Matt Scott: Player trades boost third party balance sheets

“We are financial products. A football club is like a factory, and we are its outputs. You have to be realistic.”

It is not often you hear a human being reduce himself to the status of a balance-sheet item. But with these words that is exactly what Eliaquim Mangala, a France-international defender at the Portuguese champions, FC Porto, has done. Mangala’s words were in response to being confronted with the fact he is not merely an intangible fixed asset belonging to his club but also to two offshore funds whose investors’ identities have carefully been concealed.

The point was brilliantly illustrated by the France 2 programme Foot business: enquête sur une omerta, as its reporters presented Mangala with a cardboard cut-out of himself. The bottom half of his silhouette belonged to Porto, but the rest belonged to two other companies, Doyen Sports Investments Ltd and Robi Plus.

According to regulatory filings from the stockmarket-listed Portuguese club, on 14 December 2011 Doyen bought 33.33% of Mangala’s “economic rights” for about €2.65m. It turned out Mangala was not even aware that Robi Plus had also bought an additional 10% of the player’s rights. Porto has never made clear what Robi Plus paid for its share of Mangala.

Robi Plus’s accounts for the year to the end of July 2012 (which show no sign of the Mangala investment either, by the way) were signed off by the director Mauricio Delmenico. France 2 broadcast a conversation its journalist had upon apparently contacting Delmenico. The voice heard at the end of the phone, said to be Delmenico’s, declared that he manages Robi Plus’s affairs for Luciano D’Onofrio.

Now D’Onofrio has an extensive, and colourful, football history. In the 1980s he was the general manager of Porto, was once an agent to Zinédine Zidane and was a vice-president of Standard Liège. That was all before he was sentenced by the French courts to two years in prison (18 months of it suspended) and banned from all football activity for two years after his implication in fraudulent activity in transfers involving players as famous as Christophe Dugarry and Fabrizio Ravanelli.

Had Delmenico apparently not admitted D’Onofrio’s involvement, it would have been impossible to know about his alleged involvement in the deals. Given the man’s history, it is small wonder no one told Mangala (himself a former Liège player, incidentally) about it, whatever his views about football’s factory production line.

The lack of transparency arises from the fact that Robi Plus is a bearer-share company. This means that, although it is a firm registered with the UK government’s Companies House, it need not give details of its shareholders. In terms of its ownership transparency, this makes it little different to entities held offshore in secrecy jurisdictions and tax havens. Whoever holds the shares owns the assets of the company, but whoever that is need not be made public.

As for Doyen Sports Investments, a Malta-based company, its website carries a Who We Are section which conspicuously does not tell who the shareholders or principals are, although it does describe itself as “probably the most recognised private fund investing in the football sector.” It lists names as high profile as Radamel Falcao among its players, although his move to Monaco in France this summer would mean this is merely as a client-agent relationship and not as an “economic rights” stakeholder (the reason for this will be given below).

This football-investment fund is run by Nelio Lucas, who has been involved in player-investment deals for the best part of a decade. Doyen says its model is that of a lender providing liquidity to clubs who have restricted access to more traditional bank finance. It insists its stakes in players’ economic rights confer it no control over the destiny of their careers, which remain the province of their clubs. “There is the right way to do this,” said one person with knowledge of Doyen Sports Investments’ activities. “It’s transparent, fit and proper and not dictating where the players go.

“The idea is to cover themselves on the loan so they never lose money on the principle of the loan. “Or if they get lucky as they did with Atlético Madrid and Falcao they do make decent money on top. But there is another model where some dictate where the player goes but that’s not what Doyen are doing. I know Nelio would absolutely welcome regulation and control of the industry.”

That would help. But things are at least already fairly transparent from the clubs’ end. According to Benfica’s accounts for the 2012/13 season, Robi Plus also bought the entire economic rights to the Lisbon club’s players Luciano Teixeira and João Mário Fernandes last December. The transaction for the two players cost Robi Plus a grand total of €500,000. It meant that when Teixeira moved to Metz and Fernandes to Atlético Clube Portugal in the summer the proceeds went to Robi Plus, not the Portuguese club.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of Delmenico, D’Onofrio, Robi Plus or Doyen. Indeed, no rules are being broken, for it is only in England and France that third-party ownership of players is banned. (Though Mangala is a France international, the fact he plays in the Portuguese league means the ownership practice is permitted; had Manchester City carried through with a £30 million bid for him during the summer window, Doyen and Robi Plus would have had to divest. But having paid perhaps no more than €2.65 million, or £2.22 million, for a 43.33% cut of the transfer fee had it gone through, they would presumably have been comfortable doing so.)

So, no rules broken, but as those in the industry acknowledge, the integrity risks are clear. Other funds than Doyen might perhaps be less scrupulous about how they exert power over their player transactions. The temptation to push players around a carousel of clubs, each time earning a cut of the transfer fees, must be strong for businesses whose investors and financial activities are hidden behind a wall of tax-haven secrecy.

And what if club executives or managers are shareholders in those funds? Or bookmakers with a penchant for match-fixing? There is a fine line between controlling the destiny of a player’s career so that you know which club he will play at next and having sufficient control to demand he be sent off or score an own goal while playing there.

France 2 cleverly illustrated the risks by showing a FIFA 13 video game between Porto and Sevilla FC, wherein the players were labelled according to who owned or part-owned their “economic rights”. It demonstrated how in some jurisdictions players on opposing teams could belong not only to the clubs whose shirts they wear but also to the same third-party company whose shareholders are unknown.

Again, there is no suggestion of wrongdoing by anyone involved in the France 2 investigation into the matter, but it is clear the football authorities have misgivings about the involvement of these brassplate companies. Michel Platini was asked why UEFA had not tackled it. “I have tried,” he responded. “But no one would listen.”

The truth is the world player-transfer system is a matter for FIFA, not UEFA, to control and regulate. So France 2 moved on to ask Jérôme Valcke, the world governing body’s secretary-general for his thoughts. “It is unacceptable; it’s modern-day slavery,” he said. “We’re working on it.”

FIFA certainly is: in August Valcke wrote to FIFA national associations, executive-committee members and confederations to explain that FIFA had mandated the Centre de Droit et d’Economie du Sport to investigate the economic and financial impact of third-party ownership.

Its findings cannot come soon enough.

Contact Matt Scott at moc.l1563387564labto1563387564ofdlr1563387564owedi1563387564sni@t1563387564tocs.1563387564ttam1563387564