This story appeared first in Romanian on ProSport, and has been translated by the author for Futbolgrad.
Costin Ştucan –
Do you know what links the sensational Premier League leaders Leicester City to Gheorghe Hagi’s son Ianis—a 17 year-old midfielder from the small Romanian club Viitorul? Probably Milan Mandarić’s name doesn’t mean much to you. So let’s go a few years into the past. Back in 2006, Mandarić—a Serbian business tycoon—sold the Premier League club Portsmouth to Alexandre Gaydamak, an ethnic Russian with French-Israeli citizenship—son of the Russian-Israeli businessman Arcadi Gaydamak—for £47 million. Who was the middleman? The go-between was a friend of both businessmen, the Israeli super agent Pinhas “Pini” Zahavi.
In 2010 Mandarić sold Leicester City (one of the other teams in his portfolio that also included Sheffield Wednesday). Leicester City was sold to an Asian investment fund (AFI) but Mandarić remained in the club for a few more months as president because he was a shareholder of AFI. The middleman? Pini Zahavi. The club’s first manager from the AFI era was Paulo Sousa, a Portuguese recommended by Zahavi.
Sousa was sacked in October 2010 and replaced with Zahavi’s friend Sven Göran Eriksson while Sousa went on to coach Videoton, Maccabi Tel Aviv (the club that Zahavi had covered during the 1970s as a sport journalist), and Basel. In June 2015 Sousa became the coach of the Seria A club ACF Fiorentina. Also in June 2015, the international media reported that Fiorentina had signed Hagi junior. Fiorentina is the Italian club that has the closest connection to Pini Zahavi.
After Manea deal to Chelsea, Ianis Hagi Transfer Also Comes Under Scrutiny
As the next part of the story will highlight, the link to Fiorentina, and Paulo Sousa is especially important.
After Gheorghe Hagi sold Manea (more on this story here) to Apollon Limassol, he showed little regard for the future of the player. When asked about the details of the Manea deal and whether the player was sold to an investment fund, Hagi just said: “Yes! But it doesn’t matter where he went. Manea was sold to a club, not to something else [like an investment fund]. What happened to him after he went to Apollon is not our business.”
Hagi’s lack of concern for the future of a young player who brought €2.5 million to his club comes as no surprise. According to the Italian media, Hagi, who is the owner of Academia Hagi, also sold his own son to Fiorentina last summer. Ianis came back on loan but his father claims that he will be back in Florence in a few months time.
Is Hagi as nonchalant about his son’s future as he is when he talks about Manea’s?
For the most part Manea’s and Ianis Hagi’s transfers were almost identical. As in the Manea case, Viitorul’s official website www.academiahagi.tv didn’t announce the owner’s son transfer despite being very public about less important moves. As Chelsea did in the Manea case, the Fiorentina website was surprisingly silent despite the fact that the club was getting a player considered to be a real talent.
The timeline of Ianis Hagi’s transfer to Fiorentina looks like this:
November 5, 2013: The Italian website Calciomercato.com announces that Fiorentina has the first option on a possible Ianis Hagi transfer.
March 28, 2015: Italian newspaper La Nazione writes: “The transfer of Ianis Hagi is confirmed. He will come in June for a fee of around €1 million.”
April 1, 2015: Hagi, during a press conference: “Ianis is a sought after player. We have certain things on the table. We analyze them and will get a decision soon. When he’ll sign we will inform you.”
May 30, 2015: the Italian journalist Gianluca Di Marzio posts on Twitter: “Hagi jr. is the new Fiorentina player. The deal is done and the young player will come to Florence next season. Fiorentina officials are rubbing their hands. Certainly Hagi will be a pleasure to watch”
June 1, 2015: Adrian Mutu on DigiSport: “I spoke to Ianis’ father [Gheorghe Hagi was Mutu’s best man at his first marriage] and I told him he made the right decision. Fiorentina is the right club for Ianis. He will have everything at his disposal in order to develop as a player.”
June 12, 2015: Hagi tells DigiSport reporters: “We can keep Ianis for one more year. Manea will leave us this summer but we don’t know his destination yet.”
