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Dragan’s den: meeting Southampton’s new billionaire owner | Southampton

Two days after Southampton held Manchester Metropolis to a 1-1 draw at St Mary’s final weekend, the membership’s new majority owner, Dragan Šolak, seems extraordinarily happy along with his buy. It was “a fully supreme efficiency enjoying towards in all probability the most effective workforce on the planet”, says Šolak, visibly excited by reminiscences of watching his new workforce finish Metropolis’s 12-match profitable streak.

Born in Serbia and based mostly in Switzerland, Šolak met the Guardian in a collection of workplaces tucked away in a chic residence block in central Milan, one in all many locations he spends time, he says. He plans to attend as many Southampton video games as his journey schedule permits.

Earlier than the Southampton buy, Šolak virtually by no means gave interviews and shunned the general public eye. “I actually like being a personal particular person, and hopefully I’ll return to that quickly,” he says, talking fluent English in a booming voice, accompanied by expressive hand gestures.

Šolak’s estimated £1.4bn wealth is principally derived from the 33% stake he retains in United Group, a Netherlands-based firm he constructed from scratch that controls media property throughout the Balkans.

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He agreed to reply questions on Southampton, however what he actually wished to speak about was the political scenario in his house nation, the place Aleksandar Vučić, now the president, has regularly tightened his grip on the media since he first grew to become prime minister in 2014.

“My focus is de facto to place the sunshine on the media freedom scenario in Serbia,” says Šolak, whose information channel N1 is now in Vučić’s crosshairs. “I feel Vučić is making a case of how a dictator can, by enjoying good and well mannered, get actually far in Europe,” he says, railing at these within the EU who again Vučić.

The Premier League is a participant on this story too, with Šolak’s cable community shedding out on the rights in a bidding struggle final yr, after state-controlled Telekom Serbia put in an infinite bid. The logic, Šolak believes, is to make use of soccer to attract folks away from his cable packages, and thus his important information channels.

Šolak insists his choice to purchase Southampton was unconnected to shedding the Premier League rights, noting he had wished to become involved in elite sport for a while, however the timing is definitely intriguing.

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Dragan Šolak at Southampton final weekend. ‘It could be tough for me to consider a greater match of a membership,’ he says. {Photograph}: Isabelle Subject/Southampton FC/Getty Pictures

He’s the lead investor in Sport Republic, which purchased 80% of the shares in Southampton from the Chinese language businessman Gao Jisheng for about £100m. Sport Republic was arrange by Rasmus Ankersen, Brentford’s former co-director of soccer, and Henrik Kraft, previously a associate on the personal fairness agency KKR. Kraft advised Šolak in regards to the challenge and its plans to acquire stakes in soccer golf equipment, and Šolak got here on board virtually instantly.

After they then advised Šolak about plans to make a proposal for Southampton, he was much more excited, he remembers. The entire course of took lower than two months.

“It could be tough for me to consider a greater match of a membership,” he says. “It’s a membership that likes to develop gamers, it’s a membership that’s engaged, it has an amazing fanbase, a really household oriented membership and a pleasant location.” In addition they play in pink and white, the identical colors as Pink Star Belgrade, the workforce Šolak grew up supporting.

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Šolak is coy about precisely how rather more cash Southampton would possibly now must play with, however he’s clear that the earlier scenario, the place any acquisitions needed to be funded from participant gross sales, was now not the case. “We are going to actually attempt to give the membership assist to have actually correct planning, administration and improvement of expertise. I can’t inform you how a lot cash that may price or not, however undoubtedly we’ll give enough assist to the workforce,” he mentioned.

He has met Ralph Hasenhüttl and the pair struck up a right away rapport. “After spending a while with him, I can say I actually like him and he’s actually sensible,” Šolak says. “He loves gamers, he loves spending time with gamers and loves growing gamers.

Ralph Hasenhüttl, the Southampton manager, is described by Šolak as ‘really smart’.Ralph Hasenhüttl, the Southampton supervisor, is described by Šolak as ‘actually sensible’. {Photograph}: Isabelle Subject/Southampton FC/Getty Pictures

“Hopefully, with the growing assist that we want to give him and the workforce, he ought to be capable of develop it into actually a prime‑10 workforce.” Šolak is not going to be concerned within the day-to-day of operating the membership (Ankersen would be the chief govt and Kraft the chairman, he says), however he hopes to have an enter into technique.

