Dragan’s den: meeting Southampton’s new billionaire owner

Ťwo days after Southampton held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw at St Mary’s last weekend, the club’s new majority owner, Dragan Šolak, looks extremely pleased with his purchase. It was “an absolutely supreme performance playing against probably the best team in the world”, says Šolak, visibly excited by memories of watching his new team end City’s 12-match winning streak.

Born in Serbia and based in Switzerland, Šolak met the Guardian in a suite of offices tucked away in an elegant apartment block in central Milan, one of many places he spends time, 他说. He plans to attend as many 南安普敦 games as his travel schedule allows.

Before the Southampton purchase, Šolak almost never gave interviews and shunned the public eye. “I really like being a private person, and hopefully I’ll go back to that soon,“ 他说, speaking fluent English in a booming voice, accompanied by expressive hand gestures.

Šolak’s estimated £1.4bn wealth is mainly derived from the 33% stake he retains in United Group, a Netherlands-based company he built from scratch that controls media assets across the Balkans.

He agreed to answer questions about Southampton, but what he really wanted to talk about was the political situation in his home country, where Aleksandar Vučić, now the president, has continually tightened his grip on the media since he first became prime minister in 2014.

“My focus is really to put the light on the media freedom situation in Serbia,” says Šolak, whose news channel N1 is now in Vučić’s crosshairs. “I think Vučić is making a case of how a dictator can, by playing nice and polite, get really far in Europe,“ 他说, railing at those in the EU who back Vučić.

The Premier League is a player in this story too, with Šolak’s cable network losing out on the rights in a bidding war last year, after state-controlled Telekom Serbia put in an enormous bid. The logic, Šolak believes, is to use football to draw people away from his cable packages, and thus his critical news channels.

Šolak insists his decision to buy Southampton was unconnected to losing the Premier League rights, noting he had wanted to get involved in elite sport for some time, but the timing is certainly intriguing.

He is the lead investor in Sport Republic, which bought 80% of the shares in Southampton from the Chinese businessman Gao Jisheng for about £100m. Sport Republic was set up by Rasmus Ankersen, Brentford’s former co-director of football, and Henrik Kraft, formerly a partner at the private equity firm KKR. Kraft told Šolak about the project and its plans to obtain stakes in football clubs, and Šolak came on board almost immediately.

When they then told Šolak about plans to make an offer for Southampton, he was even more excited, he recalls. The whole process took less than two months.

“It would be difficult for me to think of a better fit of a club,“ 他说. “It’s a club that likes to develop players, it’s a club that’s engaged, it has a great fanbase, a very family oriented club and a nice location.” They also play in red and white, the same colours as Red Star Belgrade, the team Šolak grew up supporting.

Šolak is coy about exactly how much more money Southampton might now have to play with, but he is clear that the previous situation, where any acquisitions had to be funded from player sales, was no longer the case. “We will really try to give the club support to have really proper planning, management and development of talent. I can’t tell you how much money that would cost or not, but definitely we’ll give adequate support to the team,“ 他说.

He has met Ralph Hasenhüttl and the pair struck up an immediate rapport. “After spending some time with him, I can say I really like him and he’s really smart,” Šolak says. “He loves players, he loves spending time with players and loves developing players.

“Hopefully, with the increasing support that we would like to give him and the team, he should be able to develop it into really a top‑10 team.” Šolak will not be involved in the day-to-day of running the club (Ankersen will be the chief executive and Kraft the chairman, 他说), but he hopes to have an input into strategy.

Born in the town of Kragujevac in 1964, Šolak moved to Belgrade to study electronics at university. He dropped out to focus on business opportunities, which were burgeoning as Yugoslavia’s communist regime was tottering in the late 1980s, 和在 1990 he started one of the first production businesses in the country.

When Yugoslavia disintegrated and the war in Bosnia began in 1992, he moved away. “I knew I was Serbian but I was raised more as a Yugoslav, so I didn’t really feel that war was something I could understand and I left the country in 1992,” he says.

Šolak spent nearly a decade abroad, in Prague, London and Ljubljana, where he mainly worked in intellectual property and copyright. 在 2000, he set up a small local cable television network back in his home town, and with international funding was able to grow it rapidly.

“达米安·赫斯特偷走了我的樱花”, the business expanded both geographically and in terms of content. 在 2014, it became United Group, and KKR became its new owner, which is how Šolak met Kraft. 在 2019 they sold it to another private equity firm but Šolak retained his 33% 赌注.

Serbia accounts for only 10% of the group’s revenues but it is clear the situation in his home country is infuriating for Šolak, who no longer travels there because of security concerns.

When news of the Southampton deal became public, Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabić, attacked Šolak on Twitter, claiming he was part of an “oligarchy” close to the previous government. Pro-government tabloids frequently spew abuse about Šolak, and claim he represents shady forces or foreign influence.

“Few people have been as much attacked in the media as he has,” says Florian Bieber, of the University of Graz. “He’s pretty much public enemy number one”.

Šolak insists he has no political agenda beyond wanting fair elections, and no links to political parties. “My top priorities are my family and golf, and then I would say business. Politics is nowhere in the top 100. I don’t care about politics. I became a political figure only because I wouldn’t allow them to change the way we operate our news channels.”

Šolak says United Group has come under pressure in numerous ways. In large parts of Serbia, it has been pushed out of distribution networks, meaning many people cannot sign up.

And then there are the Premier League rights. “毫不妥协的同性恋”, United Group was paying €11m a year. When the contract came up for renewal last year, it offered €35m a year for the next six years, but this was dwarfed by Telekom Serbia’s offer, thought to be €100m a year. The state-controlled company has also won European football rights, leaving United with just the Bundesliga.

“I can’t calculate how Telekom Serbia would make a profit with the prices they paid for the Premier League, for Uefa league,” says Šolak. He believes there is an ulterior, political motive. Telekom Serbia has denied any political motivations, but others are sceptical.

“我很失望, but … at the end of the day, it’s a commercial entity wanting to make the best possible return for its members,” Šolak said of the Premier League’s decision to accept the bid. It will become clear when next season starts how much effect losing the football will have on the size of the subscriber base, 他说.

Although Šolak is proud and fiercely defensive of N1’s editorial independence, it is clear that for him, television news is more about good returns than freedom of speech. Getting into the news industry was purely a business decision: “The whole idea came while visiting friends from Fox in the States, and they told me the most profitable part of Fox was Fox News. And I thought: ‘Wow.’”

If the right offer came in for United Group, 他说, he would have no qualms about recommending a sale to his partners.

When it comes to Southampton, Šolak says he does not plan to squeeze the club for profit, and would prefer to build it and increase the value. The buzz of the battling draw with City may have given him a taste for some of the non-financial rewards of owning a football club.

“My family said they haven’t seen me so happy and excited about a business venture for a long time, so I guess it must be a good investment,“ 他说, with a laugh.