Inside the World of a Powerful Football Agent
It was 1 p.m. on June 10, 2018, and Maik Barthel was sitting in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Vienna. The longtime confidant and agent of striker Robert Lewandowski, Barthel was waiting for a man known to most people around the world simply as "Pini." The two had to talk.
Pinhas Zahavi, 76, is a heavyweight in the world of professional football. In a rare profile in the British weekly The Observer, Zahavi was once referred to as football's "first and only super-agent." But for Barthel, the man had presented a significant problem for weeks because his top client, Lewandowski, had engaged Zahavi's services.
The Israeli agent and the Polish striker had forged a plan. It foresaw Zahavi, a ruthless negotiator, using whatever means necessary to free Lewandowski this summer from his contract with Bayern Munich, which was to run until June 2021. Lewandowski was eager to leave Munich, with Real Madrid being his preferred destination. And Zahavi was to apply the requisite pressure on the team. He is a specialist for such cases.
The year before, Zahavi had played a considerable role in orchestrating Brazilian striker Neymar's departure from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), even though Neymar's contract with the Catalonians had just been extended to June 2022. An exit clause with a fixed transfer fee of 222 million euros made the transfer possible. PSG paid the fee, allowing Neymar to make the move.
Lewandowski's contract, however, doesn't contain such a clause, and that was Zahavi's problem. He needed Barthel on his side. At the meeting in Vienna, the Israeli first tried a charm offensive. He arranged for a car to take him and Barthel to Ernst Happel Stadium to watch Austria play against Brazil, the South American team's final warm-up ahead of the World Cup in Russia. Neymar was doing his magic down on the pitch, while his father watched from the gallery above. Neymar's dad had also earned several million from his son's transfer to Paris -- in part thanks to Zahavi's aggressive negotiating style. But Barthel was not persuaded. He said Bayern Munich would refuse to allow itself to be blackmailed by any player. Even its best.
After the meeting in Vienna, Zahavi got in touch again, but his tone had become more impudent. He sent Barthel multiple text messages berating him for having failed to negotiate a fixed release fee for Lewandowski when he transferred from Dortmund to Munich in summer 2014 and during his last contract renewal with FC Bayern.
"Robert was and will b the best striker in the world," Zahavi wrote in a text message, "but he does not understand the football business. I m sure that today it could be different."
"I see this differently!" Barthel responded. It was "impossible" that FC Bayern would ever agree to a "buy out."
The transfer hype that Zahavi had stirred up in the Bundesliga, Germany's top league, through targeted public statements had led to nothing. The powers that be at Bayern Munich were not open to negotiating. But Zahavi didn't give up. He and Lewandowski agreed to work together in the future.
Who is this man who spent weeks infuriating Bayern executives? Over the course of 40 years, Zahavi has perfected the art of positioning highly paid football players against their colleagues, trainers or club bosses. And when things ultimately become untenable with an old employer, Zahavi is there to pave the player's way to a new club, one that is happy to solve all the problems he has conjured up with money. It is a strategy that has made him a multimillionaire.
Zahavi knows how to get his message out to the public. In Lewandowski's case, he turned to the German sports tabloid Sport Bild. "Robert feels like he needs a change and a new challenge in his career," Zahavi told the paper in late May. "Officials at FC Bayern are aware of this." The story made the front page. With that, the fire had been set.
Zahavi has been in business longer than any other top football agent in the world, having made his first player transfer deal in the late 1970s. His proximity to billionaire club owners in Russia, the Arab world and Central Europe is just as legendary as his ruthlessness when there's a juicy commission within reach. He has also played a role in club acquisitions, investment deals -- and controversial negotiations involving underage talent.
His network is as vast and complex as the agent himself is invisible. He is a phantom, a man who turns down almost every interview request. The last major profile of him appeared 12 years ago. And even then, it wasn't clear just how much money Zahavi was moving around or which channels his income was flowing through.
Documents from the whistleblowing platform Football Leaks, which include Barthel's text messages, provide a deep look into the world of one of the sport's biggest power brokers. The trove of information reveals that companies Zahavi owns, or those for which he works, are often located in tax havens. They're based in Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. He also once owned a company in Luxembourg.
For his deals, Zahavi often joins forces with other industry giants like the English-Iranian broker Kia Joorabchian, Portuguese agent Jorge Mendes or Fali Ramadani of Macedonia, who provides him with access to the football market in southeastern Europe. Zahavi has himself written that he is primarily active in South America and England. He engages law firms in Brazil and Israel to provide him legal support. They have plenty of work to do.
