Emperor of Toulon

Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal oozes power, money and authority. What he wants, he gets. And what he wants is for his rugby team to win.

Boudjellal tells SA Rugby magazine that he never misses an episode of The Sopranos. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between him and the show’s lead character, Tony Soprano: unforgiving when deceived, emotionally volatile, loyal to those who are loyal to him, possessing a vulnerable side and deeply, but not overtly, in love with his family.

We meet at Boudjellal’s office on Boulevard de Strasbourg, Toulon’s main street, and are taken up to be introduced to him by the eldest of his three daughters. Framed comic- book covers decorate the walls. A comic-book publisher seems an unusual profession for a man who could easily fill the lead role in his favourite television series or one who wouldn’t look out of place running the show for real in Sicily.

This is how Boudjellal, the most prominent of France’s millionaire club-rugby presidents, made his fortune. His company, Soleil Productions, generates an annual turnover of 50 million euros (around R550 million), and is the pre-eminent comic book publishing house in Europe. It produces more than 250 new books per year and keeps expanding in other worldwide markets.

Boudjellal has just signed a multimillion-dollar deal with publishing giant Marvel Comics in the hope that he can penetrate the famously hard-to-crack American market. Plans are in the pipeline for PlayStation video game, toy and movie adaptations of his comics.

His daughter seems apprehensive as she approaches his office door. She knocks lightly and opens gingerly when a ‘Oui, qui est là?’ (Yes, who is it?) is barked from inside. ‘Bonjour, papa.’ She enters and closes the door behind her. A minute later I’m invited inside.

Boudjellal is dressed in black from head to toe. He always wears black. Today he’s traded designer suits for a more casual look – cashmere sweater, perfectly tailored trousers and exquisite Italian shoes. His sleeves are pushed up far enough to reveal a Breitling on his left wrist that blinds me when the sun reflects off it. The dial is completely covered in diamonds, there are diamonds at 12, 2, 6, 8 and 10 on the watch face, and a large diamond is inset into the adjustment dial. Where there aren’t diamonds, there’s gold and platinum.

He dashes around Toulon and Paris in a Maserati Gran Turismo or Ferrari Enzo. He has no house to call his own but has purchased rooms in the finest hotels in the world. The son of Algerian immigrants to Toulon, his father a truck driver and mother unemployed, Mourad Boudjellal hasn’t done too badly for himself.

He started Soleil Productions with borrowed money and admits to having had no business acumen or experience in the publishing industry. ‘All I had was an ability to tell instantly whether a comic was good or bad. I have no artistic ability and couldn’t draw a decent stick figure if you asked. It was just a gift,’ he reveals.
I had a preconceived notion of Boudjellal, shaped by players I had spoken to at the club’s training ground earlier that morning. The general consensus is that he was a delightful man to spend time with and unbelievably generous when they win. When they lose, as they had against an ordinary Mont-de-Marsan that weekend, you are best advised to keep your distance.

Boudjellal loves the city of Toulon and its people, and for that reason he chose to get involved at the club two years ago. He is not passionate about rugby in any way. In fact, he sees Toulon Rugby Club as a pretty bad investment.

‘Money was never a motivation for me when I got involved at Toulon. In fact, the president before me spent years trying to convince me to get involved, but I knew it would be a bad business venture because of the uncertain nature of sport. The fact that we’ve just lost against Mont-de-Marsan with Gregan, Matfield, Mehrtens, Oliver and Umaga as coach is a prime example of that. Also, the time it takes to run the club means I have no time for myself or my family. But in five minutes, two years ago, I knew I wanted to be involved with Toulon.’

In 1995, Jean-Marie Le Chevallier, the far-right National Front candidate for mayor in Toulon, won with 37% of the vote in a three-way contest against a centrist representing a divided conservative camp and a Socialist candidate.

The city soon became the stepchild France had never wanted, as Le Chavallier’s racists ideologies gained popularity. Toulon was divided along racial lines, with its large immigrant population a favourite target of Le Chavallier.

He cut Toulon Rugby Club’s budget significantly, and in 2000, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby demoted them from the Top 14 to Pro Division 2 as a result of the club being in immense financial trouble.

Hubert Falco succeeded Le Chavallier in 2001, but racism was deeprooted in the psyche of certain sections of the population. Then one night, says Boudjellal, something changed.

‘On the last day of the 2004-05 season, we were promoted to the Top 14. I was sitting with the coach and president at that final match and was watching the crowd from out of the suite. People who had previously been enemies were hugging and dancing together. When I went into the road it was the most incredible scene I’d ever seen. There were people everywhere celebrating together. Toulon Rugby Club had become a vehicle for reconciliation.

