This story appeared first in Romanian on ProSport, and has been translated by the author for Futbolgrad.
Costin Ştucan –
Is it hard to work for Pini Zahavi? Jurica (Yuri) Selak sighs. Last summer, the Croatian born official was appointed sporting director of the Belgian club Royal Mouscron-Péruwelz. Selak was appointed just one month after the Israeli agent Pinhas (Pini) Zahavi injected €2.5 million through a company from Malta. Zahavi promised a further €6 million investment over the next three seasons.
Selak explains the connection between Mouscron and Zahavi: “Pini Zahavi brought the company who put the money into our club. He is just an intermediary. In the past six months, Zahavi came only once to watch a Mouscron game. It is not difficult to work for him. He doesn’t put pressure on you. Nothing special.” Despite the fact that two of Mouscron’s board members are named Adar Zahavi and Gil Zahavi, nobody seems to be in a hurry to acknowledge that Pini Zahavi is in control of the club.
Soon after Yuri Selak—a former FIFA agent based in Germany—stepped in at Mouscron, a number of Abdilgafar Ramadani’s players started to arrive at the small club located near the French border. You probably remember from earlier articles that Ramadani is a Macedonian agent of Albanian origin and a trusted partner of Zahavi especially in the Italian and Serbian markets.
From August 2015 to February 2016, seven clients of Ramadani’s LIAN Sport agency decided to play for Mouscron. Three other players were bought from Seraing, a Belgian second league club that was banned by FIFA in September 2015 for violating the Third-Party Ownership (TPO) rules.
Four young footballers surprisingly came from the Cypriot club Apollon Limassol. One is Cristian Manea, a right back who was believed by many to have been transferred to Chelsea in July 2015, but who was, in fact, bought by Apollon in June 2014. Another one is the Cameroonian forward, Fabrice Olinga, the youngest scorer in Primera Division history. Gheorghe Hagi registered both Manea and Olinga at the Romanian club Viitorul in the spring of 2015. According to transfermarkt.de, Olinga went to Viitorul from Apollon.
When asked about his club’s official announcement that Manea had been loaned from Chelsea, Selak stumbled: “I don’t know why. I don’t want to answer this question. This story is unknown to me. What I know is Manea will be our player for one season. Mouscron had no buying clause in the contract.”
That Selak has a somewhat dark past, was revealed during the interview with ProSport. The Mouscron sporting director disclosed that his first major transfer as a player’s agent was the Romanian defender Liviu Ciobotariu’s move from Dinamo Bucharest to Standard Liege back in 2000. The transfer is part of an investigation by Belgian prosecutors into their indictment in a grand dossier of money laundering. The main culprit is former Standard Liege president, Luciano D’Onofrio. Jurica Selak, the Romanian brother-agents Ioan and Victor Becali (Hagi’s former agents and friends who were convicted and jailed in a similar case in Romania), Dinamo’s president Cristian Borcea (also convicted and jailed) and Liviu Ciobotariu are among the 25 defendants in the case that is progressing in the Belgian Court.
In order to bring Manea to Mouscron, someone decided to use a bridge-club. Apollon Limassol, a club also headed by a former players’ agent, named Nikos Kirzis, is one bridge club used by Zahavi and Ramadani. Many journalists call it a shell-club. Zahavi and Ramadani use it as a conduit to move young Serbian players (for more on the story read the Andrija Živković story here, and the Luka Jović story here) to Western Europe.
Manea’s transfer from Viitorul to Apollon was intented as a move for Zahavi into the Romanian market. “We knew that Manea was going to Vitesse Arnhem. Something changed and he ended up at Mouscron”, Viitorul general director Cristian Bivolaru told ProSport. But Manea never crossed the Mediterranean despite the fact that he was bought by Apollon for €2.5 million.
Apollon is a team that is located in Limassol on the southern coast of Cyprus. Apollon is not only used by Zahavi’s Balkan empire. The club is also financially backed by one of the most powerful and controversial men from UEFA and FIFA.
