Sunderland’s uneasy relationship with Juan Sartori – when will he step out of the shadows?

Juan Sartori has lurked around Sunderland ever since Madrox took over the club in 2018. But, despite continued promises of increased involvement, nothing of any substance has come to fruition. Graeme Atkinson asks 'what next?'

At around 4.55pm the referee brings the match proceedings to a close and most of the 32,500 supporters celebrate victory. For home fans, having witnessed their team notch up five goals, it was reward for being there. Yet, Juan Sartori’s attendance at the Stadium of Light, during Sunderland AFC’s demolition of Cambridge United in late April, was at that same moment also a reminder – an alarm. Even when things appear encouraging, the ghosts of Madrox are never too far from the door.

Sartori’s visit to the terraces, Wembley Stadium included, is proof that supporters, irrespective of results on the pitch, can never become complacent on matters surrounding the club’s ownership. Vigilance has become a weary necessity.

But, now with Championship football secured, is his continued involvement such an issue?

After all, since his arrival on Wearside in 2018, Sartori (as one third of Madrox) has flown under the radar. Has he really done anything for fans to get het up about? Should we be concerned?

‘Yes’, is the short answer. Below is the long form version.

Sartori’s involvement

Unlike messrs Donald and Methven, Sartori remains relatively silent when it comes to all things red and white. Initially comparing the club as ‘the dream girl’ it was one of only a few rare public remarks attributed to the club Director since he became involved. Preferring to keep largely in the background, even a piece in the national media recently asked, ‘who is Juan Sartori?’

It is indeed a question worth posing.

Yet, in many respects we were already aware if not ‘who’ Sartori is, then certainly ‘what’ he is. No mystery has surrounded this for a while. The Uruguayan cannot be distinguished from Donald and Methven. And, promotion from League One cannot conceal that for many fans there remains grave concerns around the ownership structure as well as the impact this may have upon life in the second tier. If that is an unsettling thought for you then it should be acknowledged Sartori is at the root of this.

Look at what we know…

The club found itself languishing in the third tier for four consecutive years with a fifth still on the cards until the overly protracted appointment of Alex Neil. Surely even those with a sympathetic disposition must accept those years of misery were on Sartori’s watch.

Let us not mistake Sartori’s silence as dignified virtue either. Culpability lies equally at his door. And, it is because of this, that his continued presence should be treated with significant apprehension. Why?

Sunderland AFC’s ownership structure was all hokum for a start. With the purported ‘sale’ of the Black Cats in 2020 the Uruguayan retained his 20% share. As such he is right in the thick of it. Right at the centre. And, despite little media rhetoric compared with his Madrox chums, he is complicit in the false narrative of the Louis-Dreyfus ‘takeover’ which was allowed to shamefully spin as freely as it did.

Empty promises?

Perhaps some look upon February’s ownership revelations as matters not solely of Sartori’s doing. Well, if he is to be judged here on his involvement, where was the promised arrival of South American wonder kids to Wearside? Reports from 2018 and curiously just after his 20% stake was acquired, stated;

“Juan Sartori is set to bring a crop of South American talent to the Academy of Light…” Stewart Donald added at the time, “We are well on the way with that process.”

As productive as the AoL has been in recent times, it would have been unlikely for the Black Cats to witness the next Edinson Cavani or Luis Suarez emerge from its U23’s. But that task is made all the more difficult when not a single youngster arrived from South America. Not one. Zero. Stick a pin in this as we will come back to it shortly.

Let us also not forget having initially been declared as one of the ‘asset strippers’ by young billionaire Louis-Dreyfus back in February 2020, Sartori stepped away from the club’s board (almost as if to perpetuate the myth of a takeover). He returned some few short months later, when the coast was clear, to take up his barely cold seat at the table.

For context, in the beginning, Louis-Dreyfus was portrayed as an outsider and very much separated from Madrox. The asset stripper line surely underscored this. The young White Knight looked ready to rid us of the wrong ‘uns as all signs pointed to Louis-Dreyfus simply tolerating Donald, Methven and, of course, Sartori until more shares could be acquired. Once the shareholding admission became public in February, COO Steve Davison resurrected that same line stating, “We believe that Kyril is interested in purchasing more shares in the football club moving forward, so you would hope that they could reach some conclusion around the sale of those shares to Kyril.”

By March however, at the supporters collective meeting, that position had softened. “Louis-Dreyfus has signalled that he is unlikely to meet that price (set by Donald and Methven), and has said that he would be open to a third party acquiring those shares if they are prepared to meet it.”

Following promotion in May, the Sunderland Echo stated, “Kryil Louis-Dreyfus remains keen to increase his 41% shareholding in the club, but as of yet there has been no resolution in his attempt to purchase Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven’s stakes.”

So then, despite Louis-Dreyfus recently declining the opportunity to buy out Madrox once and for all, who knows what may occur in the aftermath of promotion. Presumably though whatever happens next their asking price has now gone up.

Yet, crucially if anyone still believes there was no prior connection between Louis-Dreyfus and Sartori, what is to be made of reports stating, “Sartori is credited with playing a part in bringing Louis-Dreyfus aboard, with the two families sharing social circles in both Switzerland and the south of France”? That must surely put an end to that.

