The nobody who tried to buy Manchester United and Inter Milan – The Athletic

Adam CraftonMar 28, 2024

Welcome to the fourth part of our series about the men who want to buy football clubs. Here, we look at Thomas Zilliacus and his attempts to buy Manchester United and Inter Milan.

  • Part 1: Chris Kirchner, the $25m fraudster cast as Derby County’s saviour
  • Part 2: Dozy Mmobuosi — ‘Under every rock, we found a lie’
  • Part 3: How an F1 deal ‘unleashed the beast’ — William Storey’s three failed bids to buy a football club

It was the spring of 2024 and the second round of bidding as the Glazer family weighed up a potential sale of Manchester United. The headline acts — British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe and the Qatari Sheikh Jassim — were firmly in the hunt as the Glazers sought upwards of $6billion (£4.75bn at current rates) to sell the club.

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On March 23, another name emerged and, even to those who follow these matters closely, Thomas Zilliacus was an unfamiliar figure.

The 69-year-old Finn sent out a press release stating he had submitted a bid to buy United through his investment firm XXI Century Capital. He cited the club’s market value, at the time $3.9bn, and said his group would finance half the money. As for the other half? That would be over to the fans.

“The current development, where billionaire sheiks and oligarks (sic) take over clubs and control them as their personal playgrounds, is not a healthy trend,” Zilliacus wrote, arguing that any club should ultimately belong to its supporters.

He continued: “We will ask the fans, through a new company being set up for this purpose, to participate. If every fan joins it means less than $3 per fan. Each fan who joins will have access to an app, which the fan, from anywhere in the world, can use to participate and cast his vote when deciding on footballing matters relating to the club. No decisions will be taken that are not supported by a majority of the fanbase.”

It was a bold statement yet, in the world of mergers and acquisitions, discretion is usually king. Non-disclosure agreements are signed and principals remain largely silent — even obtaining pictures of Sheikh Jassim, who fronted the Qatari bid for United, had proved difficult.

Yet Zilliacus placed himself front and centre. He listed his mobile phone number and email address in a public press release. He joined Twitter “Spaces” to speak directly with United fans. He was interviewed at length by the BBC and the United We Stand fanzine. He said he had never been to Old Trafford but fell in love with United when the team of Sir Matt Busby, Sir Bobby Charlton and Denis Law played against the Finnish club HJK Helsinki in the 1965 European Cup.

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Suddenly, a nobody — in football terms, at least — became a somebody.

Under questioning, Zilliacus conceded his original pitch may have been poorly explained: rather than asking fans for the money to fund the acquisition, he wanted to buy the club and then give supporters the opportunity to purchase shares from his group down the line.

“I do this for the love of football and love of Manchester United,” Zilliacus said. “There is no ego here.”

Yet within three weeks, he was out. “I have declined participation in a third bidding round for United. The bidding is turning into a farce, with Glazers giving no respect to the club.” The pertinent question, perhaps, is how much was he ever really in?

By June, he had turned his attention elsewhere, arguing the price of United “reached levels where investments no longer make sense”.

Zilliacus claimed to be bidding for another of Europe’s most famous clubs — Inter Milan of Italy. This week, Zilliacus told The Athletic he submitted two offers, one in July and another in November, but they did not proceed.

That is, at least partially, because a pretty major stumbling block has emerged: Zilliacus is a wanted man by police in Singapore.

Zilliacus before a Bloomberg Television interview in Singapore in September 2014 (Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A warrant of arrest has been issued, relating to the affairs of YuuZoo, a company he co-founded and where he previously served as chief executive. The Singapore Police Force also issued an INTERPOL red notice against Zilliacus, whom it claims has refused to return to the country.

These are claims he strongly contests yet The Athletic can also reveal that Zilliacus has been among a cast of defendants accused in a New York lawsuit of federal securities fraud  — the case did not reach trial because the defendants chose to settle out of court by paying a six-figure sum.

So, who is Thomas Zilliacus? How authentic were his bids for Manchester United and Inter Milan? How does he explain the growing doubts about his credibility and the serious allegations against his name? And why does he want to buy a football club?

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On Zilliacus’ Wikipedia page, the website cautions that it appears to have been edited by somebody with “close connections” to the entrepreneur. The page says that he is the great-great-grandson of a 19th-century mayor of Helsinki, and the great-grandnephew of the founder of the Finnish Activist Resistance Party, which sought to free Finland from Russian control. It also says that Zilliacus was editor-in-chief of his student newspaper at the University of Helsinki and a three-time chair of its student union. He also told The Athletic that he was a prodigiously gifted young footballer, spending one season in Brazil with Fluminense, and sent a picture of him playing bare-chested during his time in the club’s youth academy.

