With no league games until early February, ALS sent their head honcho over to South America on a football sabbatical. After watching street footy in Argentina and visiting the home of Boca Juniors to see where Diego Maradona spent his formative years, he headed over to the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, to catch up with Sunderland director Juan Sartori. The pair hung out in Pocolito Beach area of Montevideo, where they ate cheese toasties, drank coffee and talked about football, politics and cannabis.
ALS: When did you first fall in love with the beautiful game, and what were your football experiences growing up?
JS: I think I was in love with football since I did my first steps. I never remember walking or running without a football at my feet. I even remember sleeping with my football when I was little because I didn’t want to be separate from it. Sleeping with the football then going to school with the football, then coming back from school with the football so that I could train with both legs and become better. So, football has been my passion really all my life. When I was old enough to play, I played, when I was old enough to play amateur, I played amateur, then started watching games, and eventually ended up getting involved in buying a football club, Sunderland… and this is just the beginning. I think football will continue with me the rest of my life. I still play two, three times a week, against friends. Not against politicians, there would be too many fouls! It’s better to play against other friends. When I do my campaign tours around the country and have meetings, I invite anybody who wants to come to have a game of football. It helps you talk to the people on a more informal basis, for me football is just part of life, so it’s important to me to involved in in everything I do. Politics, friendships, anything.
ALS: That’s the South American way, isn’t it?
JS: We have it in jobs, in growing up, it’s a strange feeling when you enjoy it more than anything. For me, watching a football match is when I have the most intense emotions.
ALS: How did you first get involved with Sunderland?
JS: I knew Charlie through business, in London, then one day he talked to me about the possibility of buying Oxford and I said I’d love to be part of that and he introduced me to Stewart Donald, and we all got on very well. The most important thing is we really got along well, we were very complimentary, and we are people who enjoy being in business, we have the same vision, but the opportunity of buying Oxford didn’t work out… the guy didn’t sell, but it was very good news in hindsight because we kept in touch and hoped that one day we’d buy a football club together. Charlie was the first one to see the opportunity and say that maybe Sunderland would be available. We initially thought it was too much for us, too big a club, too big an investment, too many problems, and then as we got along over the months, we started to believe it was possible, that we could take it over, then we had a plan to organise and structure it and eventually we got to an agreement with Ellis Short. We signed the contract and started working on it, and actually it’s been very short, the moment between buying and the new season, a huge restructure had to be done. It’s proof of the team that we had, but mostly of the great president, Stewart, because he really rolled up his sleeves and he turned around the structure of the club, even in the smallest things that people don’t talk about, he really got the turnaround going, he brought new people in, he checked the players’ contracts, all the things you’ve seen.
Charlie was thinking about an image for the club, about re-bonding with the community, which we thought from the beginning was a very important aspect of the project because Sunderland is big because of the fans that it has. If we don’t create that community again, that trust, that relationship, it’s never going to work. So, it was Charlie who first had the vision very strongly, that was his part of the team, and he did brilliantly. I was happy to get involved to bring some ideas, some contacts I have in football and over time to help with some of the strategy of getting the club forward, to take it further as we started meeting all the milestones. The first one is achieve promotion. When we bought the club, we thought that the first objective was to achieve promotion. I think we are doing all that we can do, it’s difficult today to see what more we could do, or have done differently. We love to work with Jack Ross, we trust and delegate to him a lot of the responsibility on the football side, and we try to back him in good and in bad times. He could be a coach for many years, taking us into the Championship, maybe the Premier League, he has the capacity to continue growing with the club, and being the man that, more and more, takes us forward as a club.
ALS: Yes, he’s very articulate guy, but I hear that you have problems understanding his accent?
JS: Haha! I think he also struggles to understand my English! We have a great relationship, but we have to pay a lot of attention to what the other is saying. I always do most of it by email or text messages so that we understand each other well. We use telepathy, looking in each other’s eyes, and a lot of texts and emails. You know, I don’t always understand what the Sunderland fans tell me, I ask when they speak to me they speak slowly. Even some of the chants, you know, when I go there to the South Stand I don’t always understand what they are singing. But I still try to sing them, even if I don’t know what we are singing.
ALS: Your campaign is taking off (to be president of Uruguay) so are your two wishes for 2019 for Sunderland to be promoted and you to become president?
