Bangor City: The pop star, the football club and the Mafia link

By Gareth Nelson-Davies & Wyre Davies
BBC Wales Investigates

Published
Media caption,
The pop star who ruined a 145-year-old football club

A seemingly rich new owner steps in to buy a city's struggling football club, promising to bring back its glory days.

Staff were overjoyed when their new wannabe YouTube pop star owner signed foreign professional players on big wages, compared to other teams in the league.

Their club was at the heart of the community and had once played Atletico Madrid and Napoli in Europe, but had fallen on hard times and had dropped out of Wales' top league.

After the takeover, some fans dared to hope their once-proud footballing days would return.

At first, their new Italian owner seemed like the "great saviour" - but the dream at Bangor City turned into a nightmare.

Within three years, one of the UK's oldest football clubs has ceased playing football, is tens of thousands of pounds in debt and its future is bleak.

Now players and staff have told BBC Wales Investigates that owner Domenico Serafino didn't pass on all of the furlough money claimed by the club during Covid - up to £375,000.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Bangor had been one of the most successful sides in the Welsh pyramid

Some players who moved to north Wales from as far as South America for a decent wage were left "abandoned" and not always paid, especially during the pandemic.

"We were without food so we'd come together because we lived on the same street, cooked big meals together to save money," said Mathew Jones, 23, a member of Bangor's backroom staff.

"There was a player who had a baby here, a family was created in Bangor. And he was worrying about how he was going to feed his baby, how he's going to feed his wife.

"It was horrible, horrible position. A lot of the players were suffering."

It's not just in the bright lights and billionaire owners of European football's top divisions where fans are sold false dreams, it's happening at grassroots level too.

Image source, Domenico Serafino/YouTube
Image caption,
Domenico Serafino, in a YouTube video for Universo, a song he released in 2013

"There were players who weren't paid for two or three months, others who went without a salary for five or six months," said goalkeeper Mariano Barufaldi, who came over from Argentina to play for Bangor.

"We saw that some of us were paid as normal. Others weren't paid, others were paid months late. It was very unfair and very unequal."

The financial troubles at the club, a founding member of the Welsh Premier League 30 years ago, led to it being suspended from the Cymru North league last year, before withdrawing in February with unpaid debts of £53,000.

BBC Wales Investigates goes undercover to examine corruption in lower league football and reveals the hidden story behind the collapse of an historic Welsh football team run by a wannabe pop star.

The BBC's investigation also found Domenico Serafino, 55, who owned a second football club on Italy's east coast called AS Sambenedettese Calcio, worked with an accountant who once had Mafia links.

Ignazio Spinnato was convicted in 2010 over his role in a multi-million pound drug trafficking and money laundering operation run by Italy's most powerful and dangerous organised crime group, the 'Ndrangheta Mafia.

BBC Wales Investigates has seen a message in which the convicted accountant is referred to by Serafino as his "business adviser".

His firm's address is also linked to Serafino's company.

"There was a lot of things that Ignazio Spinnato and Serafino had to explain about the past of Spinnato," said Italian journalist Pier Paolo Flammini, who has also been looking at what happened in Italy.

Another false dawn

Serafino, a self-styled Italian musician and music producer, is originally from Italy but who had been living in Argentina for around 10 years.

His link to Bangor came through his son Francesco, a striker, who joined the club in 2019, a season after their demotion from Wales' top flight.

TIMELINE: Bangor City's troubles

  • 2018: Bangor City demoted from Welsh Premier League over financial concerns under previous ownership
  • 2019: Domenico Serafino buys Bangor City through his Italy-based company, Sudaires, of which he's the majority shareholder. Some supporters form a new club, Bangor 1876, as an "insurance policy," which is accepted into the local Gwynedd League
  • 2021: Bangor City suspended from the Cymru North league over financial concerns
  • 2022: In February, Bangor City withdraw from the Cymru North with £55,000 debts and the season's results are expunged
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Players moved from as far afield as South America on the promise of professional football in Bangor

It was a far cry from their trophy-laden past where they won three successive Welsh Cups and a Welsh league title less than 15 years ago.

After a barren few years and off the field issues, like winding-up orders and trouble paying utility bills, some were hoping new management would transform the club.

Especially after big rivals TNS had just won their eighth successive Cymru Premier title.

It proved to be a false dawn.

The new owner left behind allegations of financial irregularities and a proud footballing city without their beloved club, as well as psychologically-scarred players.

'Wounded'

"I was very wounded, many of those guys have now left football altogether, they've cut their losses," added Barufaldi, who has now gone to play football in Italy.

"We're very disillusioned because it seemed like such a big opportunity."

Bangor City FC
It's a tragedy for the town, for the beautiful country of Wales and for a club with such a history
Mariano Barufaldi
Goalkeeper

Yet while the players have returned home, Bangor City's fans are left without their favourite pastime.

"He was seen as the great saviour because he did come in and, at the time, he steadied the ship," recalled Matthew Jones, Bangor's former media officer.

Serafino made all the right noises initially.

