The parallels weren't lost on Paraag Marathe.
Marathe, the president of 49ers Enterprises and the 49ers' executive vice president of football operations, officially joined Leeds United's board in May 2018 when the NFL franchise's investment group purchased a stake in the English soccer team. It had been 26 years since Leeds last won the title in England's top division and 14 since they had been relegated from the Premier League.
The 49ers could relate, considering they were 23 years removed from their last Super Bowl at the time.
"We would often talk about how it's a very similar story in terms of [Leeds having] such a decorated past," Marathe said of the newly-promoted Premier League club last week in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area.
"Obviously, the club had fallen on some challenging times for almost 20 years and gone through multiple ownership groups, multiple coaches, lots of players in and out and hadn't yet gotten back to where they belong. But the brand was still there."
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The 49ers have long had an interest in international soccer. Levi's Stadium has hosted club friendlies and competitive international fixtures alike, and the team joined the San Jose Earthquakes on the FIFA World Cup Bay Area Host Committee, which pitched FIFA and U.S. Soccer on naming the region one of 10 in the United States that will hold games during the men's World Cup in 2026.
But 49ers Enterprises' stake in Leeds United, reportedly worth around 10 percent of the club, is the 49ers' most important tie to the beautiful game. It took on newfound prominence earlier this month when Leeds secured Premier League promotion, as one of England's most storied clubs returned to the top flight for the first time since 2004.
"[There's] something special and there's something, certainly, that is a sense of pride in being a part of getting a club back to where they belong," Marathe said. "It's something that outlasts our investment, that will outlast my career, that will outlast, hopefully, my lifetime."
Marathe and the 49ers had arranged a "strategic partnership" with a prior Leeds United ownership group in 2014. Andrea Radrizzani assumed full control of the club in May 2017, but Marathe's relationship with Leeds' chairman pre-dated Radrizzani's ownership. Marathe said he had previously "hit it off" with Radrizzani after connecting through a mutual friend, even hosting him on a tour of Levi's Stadium in 2014 or 2015.
Radrizzani didn't know of Marathe's own ties with Leeds when they first met, and Marathe couldn't have known Radrizzani would purchase the club. "It kind of came full circle," then, once Radrizzani did, and Marathe reached out about the 49ers becoming more involved.
Marathe said the 49ers had visited a lot of prospective soccer clubs when they looked into investing, but Leeds stood out all along. Only 12 English teams have won more major domestic and international trophies than them, for one, and Marathe said the club's social-media engagement and season-ticket base were both far greater than other clubs in the Championship, England's second division. But, Marathe said the 49ers' first visit to the city spoke for itself.
"There's one club that their fans and supporters get behind, and you just feel it when you get there," Marathe said, referring to Leeds United's unique status as a club with no in-city rival. "I remember this very vividly because ... before we met anybody, we already felt there was something special brewing here. They just needed to get back to where they belong."
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Leeds United have done just that since Marathe joined the club's board, narrowly missing out on promotion last season before winning the Championship earlier this month. Marathe said he and the 49ers are "helping and advising wherever we can," but he repeatedly credited Radrizzani, director of football Victor Orta and head coach Marcelo Bielsa for the club's achievement, noting that it's "their show."
Now, the 49ers want to take the partnership to the "next level," according to Marathe. Leeds eventually playing pre-season friendlies at Levi's Stadium is a possibility, as is even more "information- and idea-sharing," he said, even noting that Leeds' return to the Premier League means the club "today is almost like where we were" when the 49ers first built Levi's Stadium. Marathe even told The New York Times in a story published Friday that the 49ers "are absolutely hoping to" increase their stake in the club.
Still, the 49ers' financial investment has become an emotional one for Marathe and others in the organization. He was there when Leeds lost to Derby County in the promotion play-off semi-final just over a year ago, saying he was "depressed" ordering midnight takeout after driving back to the city. Marathe even compared the "painful" feeling to his when the 49ers lost Super Bowls XLVII and LIV, and it's easy to see why.
Leeds United won a club-record 28 games after missing out on promotion a year ago, guided by a singular focus to return to the Premier League. That sounds a whole lot like the 49ers' Super Bowl-or-bust mentality after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in February.
"Coach Bielsa stuck through it, and they stuck to their game plan," Marathe said of Leeds' season. "They stuck to the blueprint that got them to almost getting promoted last season, and they stuck with it and they dominated this year as a result."