How the EPL began to walk like an Egyptian

Foreign ownership in the English Premier League turned full circle this weekend with the sale of Fulham Football Club.

The deal was done in private between billionaires, and we will only ever know the value of Fulham if it suits one of them to divulge the figure.

The guesswork suggests that Egyptian Mohamed Al-Fayed sold the west London club for between £150 million (S$286 million) and £200 million, in which case he probably just about covered his costs.

Al-Fayed reportedly paid £6.25 million for the freehold to the near-bankrupt club in 1997 - and he often joked that he must have been certifiably insane for sinking another £200 million into buying players and renovating the historic Craven Cottage ground by the Thames.

Insane but, like Harrods superstore and the Ritz Hotel in Paris, these were acquisitions that gave him what he couldn't buy. He craved citizenship in Britain but has never been granted it. When we say an

Englishman's home is his castle, it must have certainly felt that way in the chairman's office at Harrods in Knightsbridge or the director's box down at the Cottage.

Now 84, and ready to retire to play football with his grandchildren, Al-Fayed was in fact the pathfinder. He was the first foreigner to buy ownership of a piece of England's sporting heritage.

Now he has sold out, to a Pakistani-American, Shahid Khan.

The circle keeps on turning.

Khan was born in Lahore but made his fortune from scratch in the American automotive industry after arriving in the United States to study at the age of 16. He already owns the Jacksonville Jaguars in the National Football League.

He and Al-Fayed are two of a kind. They are self-made billionaires who lived on their wits to work their way up from nothing in foreign countries.

The lore of the Premier League is now legion. It was never called the EPL because, perhaps wisely, the word "English" was never part of the title. In fact, in keeping with its priorities, it is officially the Barclays Premier League - embracing the sponsor bank's name.

Whatever else he is, and there are many accusers of Al-Fayed, I can vouch for one thing: He is a genuine football person.

His family album includes sepia photos of him playing football as a youth by the River Nile in Alexandria where he was born. He was raised as the son of a schoolteacher. I have sat beside him at Fulham, and no man could fake the gamut of emotions that he went through while his team were playing.

Maybe suspicions that he bought into the club as a land acquisition had some truth. But like Roman Abramovich, the owner of Fulham's near neighbours Chelsea, the original purchase gave way to an obsession with the fortunes of the team on the field.

A love affair? That might be pushing things, but certainly this old game takes a grip on anyone who gets involved, from the owners down. It compels involvement. It tweaks more out of them than they possibly expected, in cash and emotional commitment.

Of course, in Abramovich's case, that is speculation. The oligarch has been at Chelsea for a decade now, has sunk the best part of £1 billion into buying and paying the wages of players, and rarely if ever told anyone what it feels like to be the grand paymaster.

For Abramovich, ditto the bulk of Premier League owner-benefactors.

Does anyone know what Stan Kroenke, the US entrepreneur, gets out of being the majority shareholder in Arsenal? The Americans dubbed him "Silent Stan" in their own country, and he is more than silent, he is thousands of miles distant when his Gunners play their league matches across the Atlantic.

The same can be said of Sheikh Mansour, the owner of Manchester City. And for the Glazers of Man United, for Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, for the most part for John W. Henry at Liverpool and Ellis Short at Sunderland.

There are now more foreign owners than British in the Premier League, and they keep on coming.

Tony Fernandes wore his heart on his sleeve while his Queens Park Rangers dropped out of the top 20 this Spring, but another Malaysian, Vincent Tan, is taking his place thanks to his team Cardiff City getting promoted.

Al-Fayed, the first Egyptian in the league, is departing, but Hull City, bankrolled by Assem Allam, keeps the Egyptian influence going.

The new Fulham proprietor looks and sounds like somebody different. Shahid Khan's first sporting love, from his childhood in Lahore, is cricket.

But "The Shad", reckoned by Forbes to be worth US$2.9 billion (S$3.7 billion), embraces the publicity that other owners are so shy about.

His face, with its broad handlebar moustache, is known to every Jaguars fan. He engages with them, tells them why he takes his NFL team to London to play a regular season game across the world once a year.

He e-mails the season ticket holders to let them know his commitment to the Jacksonville team will not be diluted, now that he has "the honour" of taking on Fulham.

He has all the cliches, but he is up front and personal with it.

No doubt we will soon get to see him walk out at Craven Cottage and bask in the reception of the Fulham faithful, all 25,700 of them. They had their doubts about the former owner's motives, but over 16 years most of them got to reason that, if it wasn't for Al-Fayed, their club might never have found the means to compete on the EPL stage.

Al-Fayed, the original foreign owner, leaves the club officially debt free. And he leaves English football as the pioneer whose footsteps have been followed by world entrepreneurs.

For better or for worse, this circle started with Mohamed Al-Fayed from Alexandria.