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.