Born within the city of Kragujevac in 1964, Šolak moved to Belgrade to review electronics at college. He dropped out to deal with enterprise alternatives, which had been burgeoning as Yugoslavia’s communist regime was tottering within the late Eighties, and in 1990 he began one of many first manufacturing companies within the nation.

When Yugoslavia disintegrated and the struggle in Bosnia started in 1992, he moved away. “I knew I used to be Serbian however I used to be raised extra as a Yugoslav, so I didn’t actually really feel that struggle was one thing I might perceive and I left the nation in 1992,” he says.

Šolak spent almost a decade overseas, in Prague, London and Ljubljana, the place he primarily labored in mental property and copyright. In 2000, he arrange a small native cable tv community again in his house city, and with worldwide funding was in a position to develop it quickly.

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Over time, the enterprise expanded each geographically and when it comes to content material. In 2014, it grew to become United Group, and KKR grew to become its new owner, which is how Šolak met Kraft. In 2019 they offered it to a different personal fairness agency however Šolak retained his 33% stake.

Serbia accounts for under 10% of the group’s revenues however it’s clear the scenario in his house nation is infuriating for Šolak, who now not travels there due to safety considerations.

When information of the Southampton deal grew to become public, Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabić, attacked Šolak on Twitter, claiming he was a part of an “oligarchy” near the earlier authorities. Professional-government tabloids incessantly spew abuse about Šolak, and declare he represents shady forces or international affect.

“Few folks have been as a lot attacked within the media as he has,” says Florian Bieber, of the College of Graz. “He’s just about public enemy primary”.

Šolak insists he has no political agenda past wanting honest elections, and no hyperlinks to political events. “My prime priorities are my household and golf, after which I’d say enterprise. Politics is nowhere within the prime 100. I don’t care about politics. I grew to become a political determine solely as a result of I wouldn’t enable them to vary the way in which we function our information channels.”

Šolak’s United Group has lost out on the Premier League rights to a state-controlled company in Serbia.Šolak’s United Group has misplaced out on the Premier League rights to a state-controlled firm in Serbia. {Photograph}: Alex Pantling/PA

Šolak says United Group has come below strain in quite a few methods. In massive elements of Serbia, it has been pushed out of distribution networks, which means many individuals can’t join.

After which there are the Premier League rights. Beforehand, United Group was paying €11m a yr. When the contract got here up for renewal final yr, it provided €35m a yr for the following six years, however this was dwarfed by Telekom Serbia’s provide, regarded as €100m a yr. The state-controlled firm has additionally received European soccer rights, leaving United with simply the Bundesliga.

“I can’t calculate how Telekom Serbia would make a revenue with the costs they paid for the Premier League, for Uefa league,” says Šolak. He believes there may be an ulterior, political motive. Telekom Serbia has denied any political motivations, however others are sceptical.

“I used to be disenchanted, however … on the finish of the day, it’s a business entity desirous to make the very best return for its members,” Šolak mentioned of the Premier League’s choice to just accept the bid. It would turn into clear when subsequent season begins how a lot impact shedding the soccer may have on the dimensions of the subscriber base, he says.

Though Šolak is proud and fiercely defensive of N1’s editorial independence, it’s clear that for him, tv information is extra about good returns than freedom of speech. Entering into the information business was purely a enterprise choice: “The entire thought got here whereas visiting mates from Fox within the States, and so they advised me essentially the most worthwhile a part of Fox was Fox Information. And I assumed: ‘Wow.’”

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If the appropriate provide got here in for United Group, he says, he would haven’t any qualms about recommending a sale to his companions.

With regards to Southampton, Šolak says he doesn’t plan to squeeze the membership for revenue, and would favor to construct it and improve the worth. The excitement of the battling draw with Metropolis might have given him a style for a number of the non-financial rewards of proudly owning a soccer membership.

“My household mentioned they haven’t seen me so joyful and excited a few enterprise enterprise for a very long time, so I assume it should be a superb funding,” he says, with amusing.

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