April 5 (Reuters) - Italian businessman Massimo Cellino has been given approval to complete the purchase of second tier club Leeds United after an independent QC overturned the Football League’s initial decision to block him.
Cellino, president of Italian Serie A club Cagliari, agreed in February to buy a 75 percent stake in former English champions Leeds for a reported 25 million pounds ($41.48 million) from Dubai-based GFH Capital.
However, the Football League’s board blocked Cellino from completing the deal after an Italian court found him guilty of tax evasion.
Cellino will now become president of Leeds, and managing director David Haigh will become chief executive.
“This is a significant day in the history of Leeds United,” Haigh said in a statement on the club website (www.leedsunited.com).
”Since GFH Capital took over the club in December 2012, the stated aim has always been to introduce strategic investors to ensure a sustainable future for the club.
”I have met with many potential investors and worked closely with them, and I realised very quickly that Massimo is someone who has the attributes to take this club forward.
“He has a proven track record in Italy, and I believe the introduction of Eleonora Sport, coupled with Massimo’s drive and determination, will be key to a successful and sustainable future for this great football club.”
The English soccer authorities have been under pressure to take a tougher line on scrutinising club owners after Birmingham City boss Carson Yeung was jailed in Hong Kong for money laundering last month.
Cellino had argued that the ban should not apply as he was appealing against the decision of the Italian court which fined him 600,000 euros ($823,000) for failing to pay import duties on a yacht.
GFH Capital, who bought Leeds in December 2012, will retain a 25 percent stake in the club.
Cellino had already been putting money into the club and Leeds have not been able to pay their players in full since the League blocked the takeover at the start of last week.
There had been fears that Leeds could be forced into administration and a points deduction could push them close to the relegation zone in the Championship.
“We are disappointed at the outcome of the appeal hearing, however we would like to thank the independent QC for his diligence in reviewing this decision,” a Football League spokesperson said in a statement on its website (www.football-league.co.uk).
”This was never about individual personalities, but instead was a matter in which we were obliged to uphold the integrity of our regulations having considered the issue in detail with our advisors.
”It was always an extremely complex matter in which a different interpretation of a judgment made under Italian law could lead to an entirely different outcome in the context of our regulations. Ultimately this has proven to be the case.
”The independent QC has concluded that Mr. Cellino’s recent conviction in the Sardinian Court did not involve conduct that would ‘reasonably be considered to be dishonest’ based on information available to him at the current time.
“The Football League will now consider the findings of the hearing.”
The takeover could put the position of manager Brian McDermott in doubt, with reports suggesting he had been sacked in February.
He remains in charge of 15th-placed Leeds, who lost 1-0 to Wigan Athletic on Saturday.
$1 = 0.6028 British Pounds Reporting by Josh Reich and Keith Weir, editing by Pritha Sarkar