Marios Lefkaritis – a friend of Romanian football
While the first team of Gheorghe Hagi’s academy Viitorul Constanța is preparing to fight for the Romanian Liga I title in a closely disputed play-off, the town of Constanța contemplatively watches as the town’s former favourite club Farul is drawing it’s last breaths in Liga II. Born in a small village near Constanța, Hagi came up through the ranks of Farul in the early 1980s but then he decided to start a fresh new football business instead of saving his old club.
Farul is on the brink of bankruptcy despite the fact that UEFA vice-president and treasurer Marios Lefkaritis is honorary head of the club. “Yes, Mr. Lefkaritis is still our Honorary President. Why should we change this thing?” Farul owner Giani Nedelcu told ProSport.
Back in 2002, following a board meeting, the then owner Gheorghe Bosânceanu decided to name Lefkaritis—his business partner in maritime industry—to the symbolic role at the club. At the same meeting, the club’s shareholders elected the Romanian Government’s general secretary Petru-Șerban Mihăilescu as Farul’s new vice-president. Mihăilescu’s nickname is well known throughout Romania. He’s known by the moniker Miki Șpagă (Miki The Bribe). For his misdeeds as general secretary of the government, he was convicted in 2011 to a one-year sentence, but was released on probation.
Mihăilescu is no longer Farul’s vice-president. Lefkaritis, however, still retains his position. The former Romanian Football Association president and UEFA Executive Committee member Mircea Sandu affectionately calls him “my friend Mario”. Thanks to Lefkaritis’ efforts and connections, the Romanian FA received the right to organize the U-21 European Championship finals in 1998. Nine years ago, Lefkaritis, Miguel Angel Villar and their friends Mircea Sandu, Ukrainian Hryhoriy Surkis, and the Russian Vitaly Mutko decisively helped the recently deposed Michel Platini to become UEFA president.
Born in Limassol in 1947, Lefkaritis has a great passion for Apollon Limassol. His fondest footballing memory is, according to his words, “Apollon Limassol winning the Cyprus championship for the first time in 1991.”
This is the same club that bought young Eastern European talents like Manea and Živković. The Apollon Limassol website reveals another interesting and suspicious fact. One of the traditional club sponsors is a Cypriot holding called Petrolina (Holding) Public Limited.
Starting in 1971, Petrolina Holding’s director and main shareholder has been Marios Lefkaritis, a member of the infamous FIFA Executive Committee that sent the World Cup to Russia and Qatar. In fact, Petrolina is a family business that has been turned into a multimillion euro corporation. Seven out of 10 members of the Board are named Lefkaritis.
Former Romanian FA members, who know Marios Lefkaritis, told ProSport that this family’s influence in Cyprus is impressive. So impressive that, according to the island newspapers, Akis Lefkaritis—a nephew of the UEFA vice-president and a former Petrolina director himself—evaded justice for some time before being sentenced to 12 years in jail after pleading guilty to charges of sexually exploiting two girls, aged 14 and 15.
Akis’ uncle, Marios Lefkaritis, is a friend of Romanian football. His frequent visits to Romania often end with parties at various hotels in Bucharest and Mamaia, on the Black Sea coast. Romanian FA members and businessmen are there whenever the UEFA treasurer is in town and always have a good time. Pictures from the ProSport archive show a sweaty Lefkaritis alongside his friend Mircea Sandu in a Cypriot restaurant.
Another clear link between the Romanian FA’s former leadership and Marios Lefkaritis is the former F.A. vice-general secretary Cristian Bivolaru. A good friend of Lefkaritis, Bivolaru is now the general director at Hagi’s club Viitorul. His brother-in-law Ioan Piscanu—a former Romanian FA employee himself—admitted that Lefkaritis had helped him get the coveted role of UEFA match observer.
Qatar voting and Marios Lefkaritis dealings
Lefkaritis’ influence over Apollon Limassol has also been consistent. ProSport talked to Mihai Stoichită, Apollon Limassol’s Romanian coach from the 2011-2012 season. “I met Lefkaritis many times during my time there. I cannot tell you who the club owners exactly are. This is very strange in Cyprus. I’ve been a coach at all Limassol clubs. All the presidents are good friends. The championship is like a spider web.”
