Roger Blitz, the FT’s leisure industries correspondent, interviewed Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former Thai prime minister who on Thursday agreed to buy UK football club Manchester City for £81.6m ($163m) hours after he was charged by Thai prosecutors of corruption. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
FT: How many times have you watched Manchester City?
Thaksin Shinawatra: I haven’t watched myself, in the stadium, but I watched it several times in the television in Thailand and here.
FT: But you know how well they’re doing in the last season?
TS: Yeah, they are a very, very good club and a big club, which I like. But the team, we have a lot of room to improve.
FT: Lots of room to improve?
TS: Yes, I think so. I talk to many of my football experts, friends. They all agree that we can improve a lot.
FT: Have you been to the stadium?
TS: Yes, I have been into the stadium twice.
FT: You’re impressed?
TS: Yes, very impressed, wow. A big stadium, beautiful and well designed.
FT: And obviously the fans and the supporters there, are very, very excited?
TS: Yes. That’s the value of the club, that’s the fans supporting in Manchester especially and in Asia.
FT: And in Asia?
TS: Yes, especially China, because we have the player from China, Sun Jihai.
FT: Of course.
TS: The Chinese people, they know Manchester City very well.
FT: The Chinese people?
FT: What about in Thailand? Do they know about it?
TS: Oh, yes. All the Asian people know all the Premier Leagues. And when Manchester City is one of the very old established and large clubs, then they’ve been followed and they have friends in Asia as well.
FT: It is a fantastic passion for Premier League Football in Thailand.
TS: Yes, very much. You know, I’ve experienced this during my business times, because we had to buy the rights, because I had a cable TV business. I had to buy right of Premier League and FA Cup to show on cable TV. Sometimes we had to compete with the commercial TV to get the rights.
FT: And you know how much the rights are worth now?
TS: Oh, yes, much more. During my time, during business life, it kept getting more expensive every year.
FT: You will be the chairman. How active are you going to be as a chairman? You obviously have Alistair Macintosh staying as chief executive.
TS: Yes. We have to have chief executive definitely. I will be giving the vision and approve the strategy how to bring the club forward and also how we can bring the club into the hearts and minds of fans, especially in Asia as well.
FT: Could you just outline some of the strategy, some of your thinking?
TS: Well, definitely we will improve the club, bring in a new coach, bring new players and improve all the facilities that we need. That’s in the very beginning. And after that I’m thinking about how we can have a Manchester City presence worldwide. Not just through the television broadcasting.
We might have academies in different parts of the world. And after the academies we might have the team. For example, we might have Manchester City China, Manchester City South Asia, Manchester City Middle East, Manchester City in Africa, or in Latin America. Then finally we will attract the good players in each region and bring them together to form the Manchester City of that region team.
And then we might have a league between them. Whoever wins will play with the Manchester City first team. So we can attract good players worldwide, to the Manchester City in the future.
FT: Does that mean buying up clubs in other leagues around the world?
TS: Instead of buying, we probably have to build our own.
FT: Build your own?
TS: Yes. It will be step by step. We may not do everything at the same time. This is the vision, that we would bring talented player from all over the world, through setting up, long term, that academy. Short term; attract the good player in that region to form the Manchester City of that region team.
FT: That would take many years, would it not?
TS: Well, normally I don’t want to wait that long, three years maybe.
FT: Three years?
TS: Yeah, maybe talking about three years.
FT: And more immediately, you obviously need to improve the players in the team?
TS: Oh, yes, that’s an immediate plan.
FT: And how much can you say to the manager and the chief executive that will be available for them to spend on players?
TS: Well, you know when you start to invest this much money, you never want it to go down.
FT: You never want it to go down?
TS: Yes. You know, how much we spend. If needed, we have to support it. We are not just in a buying spree, spend everything, that’s not going to be the way we do it. But we will spend as much as we need. If we need 20, 30, 40 [million pounds] it depends on how much we really need it.
FT: Right and you have no worries about being able to afford this?
FT: This is not something that’s going to make you lose sleep?
TS: Well, we have to have the reason why we spend this much money. Business reason and at the same time reputation of the club as well.
FT: You were interested in Liverpool before, is that right?
FT: Things didn’t work out.
FT: But have you been looking at other clubs?
TS: Well, I’m interested to participate in the Premier League. But I’m not interested in some other clubs. But when Manchester City come across, I think this is a good club that I want to have. So I’m working with Keith [Harris, financial adviser from Seymour Pierce] and then we work very hard to get the club. I have to thank John Wardle [Manchester City chairman] for his generosity to allow me to land this club.
FT: Is there something particular about Manchester City? Obviously, it’s a very different club from Liverpool in terms of success.
FT: But is there something very different about or particular about Manchester City, perhaps a club that is struggling in the league and you can build it?
TS: Well, if you look at the club itself, it’s quite a big one and really 100 years old. And also the support of the fans in Manchester City is very strong. So this is a good club that we should put our efforts bringing it forward.