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Yet instead of a career in football, Zilliacus says he opted to join the mobile phone company Nokia at the age of 25, before moving to Singapore to head up the company’s Asia operations.

The Daily Star newspaper greeted news of his United bid by describing him as a “mobile phone guru”. The American sports business publication Front Office Sports described him as a billionaire, a description Zilliacus himself rejects, and he says he has sought to repeatedly correct reports that inaccurately depict him in this way.

As for his record in football, Zilliacus has said he was the chairman of HJK for four years between 1982 and 1986, a period in which the club were Finnish champions.

HJK have clarified this week that his was a smaller role than it perhaps sounds, as a chairman within the football department, rather than the club’s overall chairman, Kari Kontuniemi. Zilliacus countered to The Athletic: “I was in charge of all sporting aspects of the men’s team, including buying and selling players, contract negotiations that I personally handled with each player and selection of the team manager. In other words, all the power that a chairman of a football club has now.”

During his short spell as a contender to acquire Manchester United, Finnish sports journalist Janne Oivio told the BBC that Zilliacus was “very much a move and shaker” in the 1980s and early ’90s in Helsinki. “He was very personable, charming, excellent at making connections,” Oivio added, “and built an expansive network of connections.”

Yet when news broke in Finland of his bid for United, Oivio recalled: “We thought, ‘This guy? Really?’. Everyone was like, ‘Hold on — he’s going to do what?’.”

Zilliacus wanted to increase fan ownership of Manchester United (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

That, too, appeared to be the response at Manchester United and among the Raine Group, the New York merchant bank entrusted by the Glazer family to market the club and receive bidders. Sources close to that process, who do not wish to be named owing to sensitivities around the deal, say that Zilliacus did make contact with Raine but his approach lacked substance.

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Zilliacus also became very involved late in the day, right against the deadline of the second round of bidding.

“I got involved in the bidding only after the other bidders had completed their due diligence,” he said. “Without proper due diligence, I could only give the Raine Group a framework offer based on publicly available information. I asked Raine for the possibility to do my own due diligence so that I could build a complete offer. As the process with the other bidders already was well on the way, the Raine Group did not agree to this. I therefore decided to withdraw from further bidding.”

Asked how he would have funded such a takeover, he added: “Details of how a possible buy would have been funded is not a public matter and I remain committed to signed NDAs (non-disclosure agreements). I have stated that unlike Sheikh Jassim and Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who both have huge wealth that enables them to buy a large football club outright, I do not sit on billions and must take another route and build a consortium with partners. Such a consortium for the bid for Manchester United was being built but for Inter — it was ready.”

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On May 28, Zilliacus tweeted what he claimed United had missed out on. “Using the tools we have, XXI Century Football Capital could have paid Glazers $6billion, built a new stadium, built the world’s best team and still run a profitable club. Too bad they didn’t want to talk with us.”

Inter, meanwhile, have been a club appearing likely to sell for quite some time. Last season, even in a year they reached the Champions League final, the club lost €85million (now £72.9m; $92m) after losing €140m in 2022 and €245.6m — a Serie A record – in 2021.

Owned by the Chinese conglomerate Suning, Inter are also under pressure because a €275m loan to the club from Oaktree Capital Management is due to expire in May. The loan was guaranteed by Suning’s 68.5 per cent stake in Inter, which means Oaktree could repossess the club should Suning default on the loan. Reuters reported in February that the parties are discussing an extension.

Raine Group is also responsible for marketing Inter and The Athletic has corroborated that Zilliacus has made contact with the bank over a potential deal with Inter. Yet multiple sources familiar with that process have said that Zilliacus has failed to produce proof of funds.

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In an email response, Zilliacus said: “I appointed as advisors one of the world’s largest investment banks. I worked closely with them as well as several prominent parties in Italy with detailed knowledge of Inter Milan to structure the bid. The bid that was submitted to buy Inter was complete and in no way lacking in substance.”

In a separate phone call, he added: “The intention was that my company would put in €100m and the balance would come from other investors because in Inter Milan’s case, Inter has a lot of debt. There is an outstanding bond of €415m. And then there is a loan from Oaktree — that’s €275m. I’m not saying that that was our bid but you take a rough sum of one billion, which is close to where I think the value of Inter is, then if you deduct from that €415m plus €275m, then we are already at almost €700m. So that means if you take over those loans, the actual money that you then pay is a bit over €300m.”

Zilliacus will not state the identity of these mystery partners, other than to say he has backing in place from North America and the Middle East. Yet on February 21, a twist upended Zilliacus when a statement landed on the website of the Singapore Police Force. Zilliacus, it turned out, is a suspected criminal.

The case in Singapore relates to a business co-founded by Zilliacus called YuuZoo — a platform that sought to combine e-commerce, social networking, mobile and online payments, as well as mobile games. It was listed to trade on the Singapore Exchange but for nearly six years, it has been the subject of investigations by Singapore’s Commercial Affairs Department over alleged breaches relating to the publication of misleading statements between 2013 and 2016.