DER SPIEGEL and the journalism network European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) reported two years ago on the sordid world of player agents. It became clear at the time that many of them were funneling their fees through dark channels to companies that had two things in common: headquarters in a tax haven and an opaque ownership structure.
Zahavi is a bit of an anomaly in this universe. While other agents have large support staffs, the Israeli is a one-man-show. He's a man of the classic handshake deal. But as soon as he is asked uncomfortable questions about his business practices, he isn't opposed to issuing unbridled threats.
The millions of euros that Zahavi moves around have piqued the interest of legal and tax authorities in Europe. Never once has any illegal activity been proven. The Football Leaks documents show there was one particularly stubborn investigator at the tax fraud and offshore division of Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) office in Britain. The official spent several years combing through deals Zahavi had put together in the Premier League.
According to the documents, the investigation had primarily focused on Zahavi's personal taxes of around 12.5 million British pounds (14.3 million euros) and corporate taxes of nearly 5 million. But the investigation was closed in April 2017, which is remarkable. As Zahavi himself has written, he lives in London more than half the year. In England, the tax rate for top earners is 45 percent. Zahavi would normally have to pay the taxes on all his revenue streams around the world to HMRC.
He doesn't have to, though, thanks to a bilateral taxation agreement between Britain and Israel. Zahavi has an apartment in Tel Aviv that he visits only sporadically, but the provision allows a taxpayer to pay his or her dues in the country that represents the "center of vital interests." In Zahavi's case, this is Israel; the authorities there have confirmed as much.
The actual centers of his businesses, however, are far from Israel. They're in places like Gibraltar. There, just a few blocks from a yacht-filled marina, are the offices of a trust and a services company named Finsbury. It's a front for multiple companies. One is called Gol International, another Gol Football. Both are registered in Gibraltar. A third company was called Gol Luxembourg, which used to be located in the Grand Duchy. Zahavi says this company no longer exists.
The New Football Leaks Revelations
The power broker from Tel Aviv likes to be discreet. He even hides his company network from his business partners, as one client, the German football team Werder Bremen, discovered.
In summer 2012, the team negotiated a contract with Gol Luxembourg according to which the company received 300,000 euros for Zahavi's services in facilitating the loan of Kevin De Bruyne from FC Chelsea to Werder Bremen. But it was only two employees of Zahavi's company in Luxembourg who signed the contract and the invoice for the first installment.
For months, Werder refused to wire the first 100,000 euros. The club wanted to know who was receiving the money. The money was only paid after Finsbury Trust gave in and explained Gol's corporate structure to the Werder bean counters in addition to revealing that Zahavi was the owner.
As was usual for Zahavi, Werder Bremen transferred his fee to an account in Switzerland. That's where his companies have their business accounts, at the St. Galler Kantonalbank and at Hyposwiss Private Bank in Zurich. Gol maintains accounts in the three most important currencies: pounds, dollars and euros.
The most spectacular deal Zahavi has thus far made in his life came in the summer of last year. On July 23, 2017, 10 days before Neymar's transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, the club bosses in France learned that Zahavi would be sitting next to the player's father as a second agent at the negotiating table.
According to his agent contract, he is to receive 10.7 million euros by early 2022. If Neymar extends his contract by a year to 2023, Zahavi will receive another 2 million euros on top of that.
When it came to payment, though, Zahavi and the club did not see eye-to-eye. As he had done with Werder Bremen, Zahavi proposed that his fee be paid through one of his companies with an account in Switzerland. But Paris Saint-Germain had reservations.
Zahavi gave in, suddenly wanting to be paid through a company in Cyprus, which also belonged to him. Its name: Grebere Consulting Limited, registered in Limassol and founded in 2014. Zahavi sent the football club's managers confidential company documents, but PSG's financial advisers were still suspicious. They viewed Cyprus as a tax haven and said the "substance of this company is questionable." In other words, they believed Grebere Consulting was nothing more than a shell company.
Zahavi denied it. In an angry email, he criticized PSG's director general, Jean-Claude Blanc, saying it had been a "big mistake" to send the club confidential documents. He insisted on receiving the money through Cyprus. But the club stuck to its hard line. Ultimately, Zahavi signed the "Sports Agency Remuneration Agreement" as a private individual, listing his address in Tel Aviv. Zahavi says the money was paid into a personal account and was taxed in Israel. Zahavi felt insulted by the treatment and he let PSG executives know about it.
Zahavi constantly has two, sometimes three mobile phones that he actively uses. Besides a credit card, they're really all the agent needs to work while flying between continents.