Indeed, Sartori reportedly continues to have a ‘strong personal connection’ with Methven as well as Kyril’s twin, Maurice Louis-Dreyfus, who also sits on the club’s board.

The question then becomes why allow supporters to feel misled in the first place? And, why does the line around Louis-Dreyfus being keen to increase his share get trotted out when season cards are on sale or a Madrox related PR faux-pas emerges, but then softens when its blown over?

All connected

Perhaps a slight digression, but in this light and although some still make the case for it, is it even fair to continue looking upon those who previously occupied the Madrox moniker and Louis-Dreyfus as two distinct factions?

Surely the above shows they are all connected. All seemingly intertwined. But, this was not how the ‘project’ was sold to fans, was it?

Whilst on the subject of the ownership group, as the pressure mounted for answers relating to club shareholdings, we were also told recently that the wealthy Sartori remains ‘committed’ to the club. Why then were the club borrowing £9million from FPP back in November 2019 just to keep the lights on? Donald stated at the time, “…Juan could put the money in tomorrow, I could put the money in. I could have asked Juan – who indeed offered – to put in the same amount of money as FPP but the idea was to get these guys.” The reason for the loan with FPP specifically? According to the Guardian, “Donald talked of FPP potentially investing in business throughout the north-east…”

If the loan with FPP was in part to benefit the wider local economy then, is anyone aware of whether they have invested in any businesses in the area?

The take home point here is surely if Sartori as Director and shareholder has the means to contribute financially when needed but then fails to take action, well, it would not seem to align itself with any accepted definition of ‘commitment’. Not in this writer’s mind in any event. Not when the future of the club would have been thrown into the hands of FPP and the relative unknown as a result of a loan left unpaid, or if you prefer, a ‘win win’ as Donald hailed it then.

Sartori and the world of business

So, what do others make of Sartori, especially in the world of business? After all his business acumen is supposed to be the reason why he is on the board at Sunderland AFC. Interestingly, according to an article in Búsqueda (Uruguayan newspaper) shareholders of UAG (a company Sartori himself created in 2008) did not wish to reward him with a ‘golden handshake’ following his departure from the organisation, despite the fact this was supposedly written into his contract. Their reason was reportedly that although UAG was the largest in Uruguayan agriculture, due to his management it never made a profit; was in significant debt and had to downsize as a result. Eventually agreement was reached with Sartori and he received a payoff.

Interestingly too, that the debt owed to the banks was seemingly at least $69 million but that Sartori assured all concerned he had assets “more than enough to deal with all debts”. If this sounds familiar it may be because it is much the same line Donald used to try and allay supporters’ fears around the FPP loan.

Later on, when Sartori was running in the Uruguayan presidential elections, UAG was in the midst of being listed on Wall Street. Given the detailed forensic checks involved, documents held by Sartori’s former company showed that he was a graduate of Harvard University, USA and were submitted as part of the listing process. However, when experts compared these disclosures with those from Harvard school they revealed, rather embarrassingly for a running presidential candidate, he was allegedly not actually a graduate at all.

Closer to home, and according to an official statement to the Echo in 2020, “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”. The problem with remarks such as these is when everything the club has said surrounding ownership unravels at pace then does anyone believe it? Even the price Sartori paid for his initial 20% stake still remains an unknown.

But, back to the links between Sartori and Uruguayan clubs. Reports from late in 2021 suggested Sunderland AFC were looking to purchase C.A Rentistas. This followed on from earlier suggestions linking the Wearsiders with Club Atletico River Plate and Sud America too.

Despite assurances to give this his ‘priority’, all related talks thus far have led to nought, except more of those seemingly empty promises.

Lack of time?

By way of some explanation to the absence of any commercial partnership, quotes attributed to Sartori recently stated, “I would love for Sunderland to have an affiliated club in Uruguay. I studied a number of Uruguayan clubs to be able to do it, but due to lack time, I could not complete that project.”

Lack of time? Four years? The words of someone who remains ‘committed’.

It is true that Sartori has other interests. Recently being appointed vice President at Monaco, a club owned by his father – in – law, Russian tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev (initially referenced in the U.S’s Putin Accountability Act without any sanctions emerging). We are aware of his political aspirations in Uruguay too, touched on above, which have been building momentum since around the time of his marriage in 2015 where he has been compared to Donald Trump.

What does this all tell us?

The passage of time has now revealed some insight behind the Sartori ‘curtain’. Perhaps some supporters may not place much importance on what has been found. Especially against the backdrop of euphoria following recent Wembley success. There will be no agreement here on this point. Clearly the Black Cats are doing some things right. As such, it is possible to both be ecstatic and hopeful of the future whilst also remaining concerned about the ownership situation. This is especially true given the matters above, including a significant number of apparent ‘holes’ found in many of the club’s communications around ownership thus far.

But, what does all of this tell us about Juan Sartori and Sunderland AFC? At the very least, it suggests to this scribe at any rate that until something changes, his continued involvement much like Donald and Methven, will impact upon how confident one can be about the running of the club. Crucially, although ignoring that fact can sometimes seem the easier choice, it does not make it the right one.  After all, complacency can become a hurdle between any team and its potential.

And, after Sunderland AFC’s promotion back to the Championship, we can surely all agree – nothing, absolutely nothing, should prevent this club from maximising its full potential.