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Dean Johnson Disappears from RFC Liège in Belgium

2011 February 1

Dean Johnson, former owner of the Minnesota Thunder and owner of RFC Liège in Belgium, has disappeared and not been heard from after a Belgium sports magazine uncovered the Minnesota native’s sordid financial history.

I asked him questions about his past in the USA, his financial problems here in Belgium, and so on. He became very upset, aggressive and even threatened me. But he understood I knew everything about him.
Anthony Rizzi, freelance journalist

IMS has been reporting on the sad but stranger than fiction story of Dean Johnson for several years. Johnson was the owner of the Minnesota Thunder from the late summer of 2007 until the early winter of 2009. He walked away from the team, leaving somewhere around $1 million in debts to employees, vendors, the National Sports Center and the United Soccer Leagues.

A 2008 photo of Dean Johnson holding a MN Thunder supporters scarf. Photo by Jeremy Olson – www.digitalgopher.net

In the late summer of 2010 Johnson, a St. Paul, MN native but a Belgian citizen, surfaced in his home state again after disappearing when the Thunder collapsed. Johnson, who has spent most of his adult life in Europe working as a real estate developer, brazenly tried to purchase the Minnesota Stars from the NSC, who were attempting to sell the team after the 2010 season. The Stars told the WingField head man to get his house in order and pay off his debt before attempting to purchase the very team that rose from the ashes of the Thunder.

Within weeks IMS was getting reports from Belgium that Johnson was attempting a take over the 119-year-old 3rd division team RFC Liège, who were in financial trouble and near collapse. IMS filed several reports on the matter.

Eventually Johnson was given control of the team with promises to pay the Belgium Football Federation who threatened to shut down the team if they did not make payment to the federation and players. In the process, Johnson promised to build a stadium (along with a hotel), improve the academy and lift the team back to a higher division. In doing so he asked for the board of RFC Liège to make the club a privately held company. No longer would the supporters have a voice.

After several former Thunder supporters contacted the RFC Liège with news of Johnson’s past, a reporter from Sports Foot Magazine got a hold of the story and ran with it.

Sports Foot Magazine is a large sporting publication in Europe and offers local editions to each country. It’s the most read sports magazine in Belgium. The reporter was  Anthony Rizzi, a 32-year-old freelance journalist who lives in Liège and occasionally writes for the  publication. Rizzi contacted numerous ex-Thunder players, employees and supporters to expose Johnson. A condensed version of the print story can be found here.

After reading the story in which I was quoted with some inaccuracies due to translation, IMS contacted Rizzi for a follow up on what has happened since the article was published on Wednesday, January 19, 2011.

First, new information was brought to light in the Sports Foot Magazine article. Rizzi reported that WingField Corporation was declared bankrupt on November 19, 2009. Between June 2007 and June 2008 the corporation lost about seven million euros. This was during the time of the worldwide market and real estate collapse. Wingfield Reality, another arm of WingField, went bankrupt January 28, 2010. Rizzi said it was impossible to know exactly what the fate of Wingfield Capital Partners was since no balance sheets has been published since 2007 which is a legal obligation. Rizzi told IMS that accountants told him that is usually “a bad sign.”

As to his personal wealth, Rizzi investigated that as well and said Johnson had accumulated many unpaid bills for both himself and  his only remaining company March Field Ixelles. From the report:

“The rent has not been paid for months,” sighs one of his former staff members under cover of anonymity. “He owes money to everyone. He owes me 15,000 euros. Bailiffs acting on behalf of various clients harass the offices.”

Q & A with Anthony Rizzi

IMS: Anthony, you told me that Dean Johnson has gone missing for two weeks now? Does anyone know why? Why would he disappear when he had just taken over the team? Was there an event that caused him to disappear? For example, was he required to come up with money to purchase the club or pay the Belgium Football Federation and wasn’t able to do so?

Rizzi: We have no more news from Dean Johnson for two weeks — since the match against Union St Gilles. It was just before my article about Johnson in Foot Magazine. After this match, I had a long meeting with him — for 2 hours. I asked him questions about his past in the USA, his financial problems here in Belgium, and so on. He became very upset, aggressive and even threatened me. But he understood I knew everything about him.

About the time the paper was about to be published for Sports Foot Magazine he disappeared. He has not even contacted the members of RFC Liège. He promised for weeks that he would pay the players but he did nothing about this. Everybody understood he was a liar, a professional liar. I said to him that it was better not to make false promises. Personally, I think he was afraid of the supporters’ reaction. The main event that has caused all this is my article in the Sports Foot Magazine.

He also understood that Liège certainly wasn’t heaven. Lots of unpaid bills to the players and the Belgian federation. Here, in Belgium, he has got a lot of problems himself. He has unpaid bills for his car (a Porsche), unpaid bills for his house, unpaid bills for his company, etc. I think he’s going to leave the country… According to Johnson, his company worked in finance. But, in reality, I think this company doesn’t exist anymore and hasn’t for long time. One of his companies is still in existence in Bruxelles (Brussels). But there is nobody there anymore.