In 2018, the premises of YuuZoo were raided. Police interviewed employees and seized documents, board meeting minutes and computer equipment. Zilliacus was obliged to hand over his personal diaries and laptops, as well as his work equivalents. Police ordered Zilliacus to surrender his passport and it was only returned, he says, following the payment of a bond by a third party for $100,000.

On February 21, matters came to a head. The Singapore Police Force released a statement that said YuuZoo is alleged to have released misleading quarterly financial reports between 2015 and 2016 — YuuZoo’s revenue was overstated by $4.6m to $18.8m. The company’s former CEO, James Somasundram, was charged under the Securities and Futures Act, while Zilliacus, as the chief executive and chairman during the material period, stood accused of being involved in the release of misleading statements. The Singapore Police Force says Zilliacus has refused to return to Singapore, leading to a warrant for his arrest and an INTERPOL red notice has been issued against him.

“The facts of the claim are incorrect,” Zilliacus told The Athletic, stressing that he has not been charged with any crime. “I have not refused to return to Singapore. I am a permanent resident of Singapore where I have lived since 1986.”

Zilliacus is residing in Italy and he has previously cited complications with long Covid as a reason for being unable to fly back to Singapore.

Zilliacus in January 1995 in Singapore (Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images)

The trigger for the raid on YuuZoo came after former employees made allegations about the company, which led to an independent report being made by the globally renowned auditor Ernst & Young, which referred its findings to the Singapore Exchange Regulation, which in turn passed information to the Singapore authorities.

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Zilliacus says the Ernst & Young report included misleading statements and a legal claim has been filed in Singapore against the auditors. Ernst & Young declined to comment when approached by The Athletic.

He also has an alternative explanation for the initial allegations against YuuZoo, saying it was the result of a “smear campaign” by an ex-employee who had demanded payment to keep quiet after being dismissed. “YuuZoo refused to pay and reported his blackmail to the police,” Zilliacus added. “He started his smear campaign and did not stop until he got publicity for his false claims.”

The Singapore Exchange suspended trading in YuuZoo’s shares in March 2018 because the company’s independent auditors had reported that they had not been able to corroborate important facts stated within the company’s accounts. This included, for the year-end 2017, being unable to verify YuuZoo’s purported “other income” of S$8m (£4.7m; $6m), in addition to a balance of assets available for sale of S$54.2m and correspondent revenue of S$38.4m.

Zilliacus insists that YuuZoo acted under the instructions of auditors. He said: “Everything was done following international and Singapore accounting standards. YuuZoo has presented all the facts to the Singapore Exchange and has nothing to hide or to add.”

There had been some reporting about this case in local media, while Yuen Teen Mak, a corporate governance advocate and professor of accounting at the National University of Singapore, has often written of his concerns about the company’s governance, reporting and accounting. Yet after Zilliacus associated himself with Manchester United and Inter, plenty of websites ran profiles of him, leaning heavily on his Wikipedia page but neglecting to mention these allegations.

Yuen Teen Mak wrote recently on LinkedIn: “Actually the question is how can someone who was under investigation by the Commercial Affairs Department, paid a bond to get his passport back, be taken seriously by the media as a bidder for Manchester United? It’s just that there is now a warrant out for his arrest with an INTERPOL red notice — he was under investigation for a while.

“If the media at that time had done its homework, they may have ROFL (‘rolled on the floor laughing’) like me when he was mentioned as a bidder for MU. Even Geylang United may be a stretch.”

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Geylang United are the Singaporean team that Zilliacus’ Wikipedia page says he managed in the 1990s. They were a semi-professional team but later became founding members of Singapore’s pro league, by which time Zilliacus had left the club.

Crucially, however, Zilliacus’ legal challenges have not been confined to Singapore. In 2015, a civil lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of New York, in which Zilliacus and YuuZoo were among a list of defendants accused of engaging in federal securities fraud, common law fraud, negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract. This was all in connection with the sale of shares in YuuZoo by two brothers, James Heckler and Andrew Heckler, who also took umbrage with the circumstances of a $245,000 loan that had been secured under YuuZoo shares.

The Heckler brothers pursued damages “in an amount to be proven at trial” and “punitive damages in an amount sufficient to deter future misconduct”. Specific allegations included a failure to disclose that YuuZoo had been unable to engage in a public offering or merge with a public company in the United States because of its accounting irregularities, as well as grossly inflating the sales of YuuZoo to raise capital for Yuuzoo and to facilitate the listing of its shares on the Singapore Exchange.

It was also alleged that Yuuzoo and the defendants failed to disclose that inquiries into the grossly inflated sales of Yuuzoo by the Singapore Exchange had caused serious delays and jeopardised the listing of Yuuzoo shares.

