Secret Contracts Held a Surprise for Fiorentina’s New Owners


When Rocco B. Commisso completed his purchase of the Italian soccer club A.C.F. Fiorentina last summer, he described the deal as the “quickest closing in soccer history.”

Flushed with excitement about owning a top-division team in the country of his birth, Commisso, the billionaire chairman of the cable provider Mediacom, spoke passionately about his aspirations to lift the club, based in Florence, up the league standings. There would be no shortage of effort to match the ambitions, he said at the time.

But like other American owners who have invested in Italian soccer, Commisso, 70, has quickly learned that the challenge of running a team in Italy is a far more difficult undertaking than simply buying one was.

Like other American owners, for instance, he has found his grand hopes for a new stadium become tangled in red tape and nostalgia. But there have been other, thornier challenges, too. After that speedy agreement to close the deal last June, Fiorentina’s owners discovered a curious set of agreements — contracts signed by the club’s former executives just before the team changed hands.

The agreements, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times, effectively gave a soccer agent, named in February as part of a money laundering investigation in Spain, permission to find buyers for at least five members of Fiorentina’s roster. In return, the agent would be paid a commission. If Fiorentina balked at completing any deal the agent brought to the club, he would receive a penalty fee instead.

In effect, Fiorentina had agreed to offload some of its top players for a price negotiated by an outsider, for an amount it had not defined, or pay the agent a fee if it did not.

“This agreement seems to guarantee a payment to the agency no matter whether a transfer actually takes place,” said Roy Vermeer, the legal director at FIFPro, the worldwide union for professional players. “It’s hard to understand the reason why any club would agree to this.”

The accords are with companies controlled by the agent, Abdilgafar Fali Ramadani, whom the Spanish authorities have accused of being part of a multimillion-dollar money laundering and tax evasion scheme. But they offer yet another glimpse of the murky realities that underpin the global player transfer system, an industry worth more than $7 billion a year.

Fiorentina executives declined to comment on the agreements, and Commisso was not available for comment, according to a spokeswoman.

“For sure there was a strange relationship between Fiorentina and Ramadani,” said Pippo Russo, a sociologist at the University of Florence who has written books on the role of soccer agents in the transfer system.

For much of the decade before Fiorentina’s American takeover, the club’s relationship with Ramadani was as close as one between a team and an individual agent could be. A frequent visitor to the club’s offices, Ramadani, a Macedonian businessman known for his access to some of the brightest prospects in the Balkans, sent a number of his clients to Fiorentina, including several that were still on the team’s books when it was sold to Commisso.

It was those players — a group that included promising Serbian youngsters like defender Nikola Milenkovic and striker Dusan Vlahovic — that the former Fiorentina executives sought Ramadani’s help to offload, even as the team was days away from being sold to new owners. The connections between the club and Ramadani ran so deep that the person who signed the so-called private agreement on behalf of his company, Primus Sports, was Pedro Pereira, a Portuguese talent-spotter who once worked as part of Fiorentina’s recruitment team.

Pereira declined to comment on his role in the contracts, saying they were subject to confidentiality clauses.

The agreements were all worded the same way, with the only differences being the amount of money or percentages that would go to Primus Sports. “A.C.F. Fiorentina is interested in monitoring the market in view of evaluating possible opportunities to transfer the player to another club within the territory of Europe and China,” the contracts said.

Such agreements are not uncommon in soccer; clubs regularly enlist agents as they seek to offload unwanted players or try to raise funds. What was curious about the Fiorentina agreements, according to sports lawyers consulted by The Times, was not only the timing — so close to the sale of the club — but also the absence of any wording stipulating a minimum fee Fiorentina would accept.

“Such offers shall be in line with the market value of the player,” each contract states without determining how that value will be determined.

The Fiorentina contracts are only the latest developments involving Ramadani that have caught the attention of soccer officials. According to the authorities in Europe, Ramadani and his associates “were part of a criminal network which manages football clubs in several countries, among which are Belgium, Cyprus and Serbia.”

Through connections, the authorities said, the group was able to exploit lax regulations to hide millions of dollars in commissions by moving athletes through what were described as so-called ghost clubs. By doing so, investigators said, the agents avoided paying taxes on the payments they received for brokering the deals.

According to the investigators, the soccer agents used intermediary clubs in second- and third-tier European leagues as way stations in player trades. One teenage player bought by a Cypriot team for just over $2 million, for example, was sold six days later for more than triple the price. Another player was on the same club’s books for only eight days.

Pantaleo Corvino, the former Fiorentina technical director who signed the contracts with Primus on the club’s behalf, said the team’s relationship with Ramadani had greatly benefited the club and its balance sheet. He claimed that some of the players Ramadani brought to the club — like Stevan Jovetic, Matija Nastasic and Adem Ljajic — were later sold for prices that were multiples more than what the team had paid for them.

“What has been agreed has always been done within the rules and in the interest of Fiorentina,” Corvino said in a series of text messages over WhatsApp.

Corvino added that the deal to sell the team to Commisso was completed in such secrecy, and so quickly, that he had not known Fiorentina was on the verge of being sold when the agreements were signed with Ramadani’s company.

Fiorentina’s former executive president, Mario Cognigni, said the club had always complied with local regulations. “Please note that throughout my tenure as president of A.C.F. Fiorentina every single transaction has been carried out in the sole interest of the company and duly recorded in the relevant company’s books,” Cognigni said in an email.

While Fiorentina officials declined to discuss the agreements, a spokesman for the team said only that the team’s previous managers had been replaced. “We would like to let you know that the current management of the club works in complete transparency and we have no exclusions to work with any agent who might have interesting players to offer to Fiorentina, as long as all the rules are respected,” the spokesman said by email.

The revelations about Fiorentina’s contracts and close relationship with Ramadani come amid a push by soccer’s governing body, FIFA, to curb the influence and power of agents. FIFA recently agreed to new rules capping agents’ commissions and to a prohibition on an agent’s representing all parties involved in a transfer.

A senior FIFA legal official with nearly two decades of experience in the soccer industry said he had never seen any agreements like them.

Vermeer, the FIFPro legal director, said the union has been outspoken in its opposition to the player transfer market generally. Even before recent issues came to light — a money laundering and bribery scheme involving a club official in Belgium, huge fees paid to agents revealed in the Football Leaks hacks — its senior leaders had been at the forefront of calls for the system to be overhauled.

“It is plain wrong that the careers of professional footballers can be influenced by financial incentives to third parties,” Vermeer added. “We strongly oppose any arrangement that raises this possibility, and introduces a conflict of interest into player transfers.”

Source : NYtimes