The arrival of Dragan Solak caused a great deal of attention in the English media, and a special text was dedicated to the new owner of Southampton FC by the famous The Athletic web portal.
At the beginning of 2022, the founder of the United Group, Dragan Solak, bought 80 percent of the shares of the English Premier League team Southampton for €120 million. The club from the south of England under the leadership of the former owners from China did not do very well, so for the fans of the Saints, as the nickname of Southampton reads, better days are ahead, writes dnevnik.hr.
“When Dragan Solak bought Royal Bled, a golf course in Slovenia’s Julian Alps, in 2013 for a reported €11 million (£9.2 million), he had a vision of turning it into one of Europe’s most sought-after golfing destinations. An extensive two-year renovation of its main King’s Course culminated in Princess Jelisaveta Karadordevic of Serbia playing the ceremonial opening shot off the first tee in August 2017. Solak wasn’t finished, though. Not content with owning one of the go-to destinations for avid golfers, the Serbian media tycoon wanted to make it even better. He recruited Steve Chappell, head greenkeeper on one of the three courses at Scotland’s famous Gleneagles resort, to become course manager. Quite the coup when you consider his Gleneagles course had hosted the 2014 Ryder Cup,” The Athletic wrote.
The famous sports web portal then went on to present the new Saints’ owner in detail, speaking about his visions, abilities and business ventures, noting that Solak is the lead investor in Sports Republic, the company that recently acquired Gao Jisheng’s 80 per cent stake in Southampton.
Further on they added that Solak will attend the match against Manchester City, together with co-owners Rasmus Ankersen and Henrik Kraft which will be the first time that all three will attend a match.
Being the third richest person in Serbia whose wealth is estimated to be around 1.4 billion pounds, the web portal noted that he did not become rich via privatization of a pubic company, like the first and the second richest persons in Serbia did, but by running his own businesses, first of which was a company dealing with reselling of rights to TV programmes and films. In 2000 he started a cable TV and internet company in Serbia and by 2005 the SBB company had had 45 percent of the local market. From then, the company began buying out other companies, competitors, and spreading across former Yugoslavia.
In 2014 the companies would merge into the United group, they said when the US investment fund KKR became the group’s owner.
This is where Kraft, who is the link between Solak and Southampton, enters the scene, The Athletic wrote. They say that the 48-year-old previously worked for KKR and then served on the United Group's Board of Directors for two years, before leaving the company in 2016.
The famous sports web portal then presented the United Group closer to the English public.
“Solak is a well-known business leader in the region – especially in Serbia”, Dr Marko Milosavljevic, professor of journalism at the Slovenian University in Ljubljana told the portal adding that he is “often targeted by ruling politicians in Serbia.”
According to him, a new front was opened last year in a smouldering dispute between Solak and the Serbian government last year, when United Group's main rival, Telekom Srbija, began paying huge sums of money to take over the rights to the Champions League, La Liga, Serie A and, finally, the Premier League for its Arenasport channel.
The professor noted that Telekom Srbija is a state-owned company whose management has close ties with the increasingly authoritarian President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and his Serbian Progressive Party.
He states that the reason why Telekom Srbija has invested so much public money in football on television is not that they love the sport or the belief that Telekom will ever really return its investments: it is a political move with the intention of striking the United Group and reducing the number of people watching its N1 news television. Late last year, the Premier League was warned by various scholars, media freedom fighters and politicians not to accept Telekom Srbija's £500m offer for rights between next season and the 2027/2028 season. The League ignored them and cashed the check, he told the English website.
The N1 television enjoys respect at the international level, Dr Milosavljevic noted, adding that It is one of the most credible and independent sources of news in the former Yugoslavia, and which is a problem in modern Serbia.
The Athletic then writes that it is very difficult to find an economic argument for paying so many expensive rights for the Premier League and asks if Solak’s purchase of Southampton could be his way of showing Telekom Srbija the middle finger?
Peter Horrocks, the former head of the BBC's World Service, who now works as an editorial adviser to the United Group, also told The Athletic that Solak is a very determined and skilled entrepreneur, who he loves his country.
According to Horrocks Solak believes that objective and independent journalism is good for Serbia and that he is not political. Instead, he said, Solak wants Serbia to be well-governed.
According to the former head of BBC’s World Service, he is demonized in most Serbian media, because the media is, directly or indirectly, controlled by the government and is very concerned about Serbia's return to authoritarianism and nationalism, making him a political figure in the eyes of the government and portraying him as unpatriotic.
Unlike other foreign businessmen who bought English clubs, Solak did not receive any praise for his success in Serbia after taking over Southampton.
The United Group is under political pressure in Serbia, said Dr Milosavljevic, adding that despite these obstacles, it still seems to be very strong. Being too big to be harassed is yet another reason why the government in Serbia, and even Slovenia, does not like it, he said.