IMS: Is it true that Johnson had first said he wanted Jules Dethier to stay on as president of RFC Liège. Once he persuaded the board to allow him to take over the team he also persuaded them to fire Dethier and to make Johnson president?

Rizzi: For sure, Dean Johnson said firstly that he didn’t want to become the president of RFC Liege. But when he was introduced his position seemed to be changed. He convinced the other members of the Liège administration council to change the club. You have to know that Jules Dethier, who has a strong personality, was not appreciated at all by the others members of the Liege administration council. So, when DJ arrived and seemed to have money, everyone though it was time to fire Jules Dethier. Johnson didn’t fire Dethier but helped to remove him.

About two weeks ago, the club decided to fire Dean Johnson and Jules Dethier at the same time with an official letter. So, Johnson was not the official president. He was president of Liège for about 3 weeks.

According to Belgian law, you can fire a president if you give him the possibility to explain his position first. However, Dethier wasn’t given that opportunity. So, according to Belgian law, Dethier is still the president of RFC Liège even if the board didn’t want to keep him on.

IMS: Tell me please more details in how Johnson persuaded the board to change their structure?

Rizzi: One of rare positive things that Johnson gave to Liège is the idea that the club had to change. Liège was a public association without any economical owners. The supporters could decide a lot of things in the club. But when Johnson arrived, he insisted on one thing: the club had to change in a private company. He said: “Without that, I give nothing to the club.” The club listened to him and began the transformation in the middle of December. You have to know it takes a long time in Belgium to do that, about 3 months of more. Despite Johnson’s departure, the club, which is in a very difficult financial situation, have decided to make this transformation to seduce new investors.

IMS: From the article it looks as if the team could fold if the Belgian Union has not received €24,000 by January 28.

Rizzi: Liège had to pay €14,000 by this Friday 28. No one at the club could pay that. So the supporters have opened a private account to collect the money. In one week they collected €50,000! They paid the Belgian federation and also one month of players’ salaries. The fans have saved the club. This is the second time in RFC Liège history that fans have paid the clubs debts! It also happened in 2004.

15 Responses
  1. Spencer permalink
    February 1, 2011

    Great article Brian. Gotta wonder how somebody can live like this. Credit Soucheray, he penned a column that had the guy nailed not a day or two after he’d walked into town.

    I tried to put bits of the article into Babel Fish…Something about Don Quichotte on his ass??? haha

  2. February 1, 2011

    When I first heard about this, it was rather obvious this would be the outcome. Dean Johnson is a pathological liar. It’s really truly amazing the s*** he tries to pull. Incredible…

  3. Greg permalink
    February 1, 2011

    The guy’s a sociopath. Sad things fell apart so quickly.

  4. February 1, 2011

    Try Google Translate and put the HTTP in there. It will give you the article translated (looking like the original) and my finding is Google does a much better job than Babelfish in interpretation.

  5. tomASS permalink
    February 1, 2011

    Denny Hecker and Tom Petters would be proud ;-)

    @Greg – better sooner than later, nip it in the bud

    He’ll probably show up in India touting himself as the next Ghandi

  6. Steve permalink
    February 1, 2011

    As I’ve found from talking to TSR, never trust a man who only owns one pair of shoes. Good article, Brian.

  7. February 1, 2011

    Yes, the Super Rookie may have been onto something there.

  8. Soccer Boy permalink
    February 1, 2011

    You could write a mystery novel based on this situation.

  9. ERic permalink
    February 1, 2011

    I am actually enjoying this saga. I’m looking forward to seeing what country he pops up in next. He’s burned the US and Belgium. Does he have any country left? Sure, there’s lots all over the world, but he’s shot himself in the two main countries he has ties. I haven’t seen any other countries mentioned in this adventure so far.

  10. drebin permalink
    February 1, 2011

    Mad props to the Liege supporters for doing what they just did! Wish them the best of luck.

  11. thesuperrookie permalink
    February 1, 2011

    Shoes.

    It is always about the shoes.

  12. February 1, 2011

    Hi there,

    You can still help the oldest belgian Champion (FC Liege) with a bank transfer:
    IBAN: BE19 61150300 7112
    BIC: BDCHBE22
    We also accept money from Dean Johnson :-) )

  13. Wayne permalink
    February 1, 2011

    Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. What a crook.

  14. uhclem permalink
    February 1, 2011

    A bit more, and a lesson…

    The genesis of this article began with IMS’s continuing coverage of Dean Johnson, even after he had ended the Thunder, up to his pitch to take over RFC Liege.

