Whilst most of the plaudits on Saturday will have gone to Jonny Wilkinson and his band of international galactico team-mates in the Southern city of Toulon, it is to the clubs President and owner Mourad Boudjellal that much of the praise must go.
Boudjellal has bankrolled the club in recent seasons helping them attract star names such as Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Bakkies Botha, Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe and Andrew Sheridan who are all now set to be joined by the likes of Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell next season. By giving the club the kind of spending power to attract top name players Boudjellal has provided Bernard Laporte and his team the foundations with which they have been able to assail the 2013 Heineken Cup and make one final charge at the Top 14 this weekend.
It has not always been this easy for Toulon though, before Boudjellal took over, the club had suffered the ignominy of relegation out of the top flight initially in 2000 after falling into financial difficulty and then once again in the proceeding season. It was after the second return to the top flight that Boudjellal decided to buy into the team having seen the whole city celebrating despite wide-spread political issues caused by the Mayor of Toulon at the time Jean-Marie Le Chevallier.
Le Chevallier was the far-right National Front candidate for the towns Mayorship in 1995 and after emerging victorious began to promote his extremist views on the cities population. As Le Chevallier’s racist policies began to take hold, the city became a growing issue within France as it’s population became divided along racial lines. Despite this Toulon’s 2005 National Pro Division 2 victory saw racial lines blurred once more as citizens across the city celebrated in the streets. In this respect the multi-cultural flavour of Toulon’s squad is a true reflection of the city itself.
It was upon seeing the revellers celebrating together as one that Boudjellal decided it was the right time to become more involved with the club. After this Boudjellal said ‘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.’ In this way you can see the kind of ego that has seen Boudjellal grow up from his lower-class routes to become worth over a reported €50 million through his comic book distribution company Soleil Productions.
His focussed business persona is also reflected in the way he deals with his team. Boudjellal is believed to be a pleasure to spend time with when the team perform well and is lavish with his cash but when the team have performed poorly he is best given a wide-berth for fear of finding yourself on the receiving end of one of his infamous rants. However, this is not borne from a financial perspective, Boudjellal openly admits owning a sports team is a poor investment, it is instead a way of massaging his ego as he adores the praise and acclaim he receives from the clubs supporter base.
That’s not to say it is all easy for Boudjellal who often must deal with critical messages from fans after the team suffer a defeat where he is often the centre of the criticism. It is therefore of little wonder as to why he is so focussed and single-minded in his desire to steer his side to victory and Saturday’s victory will have gone a good way to abating the clubs fans for another season, although defeat in the Top 14 final this weekend is unlikely to be tolerated.
Boudjellal is clearly extremely passionate about the club and its fans as he attempts to build a lasting dynasty for the clubs home town. He is also acutely aware of Toulon’s image as a band of foreign mercenaries and is keen to redress the balance of French players in the starting line-up. He is therefore currently investing heavily in the academy to ensure the development of a real team persona “when the bulk of our squad are home-grown, then we’ll be a real team” he says.
Whatever happens from here on out Mourad Boudjellal will for the foreseeable future be seen as the teams saviour having bankrolled them out of the second division to the Heineken Cup crown. Whilst he may feel ready to step down at some point in the near future, the clubs fans are in no rush to see the Sopranos fan step down from his role as President.