When 'friend' of Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein tried to buy into Canaries

"I'm here in Norfolk", Giovanni di Stefano with his sons Michele, 21, right, and Milan, 16, beside t

Giovanni di Stefano with his sons Michele, right, and Milan, beside the Bure in Wroxham in June, 2001 - Credit: Archant

The ownership of Norwich City Football Club comes under regular scrutiny – but things could have been very, very different, as CHRIS LAKEY reports

Giovanni Di Stefano arrives at Southwark Crown Court. He is facing 18 fraud-related charges.

Giovanni Di Stefano outside Southwark Crown Court during a fraud trial - Credit: PA

It was 20 years ago when the unwanted attention of a legal-minded gentleman settled itself on Norwich City Football Club. 

The tranquil life of owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones was thrust into the spotlight by a man whose name would become synonymous with some of Europe’s most hideous criminals. 

Delia Smith hides from the camera at the Norwich City Football Club Annual General Meeting , seated

Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones at City's AGM in 2001... by which time the Di Stefano headlines had largely faded away - Credit: Archant

The man’s name was Giovanni Di Stefano. Born in southern Italy, his family emigrated to a town near Northamptonshire where his father worked in a shoe factory. 

Di Stefano claimed he had a PhD in law from Cambridge University. He hadn’t. He tried to buy MGM Studios in Los Angeles. He fled to Yugoslavia, where he befriended the worst kind of tyrants: then president Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian warlord Arkan among them.  

You may also want to watch:

He later claimed to have links to Robert Mugabe, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Harold Shipman - the tip of a very unsavoury iceberg of criminality. No wonder The Guardian called him "surely the only man in the world to claim the personal friendship of Saddam Hussein and the personal enmity of Delia Smith". 

Given his propensity for defending – or trying to – the indefensible, he was nicknamed The Devil’s Advocate. 

Most Read

So how on earth did he come to be mentioned in the same breath as Norwich City two decades ago? 

It was in June 2001 when di Stefano first popped his head over the parapet of Norwich Castle and began to attract headlines locally. 

Jimmy Jones at Carrow Road. Apr 1998. Photo: Bill Smith

Jimmy Jones at Carrow Road - Credit: Archant

The thrust of the story is that he was planning to buy a share of the club for his son Michele from the late Jimmy Jones, who was then vice-chairman. Di Stefano had his sights on Jones’ nine per cent stake, valued at around £450,000 – it wouldn't have got him a seat on the board, although he would be allowed to vote at shareholders’ meetings and to table motions. 

Owner Delia and Michael were not interested in selling their shares - they had 58pc of them. 

Nigel Worthington watches Norwich City academy V West Ham. edp 22/10/2001

Nigel Worthington watches an academy game at Colney on 2001 - how would he have reacted to a director of football? - Credit: Archant

Di Stefano believed he could attract some top young talent from the Balkans, Italy and Iraq - and wanted Bryan Robson to work with then manager Nigel Worthington as director of football. 

At the time, Jones, a City director from 1985-95, said: “I have spoken to a representative of his (Di Stefano) and I think he is coming over.” 

It seems Mr Di Stefano wanted a guided tour of the ground - it appears not to have happened. 

The Robson link came from the horse’s mouth.  

"We need someone like Mr Robson as a director of sport and it is something that I intend to follow up to try and get him, or somebody like him, who can take this club into the Premier Division," said di Stefano. 

"We want to have somebody with experience of the Premier League in the last two years." 

Former Norwich City chairman Bob Cooper at Carrow Road.Photo: Bill Smith edp10/5/02

Former Canaries chairman Bob Cooper at Carrow Road - Credit: Archant

In an continuing effort to get a place on the board,  di Stefano said he had local support and had a meeting lined up with then chairman Bob Cooper – he also claimed he had been approached by smaller shareholders about taking over their shares. 

“I have taken six per cent from Jones, but we will now be voting together,” he said. “Quite a few other small shareholders have come together and asked me to take power of attorney over their shares which boosts our shareholding to over 15 per cent. 

“So there is a move towards a change, but I really want an amicable way forward.” 

One report of the era read: “The man who would be Delia’s partner troop­ed into Norfolk on a media blitz (staying well clear of Carrow Road) with the aim of get­ting a place on the board for his 21-year-old son Michele. Other shareholders were then to be persuaded to give Michele and his brother Mi­lan voting rights, with the club being forced to make unreleased shares available. Legal ac­tion was even threatened, which seemed a strange way to win Delia’s trust.” 

An odd way indeed. In the end, the inability to get a seat at the top table saw di Stefano's interest fade away.

Perhaps the owners’ oft-cited reluctance to sell their club to an overseas buyer traces its origins to the events of 20 years ago. 

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter