A football club risks losing millions of pounds in sponsorship because of a long-running dispute between a Flemish businessman and the Belgian embassy in Japan over two missing pedigree dogs.
KV Oostende , a top flight club on the Belgian coast, could scoop up just under £8.1 million in sponsorship from a Japanese investment company.
The €3 million (£2.7 million) a year sponsorship would prefigure a €10-12 million bid for 49 per cent of the shares, raising the prospect of transforming the “Coastal Boys’ of Ostend’s football fortunes.
But the Tokyo based Belgian who claims to have put the deal together is willing to scuttle the bumper deal, unless the Belgian embassy helps reunite him with his missing pedigree cocker spaniels George, 12 and Jagger, nine.
“If Belgium doesn’t help me, I won’t help Belgians either. Even though I myself earn 20 per cent on the deal,” Robert Maes, who has lived in Japan since 1996 said, “I will drop that €1.8 million for my dogs.”
“I will put the Japanese multinationals that want to sponsor in touch with French clubs. My commission will remain 20 percent, regardless of which country wins the deal," he added.
Mr Maes, CEO of a sports marketing company, has waged a one-man battle to get his dogs back for the last three years after a Tokyo animal shelter gave them to another family in the mistaken belief he had died.
In fact, the Het Laatste Nieuws newspaper reported, Mr Maes was in a Taiwanese prison, where he said he lost 18 kilos and seven teeth over 27 days of hell before being acquitted of fraud charges.
During that time, his wife had placed the dogs with the shelter so she could be by his side but when they returned to Japan, the pets were gone.
"On their website we found old ads with the picture of George and Jagger. Their names were suddenly Seamus and Quinn, and the shelter ‘was urgently looking for a new home for them because their owner had died’", he said.
"But I didn’t die! Yet the shelter had already given my dogs to two other families. Without my permission," Mr Maes told the Belgian newspaper.
A lawsuit against the shelter was rejected by a Japanese court and Mr Maes turned to the Belgian embassy for help but to no avail. Belgium’s foreign minister is said to be aware of the affair but there is nothing the diplomats can do.
The tragedy sparked an obsession with getting his dogs back, which has culminated with his threat to scuttle Ostende fans’ dreams of the big time. It threat comes hot on the heels of a three-week hunger strike, which Mr Maes said had damaged his kidneys.
Mr Maes said, “I will never give up, I am prepared to die for them. George and Jagger are our boys, part of our family. My wife cooked for them every night. And when we went to the restaurant, we ordered not two steaks, but four.”
“On my left arm I even had a tattoo placed with the initials of my wife and my dogs. I hate tattoos, but that way I have the feeling that I can prove to them how much I like them,” he told the local press.
“Almost every day I visit the Belgian embassy. I have already offered them money to get my dogs back, but they refuse to make one phone call."
Mr Maes is now prepared to launch a personal “trade war” to force Belgium to back him in his canine crusade.
The bosses of KV Oostende insist that any deal will be for sponsorship rather than shares in the club and despite the spaniel scandal remain optimistic.
"Two months ago I went to Japan myself to talk to the financier", said general manager Patrick Orlans.
”I think it’s terrible for Robert Maes that he has lost his dogs, but George and Jagger have nothing to do with our deal. If it still fails, those two dogs won’t be the reason for it."