Such methods, however, are not always conducive to thorough bookkeeping. When British tax inspector Mark H. was attempting to track the million-dollar payments to Zahavi from the Premier League, he demanded that Manchester City hand over documents outlining the transfers of various players. "What was Zahavi's role?" he asked in a letter.
The club had difficulties finding all the documents. At one point, they were trying to locate documentation for fees paid in relation to Robinho's transfer. "We ... do not have access to copies of all correspondence," Man City's chief financial officer responded. The deal had been made "while the club was being taken over by Abu Dhabi." He continued: "You are aware that this is not uncommon within the industry that a significant proportion of deals are carried out over the phone and are not formally noted."
Influence and Contacts
Zahavi's London-based attorney heard something equally nebulous from Jorge Mendes in June 2014. The Portuguese national represents players like Cristiano Ronaldo and is, like Zahavi, a major player in the world of football agents. Both men have worked together before to push through significant transfers, many of which took place between FC Porto and FC Chelsea.
Zahavi's lawyer wanted to prepare himself in the phone call with Mendes for follow-ups from the tax authorities. He was hoping for information about industry practices and his client's role. He took notes during the call. "Basically everyone in the football industry knows Mr. Zahavi and that he used that influence and those contacts, including club chairmen and even some heads of state, to broker player deals."
Like Man City's chief financial officer, Mendes also described how paper was no longer as important for Zahavi's work as it had been back when the Israeli was a newspaper journalist. Zahavi's commissions "are negotiated on a deal-by-deal basis and always by mobile phone." He said that is how all deals between him and Zahavi had been done.
For years, there had been a model in the football industry in which Zahavi was strongly involved: so-called Third-Party Ownership (TPO). It basically worked like this: Investors would buy a share of Club A's transfer rights of a hopeful professional. If the player's market value rose, the investors would then frequently insist on the player being sold onward to Club B. The practice led to many clubs becoming dangerously dependent on investors; which is why FIFA banned TPO in May 2015.
Some investors, who for years had been advised by Zahavi to put their money to work in the transfer rights of certain players, are hidden by a company called Leiston Holdings Limited. It is registered in the British Virgin Islands, where the tax rate on income generated abroad is zero percent, as is also the case in Gibraltar. These were deals in which investors could see a huge return within a very short period of time. In addition, such TPO transactions were often accompanied by huge fees that were channeled to tax havens.
Inside a TPO
The whole palette of dubious transactions was illustrated by the case of the Serbian professional Lazar Markovic, 24, who belongs to FC Liverpool and is currently on loan to the Belgian first division team RSC Anderlecht.
In April 2012, only weeks after Markovic had turned 18, Leiston Holdings acquired 100 percent of the player's transfer rights from Partizan Belgrade. The price: 7 million euros.
Just over a year later, in June 2013, the striker was transfered to Benfica Lissabon. The Portuguese club transferred 6.25 million euros to Leiston, but that sum was only enough to secure half of Markovic's transfer rights.
One year after that, in July 2014, Markovic was transferred to FC Liverpool, with the Premier League team paying a total of 25 million euros for the player. Of that, 12.5 million euros went to Benfica while the other 12.5 million euros went to Leiston. Within just over two years, Leiston had turned 7 million euros into 18.75 million euros -- tucked away in the Caribbean, tax-free.
FIFA has a subsidiary, called FIFA TMS, that documents all international transfers. Kimberly Morris is the head of the Integrity and Compliance Department and she followed these speculative deals extremely closely at the time, though the effectiveness of her spot checks depended on the clubs' willingness to cooperate. And that willingness was not exactly pronounced.
After Markovic's transfer to Benfica, Morris became suspicious. In March 2014, she wrote an email to the club executives at Partizan asking for "a brief summary of the relationship between your club and Leiston Holdings Limited." She also requested access to the contract between the company and Partizan.
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The club's secretary general delivered the document, but Morris wasn't satisfied. She wrote a second email. Now she wanted to know "whether there is any connection between Leiston Holdings Ltd and Mr. Pinhas Zahavi?" She also checked whether Partizan had "any other separate agreement in relation to the transfer of this player or generally with Mr. Pinhas Zahavi?"
That, though, is as far as Morris got with her investigation. The Football Leaks documents now show that she was on the right track, because Leiston had drawn up two further suspicious contracts relating to the TPO deal. On May 3, 2012, just a few days after the acquisition of Markovic's transfer rights, Leiston agreed to make a payment of 250,000 euros to Sport & More, a company registered in the state of New York. The man behind the company was the Serbian sports agent Nikola Damjanac. He apparently received his fee for supposedly helping Leiston acquire Markovic's transfer rights.