In December 2016, YuuZoo and Zilliacus filed a motion to dismiss the claims brought against them as they argued that the U.S. courts lacked personal jurisdiction over the parties. In May 2018, however, a ruling found that the court did have specific jurisdiction over the defendants.

By then, an out-of-court settlement agreement had been reached and Zilliacus confirmed that a six-figure sum was paid to the Heckler brothers.

Zilliacus insisted he had never had dealings with the Hecklers. “Rather than spending a huge amount on legal costs to prove our innocence, YuuZoo decided to settle for a lesser sum,” he said. “I want to emphasise that the decision should not be misconstrued as an admission of guilt. It was a strategic decision to mitigate legal expenses. It is crucial to highlight that none of the allegations put forth by Hecklerco had any basis in truth.”

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It should be said that it is not unusual for companies that float to fall out with investors. It is certainly fair to say that, at one point, YuuZoo was considered to be a hot stock and would have attracted the attention of investors looking for the next tech unicorn. However, unicorn-hunting is a highly speculative game, with far more failures than successes.

Yet the allegations made remain grave, and when approached by The Athletic, Ken Sussmane, who represented the Hecklers in the case, warned that Zilliacus’ statement “contained inaccuracies”.

Sussmane told The Athletic in an email that his clients are under a confidentiality and non-disparagement agreement with Yuuzoo, but added that “our publicly filed complaint (described above) and the subsequent action taken by the Singapore regulatory body to halt trading speak for themselves.”

So, where does this leave any supporter of a football club that Zilliacus may soon be linking himself to?

The Singapore case is playing out but Zilliacus is an innocent man, even if there is a peculiarity about the way he tried to acquire a football club that has unnerved and turned away those who he needed to impress. Zilliacus says his proposed funding partners for Inter have been “derailed” by news of an INTERPOL red notice and, as such, his pursuit of the Serie A club is on hold.

So no takeover of Manchester United and no movement on Inter, either — and Zilliacus remains a befuddling case to read.

While he has some money, perhaps tens or hundreds of millions, he would need to raise capital and be a frontman of a consortium to pull off a deal for a European superclub. Yet exactly what would his proposed funders gain from association with a man who has been accused of fraud in New York and is pursued by police in Singapore, beyond a couple of years apparently at the heart of a Finnish club some 40 years ago?

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Speaking to people in the football industry this week, there was no shortage of theories. One associate of Zilliacus suggested he is a fantasist who will never own a major club. Another wondered whether he may have been seeking to use the publicity of these flirtations with brands such as United and Inter to enhance his credibility in the business world and bury those stories about YuuZoo further down the Google search pages.

A search of his UK business interests reveal a UK subsidiary of YuuZoo, which was incorporated in February 2019 with share capital of £1 and Zilliacus as its sole director and owner. Yet the firm has almost been struck off the registry of UK companies three times for failing to file paperwork on time and has not conducted any business for five years.

The same can be said of the three other UK companies of which Zilliacus is a director. One is a dormant law firm, another is its dissolved parent company, and the third is a newly-registered fashion business called Berseth Fashion Group. Zilliacus launched Berseth via a press release on EIN Presswire, a paid-for service, on March 30. “Investment follows hot on the heels of (the) recent bid to buy Manchester United and is in line with XXICC’s focus on sport, fashion and digital media,” it said. The company appears to be co-owned by the Milan-based designer Enice Favella, a 27-year-old from Burundi, but it has not yet filed any accounts or registered a website.

Inter are one of Europe’s biggest football clubs (Piero Cruciatti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Zilliacus, who says his “record in the business world speaks for itself”, insists he has made no misleading claims and has no desire for personal publicity.

He added: “False claims have regrettably been made by some individuals. Accusations do, however, not equate to a person being guilty. I have a long and unblemished professional record during which I have built and managed many successful businesses and companies.

“An unfortunate side effect of building and running successful businesses that catch the interest of the public eye is to be targeted by unscrupulous people who try to extort money through blackmail. Instead of writing about the success, you have decided to highlight the two blackmail cases that I, during my extensive career, have been the target of. Both are based on false claims intended to cause maximum distress.

“It is important to underline that I never have been convicted of any wrongdoing in any court. I am greatly confident that my track record in this respect will stay.”

Whether his “track record” will see Zilliacus at the helm of a big club any time soon, however, remains unclear.

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(Design: Eamonn Dalton; top photos: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images, Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg, Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

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Adam Crafton covers football for The Athletic. He previously wrote for the Daily Mail. In 2018, he was named the Young Sports Writer of the Year by the Sports’ Journalist Association. His debut book,”From Guernica to Guardiola”, charting the influence of Spaniards in English football, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2018. He is based in London.

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