Fernando Alonso’s cycling team is a recurring joke within the international squad. As the season advances and a racer may still not have a contract for the following year—especially if he is Spanish—it is common for his teammates to accuse him ironically of having secretly signed for the new Alonso team, as one professional cyclist told this newspaper. “It’s now hardly ever mentioned, but there have been years when it was the talk of all the races: who Fernando was going to sign, the million dollar budget he was going to manage, if he was going to use experimental technologies... There were all kinds of rumors. It was like El Dorado of cycling, with a lot of expectation surrounding it”, he confirms.
The story goes back to summer 2013, when the Asturian driver made public his interest in buying the Euskatel cycling team, with whom he even signed a pre-agreement at the end of August. It was great news for Spanish cycling as it was a high-level take-over of Euskaltel, the second most important team in the country after Movistar, which was lost in a financial labyrinth and unable to find the way out. The joy didn’t even last a month. In September the negotiations broke down, Spain lost its UCI Pro Tour license and six Euskaltel racers had to retire early because they couldn't find another team. Among the causes, as indicated by sources with knowledge of the negotiations, is Alonso’s desire to not assume more workforce in Euskaltel than the cyclists themselves.
(Alonso's cycling team project) "There were all kinds of rumors. It was like El Dorado of cycling, with a lot of expectation surrounding it"
Alonso would try once more in 2015, again arousing interest from both the media and racers. What’s more, he was one step away from launching the team, but the Paradise Papers now reveal that this project with a strong Spanish identity, codenamed FACT (Fernando Alonso Cycling Team), had its operations base in Malta. The leak was obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and later shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and about a hundred media outlets from around the world, including El Confidencial and La Sexta in Spain. This leak proves that Fernando Alonso’s manager Luis García Abad established the company Revolution Holdings Limited in Malta, a joint venture with the Qatar investment fund Novo Holding.
Revolution Holdings became official on January 21st 2015 and its license has been renewed annually. García Abad, who was also to be General Manager of the team, confirms to El Confidencial that there would be nothing Spanish in this project, neither the headquarters nor the sponsors. “Negotiations were held with different squads holding the federative UCI Pro Tour license and, simultaneously, they explored possibilities of building a new cycling team (for which negotiations were held both with the UCI itself and with potential sponsors who could support the project. It is true that most, if not all of them, were non-Spanish companies given that we didn't find relevant interest in the project within our country)”, he explains.
“Our partner had no interest in Spain”
The company was started with capital 50% Spanish and 50% Qatari. During the announcement of the joint venture, Novo Holding, which specializes in sports and entertainment, explained that they sought to enter into what “has become the new golf”, being “the sports equipment sector with the highest turnover”, a 15% share and over 50 billion annually. Alonso, for his part, seemed to have found his perfect partner. “I am very excited for this partnership. Now I can bring together my passion for cycling and my obsession for technology and design with like-minded people”, he affirmed, “We’ve seen a window of opportunity and we’re going to kick it wide open!”
Why didn’t he choose Spain as headquarters for his team? “The head company could not be Spanish, as we would have preferred, given that the development projects were not initially meant to be carried out in Spain and the Spanish shareholding group only accumulated 50% of the capital, the other partners groups being a third party with no interest or link with our country”, says García Abad.
Malta is not considered a tax haven by Spain since 2003 when the double taxation agreement entered into force between the two countries, but it is considered so by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Malta offers a series of advantages that make it an attractive destination for companies: a familiar tax legislation, based on the British one; the guarantees of belonging to the European Union, and a deduction system that allows corporate income tax rates of around 5%. In addition, these Mediterranean islands do not impose any type of levy on the collection of shares, interests or royalties.
However, Fernando Alonso’s cycling team never benefited from any advantage. García Abad has sent abundant documentation to this newspaper showing that the Spanish Treasury was aware of the existence and accounts of Revolution Holdings Limited, which did not manage to invoice a single euro.
Lack of funding was precisely the Maltese company’s main problem, as the Formula 1 driver’s manager explained. “Negotiations with sponsors did not conclude and it was impossible to guarantee a budget like the one we all wanted in order to get the team off to a start in the 2016 season. This fact and certain discrepancies with our partner led to an agreement to suspend the project (first temporarily and then permanently). To date, the Maltese company is inactive and the process of liquidation has begun”.
Without a license, but with Bettini and Sagan
Regarding Fernando Alonso’s first attempt to plunge into the cycling sector, sources close to the operation indicate that “the team was almost ready, with many racers and managers signed”. The profile of those involved supports the theory that FACT was intended to become a high-level international team. Ex cyclist Paolo Bettini found himself in charge of Sport Management. Alonso convinced the Italian classics specialist within days to abandon his position as the head of his national team and direct this new project. It all took place after the Euskaltel fiasco. “Everything happened very quickly, I remember the dates: on December 18th 2013 Alonso called me, on the 23rd we exchanged emails, on the 26th I received the formal proposal, and on the 27th I called the president of the Italian Cycling Federation to tell him that I was leaving the team. On January 7th I was in Madrid to meet Alonso and Luis García Abad”, Bettini told Gazzetta dello Sport.
According to who was to be the team leader, there were 15 pre-signed racers and the team infrastructure was 70% prepared. According to certain sports sector sources, one of the cyclists Alonso had signed was Peter Sagan, three times world champion and one of the greatest talents of the squad. Seeing that the Maltese project did not materialize, Sagan finally decided to sign with Tinkoff. These same sources claim that Alonso was waiting for the availability of a Pro Tour license after the announced merger of the Cannondale and Tinkoff teams, which never took place. Bettini, on the other hand, maintains that the formation of the team caught Alonso in the middle of moving from Ferrari to McLaren, and he had no time for cycling. The Italian left the project, which remained on standby until the arrival of the Qatari fund. The registration of Revolution Holdings Limited in Malta would signify Fernando Alonso’s second run around the track, which recently ended with the same result as the first one.
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