Former England boss, Sven-Göran Eriksson has revealed how, when he was at Notts County, he was asked to fly to North Korea for the benefit of the club’s owners. Once there he was asked to fix the World Cup draw.
It’s an incredible story amongst a host of astonishing episodes as Notts County, the oldest football clubs in the world, became the victim of an elaborate fraud.
The story centres around Russell King, a convicted fraudster.
By the time King focused his attention on Notts County, he had already hatched an audacious plan to defraud a number of companies and entities in search of his ultimate prize, owning the biggest mining company in the world.
Notts County were just a pawn in his game. As with Eriksson, they offered a certain naivety which is the lifeblood of anyone attempting to con their way to riches.
King’s grand plan was to mine the untapped gold and mineral wealth in North Korea. The major reason for these resources remaining untapped was the brutal sanctions imposed on the country by the rest of the world. These are the most impenetrable sanctions lodged on any country anywhere. There was no way it would ever succeed, but King was somewhat of a fantasist and refused to be deterred.
Notts County was a football club available on the cheap. Their League Two status represented an ideal shadow by which fewer questions over their owners’ suitability were asked than had they been in the limelight more.
Notts County was formed in 1862, a year earlier than the FA. They are the oldest professional football club in the world. They were one of 12 founding members of the Football League. But since 1925 they have lounged around the lower divisions, other than two spells at the beginning of the 1980s and 1990s.
King approached the club in 2009 as the head negotiator for Munto Finance, a subsidiary of a Qadbak Investments. Qadbak was registered in the British Virgin Islands and boasted links to the Qatari Royal Family.
King, who by then had founded a company called Swiss Commodity Holding (SCH) also claimed to be backed by wealthy Bahraini families. He was making many visits to the country.
When County officials made a trip to Bahrain to meet King they confirmed the men around him did indeed appear to have some standing and reverence in the country.
King negotiated the sale of the football club to Munto for £1. When the financial director requested some evidence of financial solvency by way of a bank guarantee, King was able to produce it virtually on the spot.
Unbeknownst to the club, this had been made possible thanks to a previous scam King had managed to carry out on an investment bank, First London plc.
King convinced the bank of SCHs ownership of the rights to all the gold, iron ore and coal in North Korea. They even swallowed his outrageous claim of assets worth at least $2trn. Consequently, they handed over 49% of the shares to him.
The kudos of owning a football club was what King needed as another piece of his puzzle towards global domination.
Unfortunately for County, the fans and the rest of football this was ridiculously easy to obtain. The FA maintains their ‘fit and proper’ checks for potential owners are robust. The County incident suggests otherwise.
By 2009 King had spent time in prison for insurance fraud. The FA regulations forbid anyone with a criminal record from owning a football club. The solicitor representing County managed to convince the FA King was not involved with Munto Finance. In a recent podcast series “Sport’s Strangest Crimes – The Trillion Dollar Conman”, the solicitor explains how he managed to mislead officials into believing there was nothing untoward about the purchase. This seemed to settle on the basis he didn’t need to divulge anything which wasn’t asked for.
For the club’s fans, they were suddenly in the position of believing their club was now one of the richest in the country. As with anyone suddenly in possession of a large sum of money, they started to dream. This was a year after Manchester City had been taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group. County dreamed of soon mixing it with the great and the wealthy of not only England, but Europe too.
A week after the takeover all seemed on track as in walked Sven-Göran Eriksson. He was persuaded by King to become Director of Football.
When Eriksson arrived in England in 2000 there was a significant air of mystique and reverence about the Swede. He’d just lead Lazio to the Scudetto for only the second time in their history. He was expected to be the ideal man to lead the ‘golden generation’ to world success. By 2006 the country had become tired of his inability to mould the talent into a cohesive unit.
A year later he took over the Manchester City job under the ownership of the Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra. Shinawatra took just a year before he became bored of the Swede. Eriksson then spent another short, and frustrating period as boss of Mexico before he was once again dispensed with.
July 2009 Eriksson drove into the Meadow Lane car park amid huge media interest. By all accounts he charmed the locals with his soft accent and his openness.
As England boss Eriksson was one of the most visible in recent times. Always seen at matches around the country, always available for interviews. Apparently he was much the same in Nottingham.
At the time Eriksson said;
“I am particularly attracted to this role and the unique opportunity to help build a club over the long term. I will be responsible for all aspects of the football side of the Club and in line with the aspirations of the new owners, wish to build the Club at the heart of the community.I started my football management career at a small lower division Swedish club and we managed to get them into the top-flight. I can think of no better challenge than to attempt to do that again, but this time with the world’s oldest football club, where we can add to a proud tradition and hopefully bring some richly deserved success. We hope to leave a long lasting football legacy for Notts County FC and its fans.”