Just trying to follow the cash flows of the companies Zahavi works for can at times be dizzying. Although Sport & More was a contractual partner, Damjanac later requested that Leiston pay the 250,000 euros to a company in Malta named Lian Sports. A buddy of Zahavi's, whom he refers to as "my guy," works for the company in the Balkans.
But that wasn't all. Damjanac signed another contract with Leiston relating to the matter of Lazar Markovic on May 3, 2012. This time it was for a company named Goldline based in the Swiss border town of Chiasso. According to the contract, Leiston was to transfer 2 million euros to Goldline. Once again, the alleged reason for payment was support provided in the purchase of Markovic's transfer rights.
Why would Leiston Holdings, advised by Pini Zahavi, transfer more than 30 percent of the 7 million euros invested in "brokerage services" to two companies owned by the same consultant? Were there any reasons other than to cater to some good friends? Neither Pini Zahavi nor Nikola Damjanac nor the firms Lian Sports and Leiston Holdings would comment on this suspicion.
Zahavi secured numerous million-dollar TPO deals for Leiston, including at least one murky arrangement involving underage talent.
Danilo Pantic was 16 years old when Leiston acquired half of his transfer rights on March 29, 2013. Like Markovic, the young midfielder was a Partizan Belgrade player, and his training contract ran until summer 2015.
Leiston paid 1.7 million euros for its share of his transfer rights. But that money didn't go to the club itself in Belgrade. Instead it went to two companies based on the island of Nevis, which belongs to the West Indies in the Caribbean. One is called TXL Investments and the other is SNR Limited. Leiston Holdings transferred the money to both companies' accounts at the Bank of Valletta, a financial institution in Malta.
But it doesn't stop there. SNR transferred 500,000 euros to a company called Leary Invest in the British Virgin Islands and it passed another 170,000 euros on to a company called Guanta Gold based in Belize in Central America. The 1.7 million euros paid by Leiston Holdings wound up at four companies -- all based in tax havens.
The salient detail here is that both TXL Investments and SNR Limited in the West Indies, where Leiston's money had initially landed, were controlled by a director of Lian Sports in Malta, which was also involved in the million-euro deals in the Markovic case. None of the parties involved answered questions about why and for what purpose the money had been paid.
It was likely these kinds of shady deals that kept Werder Bremen from meeting with Zahavi as far back as spring 2012. At that time, Leiston had made an offer to the Bremen club of 7 million euros for the transfer rights for former German national team player Marko Marin.
At first, Werder had been prepared to engage in talks. But the club withdrew from the deal because Leiston had apparently refused to disclose information about the structure of the company in the British Virgin Islands and its ultimate beneficiaries. "We were unable to resolve this issue to our satisfaction and in line with our compliance standards," Werder Bremen told journalists with EIC.
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The investigative reporting network requested a written statement from Zahavi on Oct. 8 on all the deals described in this article. It only took a few hours for Zahavi to respond. He wrote that he had never held a stake in Leiston Holdings and that he had never been a beneficiary. "I use to be football advisor (sic) of this company (Leiston Holdings) during the period that TPO was legal," he wrote. Zahavi stated that all of the other questions were "not relevant."
Just over a week later, though, Zahavi did agree to meet with an Israeli journalist representing EIC. The meeting took place in the upscale Sea and Sun residential complex in northwest Tel Aviv, where Zahavi owns a condo with magnificent views of the ocean.
Zahavi wore Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt and offered the journalist a cup of coffee. Zahavi's son Gil also sat at the table and recorded the conversation. The agent said he had agreed to a personal meeting because he feared the reporting would amount to "libel," based on the questions about the Neymar deal. And that he wanted to prevent that.
'I Have Power'
Zahavi put all the documents relevant to the Neymar contract on the table. Those documents show that Paris Saint-Germain paid the first installment of 1.49 million euros not to one of Zahavi's companies in a tax haven, but to him personally. The money went into an account held at the Israeli bank Hapoalim that Zahavi had opened expressly for the purpose after concluding his consulting contract with PSG. Zahavi also said that he has always taxed personal income from his worldwide corporate profits in Israel.
Zahavi's tone during the conversation was aggressive. He even pounded the table once with his hand. "So, listen: I did the biggest transfers in the history of world football. There isn't a big deal in the world where I'm not involved," the agent said. "There's no place in international football where I don't have influence and power."
Zahavi threatened that if a single claim was published that caused him harm, he would file the "biggest lawsuit in history" against the media organizations that are members of EIC. "I'm a strong man, I have power."