"It's a genuine war of the titans," said a disheveled, yet distinctly stylish Massimo Cellino to a group of journalists gathered at the entrance to Cagliari Calcio's training ground. It was March and the 2011-12 season was nearing its conclusion, but Cellino was temperamental as ever. "I could never arm-wrestle with a child," said Cellino. "It just wouldn't be fair."
The "war" that the president of the Italian soccer club was referring to would be better defined as a dispute, and the "child" in question was one Massimo Zedda, mayor of Cagliari, Sardinia's capital city. The dispute was over the state of Cagliari Calcio's stadium, Stadio Sant'Elia, which had fallen into a state of serious disrepair. The stands were crumbling, the facilities did not exist, and the ground swarmed with rodents.
Cellino said the city should pay for maintenance. The city said Cellino should. Finally, a Cagliari Calcio club employee was nearly electrocuted in the stadium—the last straw. Cellino uprooted the club and moved it 500 miles to Trieste, on the border with Slovenia, mid-season—literally the furthest place from Cagliari that was still in Italy.
The club played out their remaining domestic league fixtures in Trieste. The millionaire players went from performing in front of thousands of passionate Rossoblu fans to knocking the ball around an empty stadium. The issue penetrated the European footballing consciousness and was even raised in Italian parliament. But Trieste was a temporary solution. The players threatened to go on strike if they started the 2012-13 campaign there.
In a desperate attempt to bring the team back to Sardinia, Cellino funded the building of a makeshift stadium. Amateur teams had used the field, but the surrounding area had no infrastructure. Makeshift terraces and dressing rooms were built within several weeks. Seating was constructed entirely of steel tubing. The shoddy, temporary stadium raised many questions. It even required safety permits on a match-by-match basis; and a match against A.S. Roma had to be cancelled.
A fresh twist came when Cellino was arrested alongside a couple of local politicians who had helped him get the temporary stadium built. They were charged with embezzlement and fraudulent misrepresentation. He was held in custody at Buoncammino prison for two weeks in a case that remains lost in the complexities of the Italian judicial system. A devoted group of Cagliari fans stood outside the jail chanting support for their beloved president. In his first public appearance after being released from prison and serving a period of house arrest at the club's training ground, Cellino said, "It's pretty good in prison, anyway sooner or later you'll [journalists] all end up in there."
Welcome to the world of Massimo Cellino: the most eccentric owner in all of soccer. The chain-smoking, highly superstitious, part-time rock star, full-time entrepreneur has been an unrelenting figure of both fun and criminality in Italy for over two decades.
Cellino is a 59-year-old native Sardinian who inherited command of his father's flourishing agricultural business SEM Molini Sardiin his early twenties. He spearheaded the firm until 2000. Little is known of his time in business, apart from reports he fled Italy to run the company from Australia in 1978 because of anonymous threats against his family. Cellino purchased Cagliari Calcio from the Orrù brothers in 1992 for L16 billion and later claimed it was Franco Ambrosio, a fellow corn tycoon, who pushed him to buy it even though he didn't have much interest in soccer.
Despite his early skepticism of the sport, Cellino soon grew to love the game and invested considerably to make Cagliari a competitive outfit. In 1994, the team even reached the semi-finals of what is now known as the Europa League, a significant achievement for a club of their size. However, his lack of patience when it came to managers proved to be his downfall. The team could never establish a clear identity as Cellino sacked a remarkable 36 managers and earned the nickname mangiallenatori (manager-eater) in the Italian media over the course of his 22-year tenure as president.
Cagliari never progressed beyond being an average Serie A team and Cellino became disheartened with Italian soccer due to the stadium ordeal. He even tried to build his own home for the club but was held back by Italian bureaucracy at every turn. He released plans in 2011 to construct an alternative venue, called the Karalis Arena. It would have received vital funding from the government should Italy have secured the 2016 European Championships. However, the entire project collapsed when the tournament was awarded to France and authorities deemed the proposal for the stadium would interfere with nearby Elmas airport. Cellino felt he could not take the club any further, but instead of returning to agriculture, he set his sights on a move to England.
In 2010 he attempted to buy West Ham United but lost out despite offering a rumored $86 million. Cellino only truly entered the public consciousness in Britain when he purchased 75% of Championship (second division) Leeds United from Gulf Finance House through his company Eleonora Sport Limited in February 2014.
The Football League eventually approved the takeover after he passed their fit and proper person test for potential owners, notwithstanding the serious doubts concerning his colorful past. The arrest warrant on his charges relating to the temporary arena called him a man of "marked criminal tendencies … capable of using every kind of deception to achieve his ends". He has two prior criminal convictions for deceiving the European Union and the Italian Ministry of Agriculture out of £12m in 1996 and for false accounting at Cagliari in 2001.
Naturally, Cellino introduced himself to Leeds as only he could: by sacking their popular manager Brian McDermott on the Friday before the transaction to the buy the club had even been finalized. Cellino was then was blocked in at the club's stadium, Elland Road, as furious fans descended on the ground to protest his decision. It's alleged he then pleaded with McDermott to return while claiming he never sacked him at all before jetting back to his home in Miami. The dramatic series of events made Leeds a laughing stock, but for supporters of Cagliari the entire scenario would be nothing out of the ordinary. McDermott was eventually reinstated to the happiness of all involved, only to be fired again a few months later.
Cellino's purchase of Leeds United raised his profile to new heights. His eccentric traits became tabloid headlines. He believes in timeless Italian superstitions, as reflected by his hatred the color purple and genuine fear of the number 17—Cagliari's stadium did not having a seat 17, but instead a 16b. He has toured Italy with several Scandinavian musicians playing the electric guitar in his very own rock band, Maurilios.
In six months' time, Cellino has sacked two managers at Leeds and officially sold Cagliari. His latest appointment is a relatively unknown quantity in the form of Slovenian coach Darko Milanič. When asked why he picked the former Maribor man, Cellino said, "I don't know. The coaches are like watermelons. You find out about them when you open them."
Despite the circus that is now surrounding their club, Leeds fans have fallen in love with Cellino and all his quirks. He's open and frank as the owner a club that has suffered from uncertainty for the last decade, ever since falling from the Champions League to the Championship after a financial meltdown. "He calls a spade a big fucking shovel and the supporters like that," explains Phil Hay, the chief football writer of the Yorkshire Evening Post. "It's a strange situation at Leeds because 10 bad years have trimmed patience to the bone but everyone seems to realize that Cellino isn't going to be able to resurrect the club with a click of his fingers."
Whether it's buying pints at the local pub The Old Peacock close to the stadium or sitting in the away end amongst the Leeds fans at a game, Cellino has mostly turned around the initial impressions of the locals. Now it's time to stand by his word, for all of his on-field meddling, he has always proven a shrewd operator in the transfer market. The next test will ironically involve a stadium. Cellino has promised to buy back Elland Road at a cost of $25m. Leeds sold the ground in 2004 and pay an exorbitant annual fee to rent it. Previous owners spoke of repurchasing it, but ultimately failed to do so. If Cellino bucks the trend by actually delivering, it'll shore up both his popularity and his credibility.
Still, the real test will be sticking to his word and bringing Leeds back to the big time. One thing's for sure: the story won't end up a dull one.