Nov 18 2009
Moni Fanan – Israel’s Mini-Madoff
As in any good drama, it started with a dead body and a question mark. On 19 October, Moni Fanan, manager of Tel Aviv’s Maccabi basketball team from 1992 to 2008, was found dead in his apartment. He had hanged himself. Fanan, 63, was a well-known figure and anyone who had watched a Maccabi game would have seen him on the sideline, enthusiastically encouraging the players.
Maccabi is Israel’s most popular basketball team and enjoys a reputation in the country equivalent to that of Real Madrid in Spain or Manchester United in the UK. During Fanan’s time at the club, Maccabi was one of the best teams playing in Europe, and despite a subsequent spate of less successful performances, it remains an influential force in the European basketball establishment.
Initial press reports following Fanan’s death were measured and cautious. But in a small country where rumours travel fast, within a few hours everybody knew that Fanan was allegedly involved in running a Ponzi scheme. It was claimed that he had been the head of a secretive “private bank” that offered high-yield investments to players and Maccabi cronies. The assumption was that Fanan killed himself either because the tax authorities had begun investigating him, or because he couldn’t pay his investors back. He was Israel’s junior version of Bernard Madoff.
What has followed, however, has been a cascade of bizarre events that have kept the nation gripped. First, some players, both past and present, admitted investing their money with Fanan. Estimates have now put the total at between $25m and $100m. It was said that Fanan, with his far-reaching connections, also managed the investments of some coaches and referees both local and foreign. The Israeli Basketball Association has had no choice but to open an official investigation.
Next came suggestions that Fanan was somehow involved with the runaway British financier Nicholas Levene who, just a few days before Fanan’s suicide, had disappeared, leaving behind debts of over £70m. The British media called Fanan “Levene’s money channel in Israel”. Levene, who has visited Israel many times in the past, reappeared a few days later and denied any connection to Fanan. But the revelations just keep coming.
This weekend a businessman in Hong Kong claimed that Fanan bought land in Macau through him. Fanan’s personal life was also placed in the spotlight after a 50-year-old woman claimed that she had been his lover for the past 15 years and that they adopted a child while he was married to another woman.
Although there are official investigations underway, analysts fear that Maccabi Tel Aviv is just too big to fall, due to its place in Israeli society, its economic might and powerful political connections.
A personal investigator has been assigned by Fanan’s widow to find out where the money is (if there still is any), but few are confident that investors will get their cash back. So this week while people might wonder how Israel will play its hand in Middle East negotiations, at home the press is following a very different game.
(published originally in Monocle on November 18th 2009)