JS: Two objectives. I would finish the year feeling Mission Accomplished! Not two small things. Sunderland is one of the involvements that I have that doesn’t present a conflict of interests. It’s a long flight, but it’s worth it, it’s something I can do without affecting other things. It’s something I enjoy and there’s no problem participating. We are in touch constantly, Stewart and Charlie. This very important campaign I have means I don’t see the games as much in person, but I still see them every day on the streaming service, it works really well when I get a good internet in the middle of nowhere! I watch every single game so far.
ALS What about your wife? She looks after Monaco…
JS: She’s here in Uruguay, but with her there is a football problem. She’s for Real Madrid, I’m for Barcelona. She’s for Monaco, obviously, I’m for PSG. Here in Uruguay, I’m for Nacional, she’s for Penarol, but the good thing in England is that we are both for Sunderland. She came to some of the matches. She couldn’t believe the fans, the people, she loves football, and she loved what she saw at Sunderland, it’s really something special, even for people who are used to football.
ALS: With her being Russian, what’s the common language at home?
JS: I’m not very good in Russian, so we speak Spanish, or French, or English, the kids the same. They are learning all languages, so they speak all languages or no languages at all. I speak to them in Spanish, Russian, English, French… it’s good for them to learn. They love Uruguay, Uruguay is a great place to raise the kids, it’s a country that I love which is why I decide to be based here and fight for the presidency, because I really want to give as much of my time to it as I can to take us in the right direction… which we were always going in, but maybe lately we were losing a little bit. I’d like to contribute to the future of my country as much as possible.
ALS: For Sunderland fans who don’t know much about the politics of Uruguay, it seems quite advanced in South American terms.
JS: The country is doing well, very educated people, hard-working, very welcoming to foreigners, it always has been an example in many things like democracy, access to opportunities, education, and it’s one of the safest places in Latin America. We’ve produced so many good football players, but we are only three million people here, the same population as Scotland. We have a fighting spirit, and I find similarities there with the Sunderland people. We are very close to each other, we are very passionate, we fight, in the good sense, for a result. The Charrua, one of the original peoples of Uruguay, were very feisty, which means we fight until the end even if it looks like we are losing. It’s part of our attitude here, I want more people to have it, so I went to the players, and promised if the team get promotion, I will invite them all here to Uruguay to play, to enjoy a well-deserved vacation, that still stands. A summer holiday to keep them motivated.
ALS: The cannabis business, did you have to sell that because of the presidential campaign?
JS: Here it is legal, and I invested in it like many other businesses, but to free up my time and remove conflicts of interest, I sold a lot of my interests. It was part of making a clear cut from being a businessman to being a politician, which is full time. Luckily some things, like Sunderland, can still carry on, because they don’t take so much of my time. There’s a lot of things we can do at Sunderland with Uruguayan players to the benefit of both.
ALS: Many Uruguayan players have gone to Spain and Italy, but will they cope with the weather in Sunderland?
JS: Yes. Your weather is not so easy, lots of rain and wind, but there have been South Americans there. We could send people to the academy, use the Uruguayan talent that we have, get them a proper transition, get some new talent available to the club thanks to what we have in Uruguay. We have contacts with a lot of clubs in Argentina, Brazil, so that this source of young talent that maybe isn’t getting the opportunity here can join with the local talent at Sunderland. It’s very important we continue to develop local talent, and from the rest of the UK and Europe. Why not now South America?
ALS: The first six months since you became involved at SAFC, there’s been a big turnaround, so what do you see for the next six months?
JS: Who can tell the future? (yet another interruption from a well-wisher results in a lengthy discussion in Spanish, ending with the promise of a vote). We bought Sunderland so that with our help, Sunderland becomes a great club again. Our project is ambitious. We are fighting for promotion this year, although it’s never easy to put such big expectations in place. We want promotion now so that we can put the club back on the right track, and if we do that we want to fight for promotion from the Championship, maybe not in one year, but we want a club that can fight for a place in the Premier League. Stewart, Charlie and me are committed to the club emotionally. We enjoy being part of the club. We sweat, we shout, we like it in our lives. We don’t know what the future will be, but we will continue doing all we can for the success of the club, and always in a very respectful way to the fans and the community. For us that’s important, that we care, so we have a plan and will always be listening. The fans have known the club longer than us, it’s in their blood and in their family, we have to remember that, so we have an aggressive project, but respectful because we know this is much more than just a football club. It’s a community, a city, after the loss of the coal mines and the shipyards, this is what’s left that you can be proud of, so we feel the responsibility but also the enthusiasm of working to see how far we can get the club. We’ll carry on in the same way, transparent, straight, hard work, supporting the club in good and bad times. Mostly good, I hope.