MASSIMO CELLINO’S pending, 223-day Football League disqualification has been cast in major doubt after Italy’s Court of Appeal acquitted him of any criminal wrongdoing in the tax case which led to his ban.
Cellino is fighting the Football League’s punishment and is in the middle of an arbitration process involving the Football Association but the decision in Italy to clear him of breaking Italian tax law could prevent the League from imposing its disqualification.
Leeds United’s owner was found guilty last year of failing to pay VAT owed on a Range Rover he imported to Italy from the USA.
In June 2015, a court in Cagliari confiscated the car and imposed a fine of more than £30,000 and the Football League used the conviction to ban Cellino for the second time in his two-year reign as Leeds’ majority shareholder.
Cellino, who served a previous ownership disqualification during the second half of the 2014-15 season owing to a different tax offence, was informed of his latest ban in October but his decision to ask the FA to arbitrate on the matter has prevented the League from enforcing the sanction for almost seven months.
The Football League has the power to disqualify owners and directors of its 72 member clubs but only the basis of ‘dishonest’ criminal offences.
According to L’Unione Sarda, a newspaper in Sardinia, “recent legislative changes on the decriminalisation of certain tax offences led the judges to declare that (Cellino’s offence) is no longer a crime.”
The 59-year-old has had the Range Rover returned to him and will no longer be asked to pay any fine and the development could significantly strengthen his hold on United.
Cellino, who bought a controlling share in Leeds in 2014, has been under sustained pressure this season amid disputes with the Football League, Sky Sports and sections of Leeds’ own support.
Neither the FA nor the Football League has remarked on Cellino’s attempts to avoid a ban through arbitration but the League confirmed in February that it was still intent on enforcing the 223-day disqualification, saying: “This will not affect the length of any disqualification served by Mr Cellino in the event that the League’s decision is upheld.
“He would then be required to serve a period equivalent to that which he would have served had he chosen not to appeal the matter.”.
Cellino remains embroiled in a separate embezzlement case in Italy relating to the construction of the IS Arenas stadium while he was owner of Sardinian side Cagliari. He denies any wrongdoing.
Last year he was cleared of breaking the law in relation to transfers of players made during his time in charge of Cagliari and another case in which Cellino was accused of failing to pay tax - involving the imported yacht Lucky 23 - has shown no signs of progress since a scheduled court date in January.
He and the Football League have been at odds ever since the governing body attempted to block his takeover two years ago on the grounds of a prior conviction in Italy.
Cellino was found guilty of evading tax on an imported yacht named ‘Nelie’ but succeeded in securing ownership of Leeds after the League initially failed to prove that his offence had been deliberately dishonest.
The League later used the court’s written verdict to find him in breach of its Owners and Directors test and banned him for the first time in January 2015. That suspension ended four and half months later, with Cellino formally regaining control of United in May 2015.