The curious case of Juan Sartori, his Sunderland role and Madrox's hint at future plans
In the dramatic, dizzying period that has followed Sunderland’s demotion to the third tier, there have been few more enigmatic figures than Juan Sartori.
The Uruguayan’s arrival was greeted as the latest exciting development in the club’s rebirth.
After some high-profile early appearances, there has been little sign of significant input, with a political career seemingly taking precedence throughout 2019 and into 2020.
Sartori has come to serve as another example whereby the vision sold to supporters by Madrox has looked very different to the reality.
It’s a more relevant question than ever, given that Sartori is now said to be moving to the UK imminently to step up his involvement.
The recent revelations regarding his stake in Madrox and the wider financial picture at the club also comes at a time when Sartori has been publicly discussing investing in Uruguayan clubs.
Madrox, curiously, are now also talking about widening their sporting portfolio.
So what exactly is going on and what might it mean?
We take a look at the key issues in play…..
What have Madrox said about their plans and where might Juan Sartori fit in?
One of the most interesting (or perhaps distracting) elements of Madrox’s response to a series of questions on their ownership was two-fold.
One, that Stewart Donald has built a ‘wider investor base’ than when he first acquired the club.
When asked whether this simply referred to the FPP group, all Madrox said was that any changes to the company shareholding structure would be announced accordingly (via Companies House).
Madrox also hinted that they are looking to acquire other sporting enterprises.
This comes at a time when Sartori has publicly discussed his interest in establishing a feeder club in Uruguay, and the President of a second-tier side there has confirmed he has held talks with Sartori’s advisers.
This is of interest to Sunderland because it is a clear indication that Madrox’s narrative around their company has shifted.
Initially, Madrox was viewed as a vehicle solely for the ownership of Sunderland.
It was therefore the case (and publicly stated by Donald) that any sale of Sunderland would most likely occur via the sale of Madrox.
Many fans therefore raised questions when the affairs of the holding company were said to be ‘confidential’, particularly in light of the FPP deal.
How could that be the case when the link between Madrox and Sunderland was linear and clear?
Madrox responded directly to this precise question from the Echo last week
“Madrox was indeed created as the vehicle in which to acquire Sunderland AFC,” they said. “However, it is looking at other investments in the sport and leisure sector to complement this. “That was a contributing factor in seeking a wider investment base and this along with the fact that some investors wish the detail of their financial involvement, like many people investing in businesses, to remain private, means that Madrox affairs must remain confidential.”
In summary, Madrox are now suggesting that their company and Sunderland AFC are no longer deemed to be so intertwined.
It’s a curious development, when Sartori is potentially discussing other footballing investments.
What are the consequences of this for Sunderland and potentially Juan Sartori?
The implication of a wider network of Madrox clubs/leisure ventures is an interesting one on many fronts, and one that raises a number of questions for Sunderland supporters.
One, to what extent are FPP involved in this, given they are said to be an ‘active partner’ in Madrox?’
Secondly, just how wide is the ‘expanded investor base’ and should supporters be entitled to know who is involved if Madrox remains in control of Sunderland?
There may also be some discomfort about investment in other clubs, if that is indeed what is being implied here, while that balance to Sunderland AFC remains outstanding. .
It is inevitable that the latest suggestions will be treated with some scepticism, given the backdrop to Sartori’s involvement at the club over the last 18 months.
‘More committed than ever’
In response to the document that suggests Sartori paid just £1 for his 20% stake in Madrox, Sunderland’s owners subsequently insisted that he remains ‘more committed than ever’ to the club ahead of a proposed move to London.
On the former point, Madrox told the Echo that Sartori paid a ‘token amount’ because his investment came in the form of Director’s loans.
They also said: “Juan Sartori has invested millions of pounds into Sunderland and has done so via Madrox on an interest free, debt free basis to the same proportion as the other investors.”
While the individual contributions are unknown, Madrox say their investment in Sunderland totals around £25million, with a significant chunk of this taking place before the FPP deal (this too, includes the initial deposit of around £5m million to Short).
It is feasible, then, that Sartori has made a financial contribution as some of the parachute payments have been paid back, even if the ‘greater involvement’ has never truly come to pass.
The Uruguayan remains a relevant figure, given that it is clear the club will not be changing ownership in the immediate future, and that there has been an absolute insistence that the remaining £11.5million owed to the club will be eventually repaid.
Many question whether increased involvement is truly feasible given his political commitments. The Uruguayan is only commanded to spend a certain amount of time in his native country, but significant time spent away would surely be a PR own goal if he does maintain major political ambitions.
Supporters are suspicious as from last summer onwards, the prospect of Sartori’s greater involvement has been a promise consistently dangled in times of strife or doubt.
In reality, it has never quite materialised and is one of the key reasons why fans have over time lost trust in the club’s ownership.
Increased involvement from Sartori was first floated in July as the ownership discussed the failure of Campbell’s takeover.
The timing of this was perhaps key as Sartori’s attempts to win his party’s nomination for the presidency had not been successful.
The prospect was then floated again in the aftermath of FPP’s decision to inject funds into Madrox as part of loan, rather than take a majority stake in the club itself (from day one, it had been briefed that Donald & Charlie Methven would have a key role moving forward even in the event of a takeover, but Sartori’s fate was never mentioned).
Increased involvement from Sartori was put forward as one reason why the deal eventually struck worked well for Sunderland.
Riddle and suspicion
It was then put forward again after the departure of Methven from the board, in part to alleviate concerns that a leadership void was developing.
Both of the latter statements came despite Sartori’s election as senator.
He has not been seen on Wearside since.
In those early months of the new regime, Sartori was front and centre. An energetic, irrepressible presence.
When he sang old terrace favourites in the Roker End, it was another sign of barriers being broken down, a key part of the shift that made supporters feel they had their club back.
Those appearances dwindled as his political career took flight.
Supporters are now again being promised a great impact and greater visibility.
Sunderland’s short and term future feels like a riddle that is impossible to solve.
So much remains uncertain and Sartori’s role remains one of them.
Above all else, it underlines the suspicion with which fans view developments at their club, and why they have been left concerned about its future.