Another Romanian coach who trained the three times winner of the Cypriot championship is Ioan Andone. His assistant coach from the 2013-14 season, Adrian Iencsi also played for Apollon back in 2007. He remembers: “While I played there, the club had a weighty sponsor called Columbia. That maritime company invested a lot into the club. They have a luxury hotel, Columbia Resort, 25 kilometers away from Limassol. Columbia also built Apollon Limassol training base”.
The company that Iencsi named is Columbia Shipmanagement Limited, a maritime operator with close associations to Petrolina Ocean, a property of Marios Lefkaritis.
ProSport called Nikos Kirzis, the agent turned Apollon president, to ask him about Lefkaritis’ links to the club but he did not reply.
In a short presentation made by the FIFA website, Marios Lefkaritis said his biggest footballing disappointment has been “recent allegations of corruption”. On December 2, 2010, the Cypriot UEFA and FIFA official took part in the controversial voting process that awarded the locations of the World Cup for 2018 and 2022. When Russia and Qatar were chosen as the host countries, journalists speculated that these were Lefkaritis’ voting options.
Seven members of the now infamous Executive Committee (Joseph Blatter, Michel Platini, Jack Warner, Ricardo Teixeira, Chuck Blazer, Nicolas Leoz and Rafael Salguero), which decided (with 14 votes to eight) to award the World Cup organization to Qatar instead of the United States are either detained by authorities or suspended by UEFA and FIFA. Julio Grondona is also mentioned in the US prosecutor’s indictment but he died in 2014.
Two ARD journalists—Jochen Laufgens and Robert Kempe—discovered that Petrolina had concluded a deal with the Russian giant Gazprom just two days prior to the FIFA Executive Committee decision to send the 2018 World Cup to Russia.
There were also reports of a deal that the Lefkaritis family made with Qatar, in which a piece of land they owned was sold in 2011 to Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, for a reported fee of €32 million.
Marios Lefkaritis defended both transactions by saying that they are perfectly legal. Despite rumours that he is being investigated by the FBI, Lefkaritis is still an influential member of UEFA and FIFA. In his role as UEFA’s treasurer, he is a member of the Board of UEFA Events S.A., a company registered in Nyon, Switzerland. Another Board member is his friend Hryhoriy Surkis, a former head of the Football Federation of Ukraine as well as the Ukrainian Premier League and the brother of Ihor Surkis, Dynamo Kyiv’s president. The brothers, whose origins are Jewish, have excellent business relations with Israeli Pini Zahavi.
The Moldavian agent Arcadie Zaporojanu remembers his first meeting with Zahavi: “We got acquainted in Israel when both Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk played there during their summer training camps. Zahavi came to the hotel where Dinamo was staying to meet Surkis.” Zahavi made dozens of deals with the most powerful clubs in Ukraine. Leiston Holdings Limited, an investment fund registered in British Virgin Islands is reported to be controlled by Zahavi, and can be found through a simple Google search of the list of companies that have business interests in Ukraine.
Do you remember Zahavi’s dealings with Abdilgafar Ramadani in Eastern European football? They managed to extract the best players out of the Serbian clubs and placed them abroad. Some of the players went through Apollon Limassol. One of them was transferred from Partizan Belgrade to Sporting Lisbon, another club where Zahavi has influence. Luka Stojanović is a talented player who is now playing for Apollon, a club that bought him from Portugal. “I had to choose between going back to Serbia and Apollon. Here I am”, the 22 year old Stojanović told ProSport on Facebook Messenger.
The reporter then asked him about his agent Pini Zahavi. Stojanović’s answer is yet to come two weeks after the initial dialogue.
Serbian and Romanian journalists discovered that the secret transfers made by Apollon took place some time after they were actually signed. In Manea’s case, 20 months had passed by. All of Apollon’s transfers, however, have to be registered by the Cypriot Football Association. The Honorary President of this institution is Marios Lefkaritis.
In the end, we raise the following question: Why would a small club like Apollon Limassol pay a sizeable fee of €2.5 million for Manea, only to immediately loan him to a small club in Belgium?
Costin Ștucan is the Editor-in-Chief for ProSport, a leading Romanian sports website. He has worked as an investigative journalist since 1999. Follow Costin Ştucan on Twitter @CostinStucan