    When I read about Johnson’s promises to the followers of RFCL, it awakened, not so much an anger, (although lord knows I am still personally pissed at the portions of Minnesota’s soccer history and tradition he took from us), but a determination that he not do the same with another set of players, staff and supporters without their at least being forewarned.

    So, I took Brian’s excellent first article on this subject (number God knows what of God knows how many brilliant articles he has written on soccer; collect them all)…

    http://www.insidemnsoccer.com/2010/11/29/dean-johnson-attempts-to-invest-in-soccer-teams-despite-1-million-in-debts/

    and started posting and e-mailing the above link to every place I could think of where an RFCL supporter might see it.

    I posted it to the team’s facebook page. I posted it to the team’s discussion forum. I posted it to any Belgium web publication that I could find who had published an article touting Dean as the shining white knight who could save the club in distress. And I e-mailed a copy of it to the top six or so of RFCL’s club officers, including Jules Dethier, the president of the club at the time (and according to Rizzi, perhaps STILL the prez).

    While I was doing this, and unbeknownst to me at the time (except for the efforts of Teresa Petersen, who was facebooking the heck out of this and doing her own bits of corresponding), other members of the faithful, who are still unbeknownst to me, apparently were doing the same things.

    And the response?

    Zilch. Nada, niente and nichts. Zip-a-dee-do-da, without even the Zip-a-dee-ay you usually receive as an extra bonus with every zip-a-dee-do-da shipped directly to you.

    Not a response on my note to their facebook page. Not a post on their discussion board. Not a responding comment at the end of the webnews articles I had commented on. Not a word from RFCL officials. *sigh* Oh, well…

    Five weeks later, as I am scrolling through my e-mail queue, busily deleting innumerable offers of various substances guaranteeing me “four fabulous extra inches”, I come across an e-mail from an “Anthony Rizzi” titled “About Dean Johnson”.

    My first thought, before opening the e-mail, was that someone had hired themselves a Mafia torpedo with Dean in mind, and the hitman was looking for info on where he might find the sonova…

    Anyway, it turns out that Rizzi, who claimed to be a reporter for the Belgian newspaper and webpub L’Avenir, was a friend of ousted President Dethier, who had received my e-mail and passed it on to Anthony. Rizzi wanted to write an expose on Johnson and wondered if I could provide some facts on the guy.

    After getting outside verification that Rizzi did indeed write for L’Avenir, I composed a reply to his request.

    Since most of what I knew was from Brian’s articles and some conversations I had had with players and others directly involved in the mess, I fed him some general background on the club, a few clearly labeled opinions and the phone number or e-mail addresses of a few potential sources, like Tim Holt and Brian, himself.

    After that, I (and Teresa,who received a similar e-mail from Rizzi) got the word out through facebook and e-mail to most of the players who had been shorted by Johnson.

    On Janurary 19th, Anthony’s article was published. You know the rest.

    That’s the bit more. Quite a bit, it turns out.

    The lesson?

    Well, it’s not that Brian is one of the country’s top soccer journalists who writes brilliant stuff that actually matters. Everyone here knows that.

    And it’s not that I am the simple, humble, savior of international soccer. I know I am and it doesn’t matter who else believes it. ;)

    The lesson is, “Take the Shot”.

    Everyone gets multiple opportunities in life to take the shot. They see something going on that they know is wrong. Or they have an idea how to make something better.

    But often, we dont take the shot. We say to ourselves, “Aaah, someone else is taking the shot. Why bother?”

    Or we say, “Aaah, my shot isn’t gonna matter. Nobody is going to pay attention to me on this anyway.”

    Or, “Ah, let it go. It’s not worth my time to take the shot. ‘Sides, Bridalplasty is on soon, with a special appearence by Jerry Springer!”

    And we could be right on that shot. Might not make any difference. Many shots don’t. But…

    you never know.

    The great strikers keep making those runs time after time, looking for that feed that will spring them one on one with the keeper. Most of the time, they don’t get it. Of the few times they do, a defender or keeper makes a great play on some of them. On others, the striker blows the touch or miskicks it.

    But he keeps making those runs, from the first whistle to the last. Because he never knows if that next pass is the one that leads to him taking the shot that goes in.

    For about five weeks, it looked like my postings and e-mails would lead to nothing. Instead, it became a small part of a process that lead to a 120 year-old soccer team surviving for a community that really wants it. Not a cure for cancer, true. But not bad either.

    And what did it take? A few postings. A handful of e-mails. A couple of calls. Some minor quick and easy internet research. A grand total of a few hours, tops.

    Makes me want to take the next shot, when I see one. Could lead to something bigger. How about you?

    You never know.

    Oh, and I’ll post the complete Sports Foot Magazine article, “the google translation” version and the original French version, at USLDiscussions.com in the Stars forum, under the title “Rizzi on Johnson”.

  15. tomASS permalink
    February 1, 2011

    @uhclem – great post!

    I never met a shot I didn’t like ;-)

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