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Former Vitesse owner Merab Jordania purchases Valletta FC

Former Vitesse caretaker owner Merab Jordania has found himself a new club in Malta, Valletta FC. In addition to hiring away some of Vitesse's personnel, he appears to be using the playbook he developed in Arnhem to lay the groundwork for success in Malta. Do we have a burgeoning Chelsea C Cobham Mediterranean on our hands?

Valletta's Roderick Briffa playing for Malta against Andrea Pirlo and Italy in a World Cup qualifer.
Valletta's Roderick Briffa playing for Malta against Andrea Pirlo and Italy in a World Cup qualifer.
Marco Luzzani

Former Vitesse caretaker owner Merab Jordania has purchased Maltese club Valletta FC. Valletta competes in the Maltese Premier League and takes its name from the capital city where the club is based.

As is usually the case with Jordania, however, this story isn't quite so simple as it may appear.

Jordania is taking Andre Paus with him to Malta, and has named him as a coach under current manager Mark Miller. Paus had been working as the head coach of the Vitesse reserve squad. Vitesse has replaced Paus with John Lammers, a long-time friend of manager Peter Bosz. The Vitesse press release appears to indicate that this was an amicable parting, and the Arnhem club seems perfectly fine with Paus taking the opportunity to further his own career by accepting the position at Valletta. According to a source in Malta, Valletta fans are unhappy with Miller, and Paus may soon become the manager. Given Jordania's track record with regards to his managers (Jordania makes Roman Abramovich look very patient by comparison), this move could come sooner rather than later.

We have previously discussed the love Jordania still has for Vitesse, and it seems very unlikely that Jordania would try to raid Vitesse and poach the club's managerial talent.

That said, Jordania's Valletta is going to have some strong ties to Vitesse. Jordania has also hired Vitesse's former technical director Ted van Leeuwen. Van Leeuwen had been with the club for five years, first as a chief scout and then being promoted to technical director. However, his contract was not renewed last summer. Given that incoming technical director Mo Allach wasn't scheduled to start until October, however, Vitesse asked that van Leeuwen stay on for an extra few months. Van Leeuwen's willingness to stay in through the summer to help Vitesse with the transition to Allach seemingly indicates that the parting was amicable.

In addition, Jordania was still the owner when the decision was made not to renew van Leeuwen's contract, and if there was any animosity between them, Jordania obviously wouldn't have asked him to join the Valletta project. According to my source, van Leeuwen will help Jordania and Valletta evaluate talent and choose which players to buy (an Emenalo-type role).

In fact, and this is admittedly wanton speculation, one wonders if Jordania chose not to renew van Leeuwen's contract at Vitesse because he already knew that he'd want van Leeuwen to join him at Valletta. Jordania was well aware that Chigirinsky was going to take over at some point, and it's reasonable to assume he knew the timetable as to when he'd have to transfer ownership to Chigirinsky well in advance. The one piece of evidence supporting this notion comes from a source I have in Malta.

My source explained that there was a rumour going around in Malta last summer that a Georgian was looking to get involved with Valletta. My source started doing some research and after speaking with some of Valletta's committee members, he was able to find out that the mysterious Georgian happened to be none other than Merab Jordania.

My source then questioned Valletta president Victor Sciriha directly about Jordania's involvement, and at the time Sciriha said that Jordania's "is only interested in football, because he loves football." However, he found out that Jordania began sponsoring the club through a company called Insignia, and the club announced the official sponsorship back in August.

What is Jordania's specific involvement in Insignia? I spoke with an Insignia representative yesterday, but was unable to get an answer (note that this wasn't due to an unwillingness to talk on the part of the company by any means, and in fact, the representative was quite helpful, but it being the weekend, the people I would likely need to speak with are out of the office).

However, as the Times of Malta noted when covering the sponsorship announcement, Insignia has a history of sponsoring football clubs, and is currently sponsoring none other than Vitesse Arnhem. Further, the sponsorship deal appears to be extremely lucrative by Maltese footballing standards. According to Sciriha, the shirt sponsorship alone is worth more than all of the other shirt sponsorship deals Valletta has ever had combined.

In addition, Insignia CEO Rafael Carrascosa has said "this is just a first step. We have big plans and we are pledging a long-standing relationship with Valletta FC."

Jordania is using the playbook he developed at Vitesse to lay the groundwork for success at Valletta

It seems like Jordania has been planning to make Valletta his new project for some time, dating back to when he was still the owner of Vitesse, and is now using the playbook he developed in Arnhem as a model for which to lay the groundwork for success in Malta.

For those who remember Jordania's bold claims when he first became involved Vitesse back in 2010, the following quote by Carrascosa might sound familiar.

"Valletta’s dream of advancing to the group stages of the Champions League may seem far-fetched but it’s not"

In his introductory press conference at Vitesse, Jordania promised that Vitesse would be competing in the Champions League within three years. At the time, it seemed like pompous boasting from a man who just inherited a club on the verge of both bankruptcy and relegation. As we now know, Jordania's claim wasn't as far-fetched as it seemed at the time, and the club has a great chance of making good on his promise this year (one year late, but allowances can certainly be made).

In addition, current Valletta manager Mark Miller noted that the club needs a new training ground in order to elevate the club's stature. Jordania has proven himself very capable of overseeing such an endeavour, as Vitesse now boasts one of the finest training complexes in all of Europe.

Valletta also has plans to build a new stadium, but still needs to get the building permits sorted out. Sciriha claims "everything is set, cash is available and we are ready to start works. We are only waiting for the green light from the authorities concerned."