Meanwhile King was making his next move. He arranged a trip to North Korea to discuss the mechanics of mining all these rich mineral reserves. He approached Eriksson to come with him. Sven was extremely reluctant.
He couldn’t quite believe how a football man would be needed for a trip such as this.
“I knew a person working in the government in England. I asked that person, ‘Should I go to North Korea?’. She said, ‘Absolutely not, Sven, you should not go there’.”
But King was persistent. He told Sven;
“’Sven, you have to come It’s extremely important to the football club’. So I felt, should I really go? I didn’t want to go, but it was important for the football club, they said’”
Meanwhile the club was making further moves towards their target of going from the fourth tier of English football to the top in five years. Sol Campbell was next to park his prestige car in the Meadow Lane car park. Many were shocked the former England international would line-up at places like Accrington Stanley, Rochdale and Morecambe barely a year after captaining Portsmouth to the FA Cup. This came a year after his 73rd and final appearance in an England shirt.
Campbell stated Eriksson was a crucial part in convincing him to drop down the leagues.
Kasper Schmeichel, then a promising young keeper at Manchester City, followed Eriksson to Meadow Lane and the County revolution was gathering pace.
Campbell lasted one match. County were well beaten at Morecambe and by all accounts the former Tottenham and Arsenal defender was given a torrid time. He has since suggested he knew the writing was on the wall for the new owners, but he didn’t seem to have said it publicly or to his teammates or even the Director of Football.
Sven then made the trip to Pyongyang with King and club Chairman, Peter Trembling.
They were welcomed by government officials. North Korea had just qualified for the 2010 World Cup. The Koreans knew Eriksson was not only involved with Notts County, but more importantly on the FIFA committee.
He had no idea of King’s motives for the trip but it soon became clear why they were happy to see the Swede there.
He told the podcast;
“They said, ‘Can you please help us?. ‘Of course I can help you, if I can.’, I said. I thought they wanted balls or shoes or something like that. They said, ‘We want a simple draw’. They wanted to have help with the draw. Of course I said, ‘Do you really mean what I think? I can’t do that. Nobody can do that. That’s absolutely impossible and it’s criminal, even to try.”
King was trying to get his deal over the line. Evidently, he had bragged to the Koreans of his connections with Bahrain and promised there would be a shipment of oil made while he was in the country.
Of course King was in no position to organise that and unlikely to have ever got passed the grip of the sanctions.
So naturally the shipment didn’t arrive. King and his cohorts made it to the airport for their flight home, but their plane was delayed as officials discussed whether they’d been played. An extremely tense period passed as they were held in Pyongyang. Eriksson, still unaware of the business dealings done under his nose, approached the translator to ask what whether they’d be flying out.
“You will be allowed to fly out, let’s put it that way”, said the translator rather menacingly with the suggestion Eriksson may never see his bosses again.
Eventually they were allowed onto a flight taking them to Beijing. Eriksson said his companions didn’t speak a word to him the whole time they were in the air, and once they landed the two men made their escape pretty smartish, leaving Sven to find his own way back to London.
King’s attempts to con everyone over the value of SCH were fanciful. He was expecting to believe it had a value way more than Australia’s biggest mining company. Yet even if he did manage to get a deal agreed with the Koreans, he didn’t have the equipment or even the knowledge of how to move that level of commodity.
Back in Nottingham, Eriksson eventually discovered there wasn’t the money about he’d been promised. This was highlighted when at one point they couldn’t even pay their milkman.
Inevitably, he left the club. It all came crashing down as many believed it was destined to. HMRC demanded payment of a tax bill, serving two winding up petitions. Ray Trew bought the club in February 2010. That was Eriksson’s cue to take his leave.
With the club clearly short of cash Eriksson even waived his right to a million pound payoff.
On the pitch things were going very well. Steve Cotterill came in as manager and County won League Two that season. For the fans the season had begun with huge expectations and, in all honesty the team had matched those with a title win.
They lasted five seasons in League One before dropping back down and in 2019 they fell out of the league altogether.
Ultimately, with these things it’s the fans who suffer the most. Promised all sorts of riches and success, alas it was not to be. But as happens with all fraudsters, they’re very good at what they do and people are often left feeling stupid they were taken in.
One thing which stands out from this whole episode is that regulations are supposedly in place to stop this sort of thing happening. Not just in football, but in financial services. Those regulations failed everyone until things caught up with King in 2018.
He was convicted on 25 counts of fraud and larceny and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment.
For Eriksson he moved onto manage the Ivory Coast national team for six months, before taking over the Leicester City job in October 2010. He lasted a year.
He moved East to China where he had several managerial positions, ending with a three month period as Philippines manager.