfer deadline rolls around and Toon fans will eagerly await signings of some of the players their team were linked with through the preceding months. Every year they end up disappointed, instead hearing that their club has sold more than bought and once again turn on Ashley.
Alan Pardew has just signed a contract that keeps him at St. James’ Park for eight years, so there’s an air of stability around the managerial position. Even so, it’s easy to wonder just how far the team could go with an owner who was truly passionate about the team.
Ashley treats it more as a vanity project, with success more of a bonus than a desire. He has already tried to sell the club and had no takers, so will likely try again.
The fans are among the most loyal in the world, the team has an illustrious history and there are already high-quality pieces in place. All they need is an owner committed to success, and they could make a real challenge.
French businessman Olivier Sadran has been at the head of Toulouse since the club’s bankruptcy in 2001, and since then, he has led them back to Ligue 1 and Champions League qualification in 2008.
Toulouse’s most famous export is probably Fabien Barthez, who moved on to Monaco and Manchester United, also winning the World Cup with France in 1998.
Moussa Sissoko is also a player in demand across the world, with his Patrick Viera-esque style making him the target of Roma, Newcastle and Tottenham. He has made it clear that the Premier League is his preferred destination, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him leave.
His departure would be a shame, however, as Toulouse are already a very good side, with the potential to be much more. Wissam Ben Yedder has netted six goals from midfield this year and the team have continued to play with the finesse that characterised their 2011/12 season.
Any investor would already have a core set of players to surround with talent. Etienne Capoue has the creative spark that can drive a team, building the play from midfield and allowing Ben Yedder to break teams down with pace.
As with Marseille, the players already in place at Toulouse present an opportunity to take the team to new heights with a financial boost. Sadran has already invested heavily in the team, so may be tempted to use the club’s recent success as a springboard to sell up.
Zdenek Zeman brought the Delfini back to Serie A, then left for the job at Roma, leaving Giovanni Stroppa to step into the role as coach.
Stroppa is a good tactician, having served under Zeman at Foggia and Avellino, and has had some success with the side during his tenure.
However, the feeling persists that Pescara need a significant financial boost to be able to make a run at either Serie A or the Champions League. They would do well to retain Stroppa, who develops a good connection with his players in order to bring the best out in them.
Pescara are a young team that will only get better, but their development would significantly increase if Stroppa had the means necessary to bring in top-quality players.
Investing in potential is risky in the short term, but the future is bright for Pescara if they could be offered some security to keep and develop that potential.
This is the long shot of the bunch, but it comes with history that’s impossible to discount.
When David O’Leary’s 2001 side got to the semifinals of the Champions League, the feeling was that Leeds were finally going to see the kind of success that brought them the league title in 1991/92.
However, the club had taken out huge loans on the basis of Champions League money coming in, so when they failed to qualify the next year, everything went wrong.
Players such as Rio Ferdinand and Jonathan Woodgate were sold and the club drifted into relegation misery. The training ground, the stadium and eventually the entire club were sold off to pay debts.
The Yorkshire side has since gained promotion back to the Championship, and the expectation is that Gulf Finance House Capital is in position to buy the club, despite allegations of losing £800 million since 2008 (via The Daily Telegraph).
The team has endured its fair share of hardship since that illustrious Champions League campaign. It’s mostly out of nostalgia that they are on this list, but they have an incredibly loyal fanbase and a good manager in Neil Warnock.
Money was nearly the end of Leeds United, so doing a deal with a company rife with allegations of financial insecurity may turn out to be a dreadful move, but the team deserves better than the last 10 years have offered.
After fighting their way back in to the Bundesliga, Dusseldorf looked like they’d never been away. Norbert Meier’s remarkable transformation of the club since arriving in 2008 has demonstrated a mixture of solid, well-organised play and a keen eye for the lower leagues.
Considering Dusseldorf were in the fourth division of German football when he took over, Meier deserves all the credit in the world.
He has made the players into a team and they didn’t concede a single goal in the Bundesliga until the 2-2 draw with Schalke on September 27. Not bad for a team that used to be sponsored by a punk band.
It seems that the next step of Dusseldorf’s journey is to compete for the Bundesliga title. They already have the stadium—the fantastic Esprit Arena—the coach and a winning attitude.
Any potential investor would know that the team is already on the right track, and they wouldn’t even have to do very much to ensure success.
Trusting a coach to go out and get the right players is often a problem for the owners of teams. Their football knowledge is usually limited to the huge stars, so they don’t understand when their money either can’t bring them in, or doesn’t translate to wins.
Looking at Meier’s record with signings—when he had no money to spend—will give any potential investors heart that he can be trusted to spend wisely. Dusseldorf’s future can be left in his hands—he has earned that right already.