‘It was a sensation I can‘t describe. After that, I wanted to experience it again. Toulon were relegated the very next year and people begged me to help out financially. I knew it wasn’t a wise business move, but the desire to see my people happy like that again made me agree.

‘I want to be the one who makes their dreams come true. They know that, so they treat me like a god. I have the ability to determine the mood of an entire city. I like that sort of power, but it also comes with a lot of pressure. A dream can turn into a nightmare in the space of a couple of bad games.’

The vast majority of Toulon’s population are middle class to lower middle class and many are unemployed. In the old town, vagrants and beggars are a common sight. Ambitious youngsters move to Paris to pursue their dreams and never return.

Rugby provides an escape from reality for the citizens of Toulon. The ageing Stade Mayol is their cathedral. They worship the 22 men who pull on the red and black shirts every week. Defeat is not tolerated, and Boudjellal is often the target of abuse when they lose a game.

He walks over to his desk and picks up a pile of papers. There are about 50 hand-written letters and e-mails slamming him and his team for the Mont-de-Marsan defeat. He reads extracts of the letters aloud: ‘Mr Boudjellal, you are a terrible president with a terrible team. How could you lose to Mont-de-Marsan?’ the first letter goes. Another reads: ‘Boudjellal, what’s wrong with Oliver? He’s not a warrior. And Sephaka? Send him back to South Africa. He doesn’t understand the spirit of Toulon. He needs to die for the club. Please get Carl Hayman and Frédéric Michalak. Fourie du Preez will also be a good signing.’

At present, Toulon Rugby Club boasts a foreign legion that is unmatched in world rugby. An Argentinean, two Australians, an Englishman, a Fijian, three New Zealanders, three Samoans, a Scotsman, a Tongan, a Georgian, seven South Africans and not forgetting a Czech and a Senegalese, constitute the core of the squad. Throw in 23 Frenchmen and a Kiwi head coach and you have one of the biggest, most culturally diverse, and most pertinently, expensive squads in world rugby.

Boudjellal is believed to have paid Umaga 300 000 euros to coach for the 2007-08 season. Gregan was lured with a reported offer of 400 000 euros and Matfield is on an initial six-month deal thought to be worth in the region of 300 000 euros. Jerry Collins and Schalk Burger were approached to join the club in 2007 but declined, and Bakkies Botha and Dan Carter are prime targets.

‘I listen to people comparing me to [billionaire Chelsea Football Club owner] Roman Abramovich, and that makes me sick,’ Boudjellal snaps when probed on the issue of his lavish spending on elite players.

‘We’re not the same. We don’t share the same dream. For me, it’s a real dream – to give the people joy. For him, Chelsea is a toy he uses for his own pleasure.’

For the first time in the interview Boudjellal is sitting upright. His tone deepens and he speaks with deep conviction.

‘I don’t believe that a collection of stars makes a real rugby team. We have a very good academy, and I want to see more of those French youngsters in the senior side. At the moment, the first team is packed with high-quality foreign players because we have the objective of getting into the Top 14 this season. But I don’t consider us to be a real team. When the bulk of our squad are home-grown, then we’ll be a real team.

‘There are only so many players I can buy. I can’t rely on big names anymore because clubs automatically up their asking price when they see us coming. This sort of buying is not sustainable. This is why it’s crucial that we are promoted this season.’

Failure to gain promotion will be catastrophic for Toulon’s supporters. For Boudjellal, it would signal the end of a journey that has cost him millions of his own money. His dream is to bring joy to the people of the city, but he won’t allow sentiment to override good business sense. This is his ruthless streak. Maybe Toulon is essentially a business deal after all?

‘I’ll stay on for three more years if we get promoted. After that, I’ll leave when I’ve achieved my goals of securing a good sponsor, building a new stadium and developing our academy. If we don’t get promoted, I’m gone at the end of the season,’ he says bluntly. ‘There’s a lot of deception in French rugby. Sometimes I feel used and underappreciated. Losing money is not an issue. I know how to make money,’ he says, rejecting the suggestion that he has a hidden agenda to make Toulon into a money-spinner. ‘This job has robbed me of my time, and that‘s the most important thing.

‘I used to take my family on month-long holidays to Miami and the Bahamas. Now I go to Mont-de-Marsan. I used to have a table at all the top restaurants in Monaco, Cannes, Nice and Paris. Now I eat tomatoes with the players at post-match functions. If we’re not promoted, this life is not worth it. Toulon will survive without me.’

The city would disagree. Boudjellal’s money is the heartbeat of Toulon. Without him, a slow and very painful death awaits the hundred-year-old club.

By Ryan Vrede

This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale now.

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