He promised to connect the club to its community again, get them back in the Welsh top division and raised hopes by announcing links with Italian giants Inter Milan and unveiling a World Cup winner as new manager.

'Swept up with excitement'

"I thought that's something I want to get behind, because it's my boyhood club," said Mr Jones.

"He didn't really speak much on how it'd be financed. He just said, you know, from making music for documentaries and films.

"At the time, I didn't really question it. I was swept up with the excitement of it all."

Serafino said he had investment from Korean-American businessman Kim Dae Jung, who made his fortune investing in vegan foods. But when Bangor's players started to privately question why they weren't being paid, it was announced Serafino had also taken over a club in his home country of Italy.

Kim, 50, also helped finance Serafino's takeover of Sambenedettese, who were an Italian third division club in San Benedetto del Tronto on Italy's Adriatic coast.

BBC Wales Investigates understands that he invested more than €2m (£1.7m) in both clubs and never saw a return.

Within a year, the Italian club was declared bankrupt and Serafino was suspended for six months by Italian football authorities from being a director of clubs in Italy.

"That was the first alarm bell," said fan and club volunteer Chris O'Neal, 44.

Image source, Pier Paolo Flamini
Image caption,
Vegan businessman Kim Dae Jung claims he has not seen anything from his £3.5m investment

"It was quite apparent what had happened, like non-payments of players and it's a duplicate of what happened here."

Hardcore Bangor fans had by this time had enough and formed a breakaway club. But the impact Serafino had runs deep.

'Abandoned us'

"He steadied the ship and then crashed it, even worse, the lasting effect is scarring," said Mr Jones.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Serafino took over Sambenedettese in 2020 but was kicked out within a year by the football authorities in Italy

"A lot of the players are without clubs, a few of them have retired - young, talented players. I know that the mental health issues that have been passed on to these players and myself has been horrible.

"I've not seen [Serafino] since he jumped on the plane and fled for Italy. He abandoned us."

Mr Serafino said he had not returned to Wales after leaving in 2020 because of health problems as a result of long Covid.

When asked about claims of missing furlough payments, he said he had passed on all of the money to the players.

Mr Jones said: "It's really sad. We'd created this amazing family with players from all over the world, playing good football.

"And to have this family and friends ripped from underneath you, it's depressing to think about."

BBC Wales
It's a shame what Bangor City's come to, but that history and passion has just carried on
Frida Fernley
Bangor 1876 supporter

For some lifelong fans, what happened to their club was so difficult to bear, they've transferred all of their devotion into new club Bangor 1876.

'Shame'

Frida Fernley, 19, said it was a "shame" what had happened to Bangor City but "that history and passion" had carried on with Bangor 1876.

"It's still there and we're still a part of it," she said. "It's just sort of changed, as things do over time."

Bangor fans said they trusted the football authorities in Wales to ensure the man taking over their club had the means and backing to take on one of the most historic clubs in Wales.

Image source, Bangor City FC
Image caption,
Bangor has struggled with off-the-field issues since moving to their Nantporth ground in 2011

"I initially thought he was a wealthy man and he's coming into my local football club, is going to spend money and there's no need for me to do anything," said Mr O'Neal.

"Surely it was up to the authorities to check, not individuals to check, where the money had come from?

"Looking at it now, I think I sort of have to accept some responsibility myself. I knew the players were getting big sums of money. Should I have asked more questions?"

Questions are being asked over whether enough is being done to vet football club owners in Wales.

While English league clubs have an owners and directors test, in Wales they don't.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Bangor forward Les Davies was nominated alongside superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in Uefa's best player in Europe award in 2012

"I think that the Welsh FAW, certainly for the top three tiers, need to have a fit and proper person's test for ownership of any club," said 62-year-old Bangor 1876 fan Dylan Fernley, Frida's dad.

Former Fifa investigator Terry Steans believes rules in Wales should be tightened after what happened at Bangor.

"Who was looking into him and his finances?" he said.

"Who verified that he had the funds to buy and maintain that club? Someone has to be accountable."

Image caption,
Domenico Serafino said he did everything he could to get Bangor back in the Cymru Premier,

The Football Association of Wales said its code of ethics safeguarded the integrity and reputation of football in Wales.

As for an owners and directors test, it said it would examine lessons from the new independent regulator in football, which is for England only.

Domenico Serafino said he did everything he could to get Bangor back in the Cymru Premier, but the pandemic and unexpected debts he'd inherited stopped that from happening.

He blamed Kim Dae Jung for conspiring to undermine the Welsh and Italian clubs for his own financial gain.

Image caption,
Fans want the football authorities in Wales to learn from what happened at Bangor City

Mr Kim said he was unable to comment for legal reasons.

Asked about his links to Ignazio Spinnato, Mr Serafino said he had always used his "artistic activities" to fight corruption and the Mafia.

For former Bangor keeper Mariano Barufaldi, he isn't just sad he lost out, he still feels for the fans and the game in Wales, which has lost one of its biggest clubs.

"It's a tragedy for the town, for the beautiful country of Wales and for a club with such a history," he said.

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