TS: Is it a benefit, or a slight disadvantage that the club does not own the stadium?
TS: Well, it’s an advantage and a disadvantage. If it were to own it, it’d probably have a lot of debt. If it does not own it, in this part you don’t have debt, but you have the commitment to pay in future, to pay the rental in the future…
And I talk to my friend and he ask me how serious are you going to be with this club? I said well, this stadium is 250 years [rental] contract, only four years past, 246 years left. Tell everyone, don’t do the contract extension, I will do it myself next time!
FT: You obviously want to also not just develop the academies around the world as you say, but to market the club as well. You’ll be spending money on…?
TS: That’s another part that I have to do very carefully, look at all the contracts and the legal binding with other partners. And the name of Manchester City itself, it’s quite strong if you were to market it right. And it will be attracting fans in other sectors, by having merchandise that is good quality, not expensive. And when they use it they feel, oh okay, they have Manchester City with them. And in the future they will become a fan of the football club. So, fan for the football club itself and fan of the product. And then, it becomes fan of the whole club. And that’s what I think, if in the future, especially with the relationship with then Chinese market, then, it’s very important, especially in Asia and the Middle East.
FT: Are you worried about confusion in marketing terms with Manchester United, which obviously is much more well known?
TS: No, it’s clear, Manchester City and Manchester United. And the colour itself is different… But anyway, we have to our own segment on marketing.
FT: How close are you to being able to appoint a manager?
TS: My advisors is now working on it. I let the experts do it. I just give them consent.
FT: It’s been suggested that you, yourself, favour Sven Goran-Eriksson as your first choice.
TS: Well, he is one person that has talents and is a good man, very reputable. But I leave it to my experts so I don’t know yet when they can draw the conclusion.
FT: Will you want to have the final say as to who it’s going to be?
TS: Well, normally the final say is probably about 90 per cent from my advisors and then I just give the consent.
FT: There has been a lot of talk about the freezing of the assets in Thailand and whether this would affect the purchase. Clearly it has not. You’ve been able to separate this?
TS: I come from a democratically elected government and been overthrown by a military junta. And the committee that set up the law they use is really under the dictatorship and military control government. And everything is politically motivated. …British people… should understand this very well, that this is truly politically motivated. And we should be able to handle this, especially after democracy returns to Thailand in December. But I’m not worried about it. How can I corrupt my own money that the whole family has been working hard for, for more than 20 years?
FT: It has caused you difficulty in this deal?
TS: Oh, yeah, definitely, but I can handle it, because I have credit with friends worldwide. So I should be able to handle things.
FT: Are the assets themselves… could you just describe… these are private assets that you used to buy the club?
TS: Yes. You know, you have the process here. The UK has a very good system. Sometimes I feel a bit uncomfortable being asked too much. But anyway, it’s a very good system, especially the client acceptance procedures to clear that you have sufficient funds - is it clean? So this is a very good system; that is proved already by the two financial agencies that represent Manchester City and represent myself, and also the authority. So the money has been drawn from the money that my family sold shares in the company that we found.
FT: And have you sought assurances from either government authorities or from the Premier League that your purchase of Manchester City is, in their view, perfectly acceptable, and that…?
TS: Yes. We have gone through that. That’s the reason why it’s a bit slow in the process, because we have gone through a lot of difficulties to prove it… and everything.
FT: And can you just help me with these charges? The Thai authorities want you to return to Bangkok, and they’ve put a date of next week. Are you planning to go back?
TS: I’m planning to go back definitely, but not now. But, you know, everything… the laws of the game…have been set by the military junta. So you know immediately you don’t get the justice. When you don’t have the justice, you have to take some time before you go in until you ensure that you will have the justice.
FT: Would you be worried by your personal safety if you were to return?
TS: No, I’m not worried.
TS: I’m not worried. I know that many people worry about my safety, and what I’m worried is I don’t want the confrontations among the Thai people, the public and the military, because I don’t want the Thai military to take very strong measures to the Thai innocent people who seek democracy; who are crying for democracy. That is not good for the country. That is the reason why I have to sacrifice by staying abroad for nine months already.
So actually, I should go back home, but I don’t want to see this to happen, because this is the first time in Thai history that the military junta’s overthrown the government that comes from the people, and is still very, very popular. So that’s why the conflict is still there, because the people like the government; the military said no, you are too strong, better go. So that is something that has never happened before in Thailand.
FT: Am I right in saying that you said after September that you had retired from Thai politics?
TS: Yes, yes.
FT: And is that still the case?
TS: Yes, yes. I retire already, completely. Even they are not sure I am retired, they ban me from politics for five years. So don’t worry, I am retired already. Now I find myself a job as a chairman. [Laughter].
FT: So you obviously have a desire to return, but you want to return as a private citizen?
TS: As a private citizen under a democracy.
FT: You obviously have a desire to see democracy restored in Thailand, but this is not something you want to campaign for actively.
