Controversial Kazakhstan businessman ‘front-runner’ to buy Aston Villa

Controversial Kazakhstan businessman ‘front-runner’ to buy Aston Villa

21:17 25.05.2014

A controversial Kazakh-born property mogul has emerged as the “front-runner” to buy Aston Villa, The Independent can reveal.

Villa were formally put up for sale by their American owner, Randy Lerner, earlier this month and are expected to fetch at least £250m.

The Independent understands from a source involved in the bidding race that Tevfik Arif, founder of New York-based property firm Bayrock Group and a business associate of US billionaire Donald Trump is a “front-runner”.

Arif was arrested and questioned in October 2010 in a high-profile raid by Turkish police over claims that he supplied Russian businessmen and officials with Eastern European prostitutes for up to $10,000 a night on the Savarona, a luxury yacht originally used by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Ataturk. He was acquitted of all charges in April 2011.

Arif worked for 17 years in hotel management at the Soviet Ministry of Commerce and Trade, before developing the luxurious Labada hotel in Turkey after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moving to the US, he partnered with Trump on a number of projects including the upmarket 46-storey Trump SoHo hotel and residential tower in New York.

The source said: “There are around six to eight interested parties and he is the front-runner. Arif and his family are serious contenders.”

If successful, he would be the first Kazakh owner of a Premier League club, although Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich owns Chelsea and Uzbekistan’s Alisher Usmanov is a major shareholder in the FA Cup winners Arsenal. Villa will need an owner with deep pockets after losing £52m in the year to May 2013.

Lerner bought Villa for £63m in 2006, buying out long-term owner Doug Ellis, who chaired the club in two spells stretching back to 1968. The club has been informally on the market for the past year, but the US billionaire officially hoisted the “for sale” board outside Villa Park on the day after the end of a disappointing season in which the team, managed by Paul Lambert, narrowly avoided relegation. Lerner said he “owed it to Villa to move on, and look for fresh, invigorated leadership, if in my heart I feel I can no longer do the job”.

Buying Villa would not be Arif’s first investment in the football world. In July last year, he was named by Bloomberg as an investor in Doyen Capital, a London-based hedge fund which has bought stakes in leading players such as Monaco’s Radamel Falcao – effectively betting on rising future transfer fees – in return for loans to cash-strapped clubs. As of April, Doyen had invested €100m (£80m) in players. It would also extend the links between Kazakhstan and the UK. Prince Andrew has made frequent visits and former prime minister Tony Blair has advised the country’s autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch is the investment bank handling the sale of the club. Sources did not deny the involvement of Arif in the bidding but refused to give a “running commentary on the sale process”. Arif declined to comment despite repeated attempts to reach him through Bayrock over two days. An Aston Villa spokesman declined to comment.