Jordania is a bit rough around the edges, having been accused of all manner of white-collar crime, but there is no doubt about his ability to run a football club. He was a poor man's Zinedine Zidane in Georgia, making the transition from the pitch to the boardroom at Dinamo Tbilisi. After having success at Tbilisi, Jordania was tapped to run the Georgian Football Federation in 1998 when he was just thirty-eight years old. He even stepped in to manage the team for three matches during the 2004 Euro qualifiers, earning a respectable 1-1-1 record. Could you imagine FA chairman Greg Dyke taking over for Roy Hodgson this summer at the World Cup? It wouldn't be pretty, to say the least.

Jordania is a bit rough around the edges, but there is no doubt about his ability to run a football club

Jordania also took over a Vitesse team in 2010 that was trying to stave off both bankruptcy off the pitch and relegation on the pitch. In three short years under his watch, the club is not only financially stable, but also now has one of the best training complexes in all of Europe. On the pitch, Vitesse currently shares the top spot in the Eredivisie table with Ajax and has a great chance of winning its first-ever Eredivisie title this season. In addition, Vitesse could also find itself in Champions League for the first time next season.

This is nothing short of a miraculous turnaround, and Jordania was at the helm during the transition. While it's very likely that Jordania had help from Roman Abramovich, Alexander Chigirinsky, Michael Emenalo, Marina Granovskaia, and other members of the Chelsea front office, Jordania himself is owed a lot of credit.

For example, Jordania has a keen eye for talent. He purchased Wilfried Bony from Czech club Sparta Praha for less than £3m and brought Guram Kashia with him from Georgia for £250,000. After scoring 59 goals in 77 matches across all competitions for Vitesse, Bony was sold to Swansea for £12m, four times what Jordania originally paid for him. Kashia has been starting at centre-back since day one and is now Vitesse's captain.

Jordania also brought young Georgians Valeri Qazaishvili and Giorgi Chanturia over to Arnhem. Chanturia's natural position is on the left wing, which just so happens to be where Lucas Piazon plies his trade, so he hasn't played much this season (however, Chanturia was the starting striker last week in Vitesse's 2-1 win over PEC Zwolle due to Mike Havenaar's suspension, but Chanturia looked lost and I'd be surprised if that experiment was repeated anytime soon). Qazaishvili plays a bit more and has carved out a nice role as an impact sub off the bench. In fact, after replacing Havenaar in the 73rd minute in the November match against Ajax, he ended up scoring the winning goal in the 90th minute to give Vitesse the 1-0 win. Given that the two clubs are currently level on points at the top of the table, Qazaishvili's goal may very well end up being a very important moment this season.

Unsurprisingly, Jordania's first signing for Valletta is another fellow Georgian, goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili. Revishvili is one of two goalkeepers who regularly feature for the Georgian national team and was signed from Georgian club FC Dila Gori. Of note to Chelsea supporters, Revishvili was previously a teammate of Samuel Eto'o and started 37 matches between the pipes as a 23-year-old for Anzhi Makhachkala during the 2010-2011 season.

The beginnings of a Cobham Mediterranean or Papendal South?

What does this all mean for Chelsea? Maybe nothing. However, quite possibly something. I'm not sure yet. Roman Abramovich's yacht, the Eclipse, just so happened to be in Valletta last September, just weeks before the Jordania transferred ownership of Vitesse to Alexander Chigirinsky, so make of that what you will.

When looking at the possibility of a partnership with Valletta from Chelsea's perspective, it seems unlikely that Valletta can offer much, if anything, to Chelsea at the moment with regards to player development. In addition to questions about the quality of the league (which will be left unanswered, since I have not seen a single minute of Maltese football), the work permit regulations for non-EU footballers aren't very favourable. Given that Malta is part of the European Union, footballers holding an EU passport would normally be automatically granted a work permit. However, the Malta FA has extremely strict work permit regulations and, in fact, there's a question as to whether they violate EU law.

When asked about Malta's work permit requirements, Valletta president Victor Sciriha explained,

"Clubs in the [Maltese Premier League] can field four foreign players. Valletta, having four non-EU foreign players, two Brazilians and two Nigerians, can't have any other foreign players on their books, whilst other teams who have only EU foreign players can have more then four foreign EU Players on their books. These are the Malta FA regulations and we do approve of them."

While much more research would be needed before rendering a legal opinion as to the validity of the Malta FA's work permit requirements with regards to European Union law, at a glance, the foreign player quota as applied to EU players is clearly a de facto restriction on free movement, although it's possible that exceptions will apply. Regardless, as it stands now, these work permit restrictions do not make Valletta an enticing loan destination for Chelsea (it also must be noted that this quote is a bit dated, and Valletta's squad makeup has changed since the interview).

From Vitesse's perspective, it seems unlikely that it would use Valletta to create a Papendal South, of sorts. The work permit issues aside, the Dutch place a significant amount of pride on developing their own youngsters. Further, given that Vitesse has its own cutting edge training centre and can avail itself of Chelsea's near-limitless resources, there's likely no better place for Vitesse's youngsters to be than with the club itself.

This may very well be the first and last time Valletta FC graces the pages of WAGNH, but then again, we could also have a burgeoning Cobham Mediterranean on our hands. On the surface, it doesn't seem like Valletta can offer anything to Chelsea that would entice the club to start sending its youngsters to Malta. That said, strange things tend to happen whenever Merab Jordania is involved, and those things tend to lead to unprecedented success, so while you'll not see Valletta roundups anytime soon, the situation is worth keeping an eye on.

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