TS: No, no, no. I’m trying to stay away from politics. Let the people in Thailand, who the majority of them, almost 99.99 per cent want democracy, is asking for it and crying for it, and then they will get democracy back in December.
FT: And there has been some talk amongst some academics who see that your acquisition of a Premier League football club is in some way a way to reconnect with the people of Thailand in order to maintain your popularity in Thailand. Is there anything in this?
TS: t think so. If I were to be popular, it’s because of what I have done; a good thing for the country; a good thing for the people and the monarch. But, you know, buying a football club is something that I really dreamed for for many years.
FT: But you obviously have financial interests in Thailand. You obviously want to see all that restored to you.
TS: Yeah, definitely. It’s my money; my family money. They have no right to take it. We will sue them anyway. We have to sue, otherwise we cannot get our money back; because it’s my money. It’s our money.
FT: But if you are going to get your money back, you accept you have to go through a court process?
FT: How will you do that if you don’t return to the country?
TS: Well, the majority of the asset belongs to my children and my wife. I have very little.
FT: What, are you suggesting they might go back?
TS: My wife, most of the time, she stays in Thailand.
FT: Right. So she will fight the case on your behalf?
TS: Oh yes, she will fight the case, and my children will fight the case.
FT: Right. And your children are… are they here and in Thailand?
TS: Only one here goes to school. She goes to school.
FT: But you will seek to find, through your wife and other representatives, ways of challenging the courts?
TS: Oh yes, we have to do it.
FT: Have you set up a process for being represented when these cases are heard in Bangkok?
TS: I think our lawyers are prepared.
FT: Could I just come back to the issue of the private assets, because presumably the Thai authorities will want to have some kind of evidence that this is money separated from the assets that they’ve frozen.
TS: Actually you know, they have no right to freeze my assets at all, because it’s the assets that the family working for over 20 years. In 1994, 13 years ago when I entered politics as a minister of foreign affairs, … I voluntarily declared my assets. And all the Thais know very well that at that time I have over $2bn already. That is in 1994. And then I went into politics briefly and only had five days as minister of foreign affairs, and I also appeared in Forbes magazines [showing] that my net worth is over $2bn. That’s before politics. How can they freeze my assets?
FT: They’re freezing about $2bn?
TS: Yes, yes. The same sort of asset; that is the asset that belongs to… the shares that belong to my family.
FT: Can I ask what the price of the…?
TS: The stock? The shares have gone up, yeah.
FT: Right. But can I ask what assets you have outside of Thailand?
TS: Most of the assets that I have outside Thailand are the assets come from dividend, or the sale of the shares. That’s all. I don’t have other source of income. That’s it.
FT: Could you help us with how much that is?
TS: Not much; not much. Because I love Thailand so much, instead of selling shares outside Thailand, I sell in Thailand.
FT: Can I just come back to the club? Do you feel an urgent need to spend money on players now?
TS: There might be some part of it, yeah. We have already committed the money for it.
FT: And we can expect to see some activity in the next few weeks?
TS: Oh yes, definitely; definitely. We have not got much time. We don’t have much time. We are a bit late to come to the conclusion.
FT: Do you have a target where you want to see the club in the table in the next year or two? I mean, everybody says they could win the League, but…
TS: Well, I can dream, but it’s not easy. I can dream. [Laughs]. But anyway, we are moving the club forward, definitely.
FT: And I’m interested whether you know of other investors from Asia who are interested in Premier League clubs. Do you think that you are part of a growing interest from private investors from South East Asia?
TS: I think from there, there will be more Asians who might have interest in some other clubs. I don’t know. [There are] many rich Asians.
FT: And the Chinese market is the market that’s very important.
TS: China is important. Middle East is important. And even South East Asia as well.
FT: And do you feel that your model about academies, have you seen that elsewhere in any sport or any other…?
FT: So you’re trying to do something no one’s done before?
TS: I’d like to try something that’s different.
FT: Have you costed it? Have you given it… actually sat down and tried to work out how much it’s going to cost you to put this academy structure in place?
TS: Well, I think it’s much cheaper than buying; just going and buying it.
Sometimes you have to… you know, if you buy a piece of land and you build the whole building and you sell it, you end up making more money than just going and trying to buy the ready-made one.
FT: Is this your first acquisition of a company outside Thailand?
FT: Are there more to come, not necessarily in football, but in other sectors?
TS: I don’t know yet. I don’t know. One step at a time, because I’m too busy now with the problem that’s created by the military junta. [Laughs].
FT: Now you mention it, do you think they are very irritated by you buying up an international football asset?
TS: Well, you know, they should not worry much about me, because I already declared that I retired from politics already, so they don’t have to worry about it. I have to find something to do. I’m very hyperactive. I cannot sit idle and do nothing. I want to do something that I really like. I’m 58 already; getting old. Life is not that long, so you have to find something to do that you really like.
FT: What do you think is motivating the junta to go after you in this way? Why do you think they feel the need?
TS: They may worry about me too much… They should not worry about it, because I’m not going back to politics.