RAYANE MOUSSALLEM, AIPS Young Reporter*, AMMAN: Arab investment in European football has become commonplace in the past decade with states such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates investing millions in top clubs. But a Jordanian taking over in European football and England in particular is not so familiar.
Last February Wael Al Qadi became the owner of the English League One club Bristol Rovers, who were down in League Two at the time.
During his visit to the AIPS Young Reporters currently in Jordan covering the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, the executive board member of the Jordan Football Association described his journey from being from a young fan to vice-chairman of the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP) before taking over the English club.
He said: “I grew up in London where I studied at Westminster School. My father took me to watch Chelsea who were at that time in the second division. I ended up following them, going to their home and away games every weekend.
“Growing up in London during that time, football saved me from other things that teenagers went into.”
The 47-year-old returned to Jordan after earning a degree in Computer Science with Business Administration at Boston University in 1991.
In 2010, he became involved in helping Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein win Asia’s FIFA vice-presidency before becoming AFDP vice-chairman. Since then, Al Qadi established further connections with the football world, developed a wide network and started thinking about his next step.
A member of Al Qadi family who founded the Arab Jordan Investment Bank, he looked for opportunities in Belgium, Spain and elsewhere and admitted to sometimes considered giving up because of the tough regulations and laws before the Rovers possibility fell into his lap.
He said: “I thought that United Kingdom would be the best place. The footballing culture there is well established, their market is efficient, the laws and regulations there protect the investor so it was a matter of finding what club was the most suitable.
“The amounts in the Premier League and Championship are stratospheric and I was looking for a club that has fundamentally strong footballing ties with a big fan base, well established but not doing so well and then the Bristol Rovers opportunity came up.”
Al Qadi had a bigger vision while investing in a club in the city on the Avon, one that would benefit his countrymen.
He said: “Part of the reason why we have a football club in the UK is to try to offer Jordanian talents the opportunity to play abroad. That’s what Japan did 20 years ago when they were exploring sending their players to Europe to gain experience.”
When the Jordanian took over last February 16, Rovers were in a mid table position in the fourth tier of the Engish professional game with 17 matches to go.
Al Qadi – which means “The Judge” in Arabic – saw his voice heard immediately in the Bristol Rover court: 12 wins, two draws and two defeats meant a golden opportunity to gain promotion in the last game of the season.
No-one could have expected such a dramatic scenario: Lee Brown netted in the second minute of added time to earn Rovers an automatic promotion to League One with a 2-1 victory over Dagenham & Redbridge as thousands of happy fans invaded the pitch.
Having grown up in London, Al Qadi is a self-confessed Chelsea fan and has watched hundreds of Blues games in the early 1980s. But on one night he had to put his childhood memories and emotions aside when Rovers took on the 2015 Premier League champions in the second round of EFL Cup last August at Stamford Bridge, an experience he never wished to experience.
He said: “Everyone kept asking me: what if Rovers play Chelsea, what are you going to do? I used to give the diplomatic answer but inside I say to myself: ‘We will never play Chelsea, why would we play them? When the game started I prayed it’s not gonna be a six or seven nil loss because they were playing with all their stars not a weakened team.
“Chelsea scored two goals early in the game and I was fearing the worse but it ended only 3-2 and that was one of my proudest moments.”
Al Qadi, an executive board member of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, is thrilled to see the fruits of the labour he has undertaken with the JFA over the years.
He said: “We’ve been working so hard since five years to improve football in Jordan. I remember during the Brazil 2014 World Cup qualifications, our national team couldn’t practice on any field because we didn’t have the infrastructures. Hosting the Women’s World Cup is great for us because we have now four world class stadiums and 17 training grounds.
“We have created foundations for all our national teams to have excellent facilities to train. ”
One of the AFDP’s objectives is empowering women through football. As vice-president of this non-profit development body, Al Qadi contributed to one of FIFA’s most positive decisions on behalf of women’s football.
He said: “Prince Ali managed through the International Football Association Board (IFAB) and FIFA to get women to play with the hijab. We had a long battle with them because previously they had considered that the hijab a religious symbol, therefore women were forbidden to play in any FIFA tournament.
“This was definitely one of our biggest achievements which opened up women’s football in the region.”
The passion that the father of three football-loving girls and boy has for the Beautiful Game can be summarized by the warning he offered his wife before getting married: “It’s football then football then football then you. I am a hopeless case.”
They are still together.
** AIPS is the international sports journalists’ association with 10,000 members worldwide and is currently leading a Young Reporters programme in Jordan at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. More information: www.AIPSmedia.com