Manea, however, was secretly sold one year previously to Apollon Limassol, the Cypriot shell-club that is controlled by super agent Pini Zahavi. Hence was Manea’s transfer a blueprint for Ianis’s transfer to Fiorentina? “Manea was sold to an investment fund which takes the players and places them in other clubs”, a source from Academia Hagi told us. Hagi himself didn’t deny a possible link to some investment clubs.
To fully understand Hagi’s reluctance to speak, we need to know how the relationship between a certain club and an investment fund really works. Let’s use Doyen Sports as an example. This name is trending after Football Leaks, a website that appeared in September 2015, published confidential details from the contracts made by European football clubs. Doyen Sports was also involved with transfers that included the likes of the Neymar, Falcao, and Marcos Rojo transfers, and is registered in Malta, a tax heaven. One of the directors at Doyen Sports is Nelio Lucas, who is linked by the media to the Portuguese agent Jorge Mendes and also has a close connection to Pini Zahavi.
But how does Doyen Sports work?
The company loans funds to clubs that are interested in buying players they normally cannot afford. The fee is refundable after a certain period. Clubs can keep the player and refund the credit or they can decide to sell the player before the deadline and give back the money plus a percentage of the transfer. In theory, the deal is profitable for everybody. The problems emerge when the investment funds put pressure on the clubs to sell or when they acquire percentages of the player’s economic rights.
In 2015, Doyen Sports legally challenged FIFA Third Party Ownership rules. The Maltese company is just one of many investment funds that inhabit the world of football. Their business methods differ from one case to another but the outcome of this type of partnership is not always beneficial to the small clubs. The case of Partizan Belgrade—a club that controversially sold over €100 million worth of players over the last decade but at the same time still managed to rack up a €13 million debt—should be a warning for every club official on this planet.
Pini Zahavi, also, is no stranger to Third-Party Ownership deals. Zahavi, is linked to a number of companies located in British Virgin Islands, Gibraltar, Malta, Luxemburg, Switzerland and Cyprus. A simple Google search reveals that some of the companies Zahavi is involved with include Gol Luxemburg Limited, Gol International Limited, Gol Football Malta Limited, Leiston Holdings Limited, Convergence Capital Partners, Charlton Limited, Apollon Football (Public) Limited, HAZ Sports, Rio Football Services Limited, Rio Football Services Hungary Szolgaltato KFT, Rio Football Services Malta, Rio Football Services Holland BV, Global Soccer Agencies Limited and Global Soccer Investments.
The Romanian defender Manea entered this gigantic network. He plays for Gol Football Malta Limited’s funded club Royal Mouscron-Péruwelz. Did Ianis Hagi enter the same investment fund route last summer? We believe that this is likely.
Pantaleo Corvino, a friend of Eastern Europeans
To understand all of this a better we have to go back16 years to an era when many Romanian club officials and player agents committed crimes that put them behind bars. It was February 2000 and Dinamo Bucharest officials discussed the terms of selling their hottest prospect, Marius Niculae, to the Italian club Lecce. The media talked about a ment of $3 million deal, but the transfer fell through. Sitting in the lobby of Le Meridien hotel in Limassol, Niculae was positioned between his agent Ioan Becali, nicknamed Giovani, and Lecce’s sporting director Pantaleo Corvino. They were trying to make him sign but he declined. The Italian had even brought a Lecce shirt printed with the number 10 and Niculae’s name. It was misspelled. It read Nicolae.
Niculae’s refusal was brought about by Ioan Becali’s decision to prematurely sign the contract in Niculae’s name. The agent had a power of attorney signed by Niculae but the player wanted to sign the contract himself. A few years ago, Corvino gave his own version of those events: “We were not close to completing the deal. We signed the contract, but he then went to Cyprus for a national team training camp, and there he changed his mind”.
Corvino subsequently managed to convince two Romanian players to sign for Lecce. One was the former Barcelona captain Gheorghe Popescu and the second was Cătălin Hâldan, the Dinamo Bucharest captain who suddenly died on a football pitch before his move to Serie A. “Hâldan signed for Lecce for $3 million. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard about his death”, Corvino said afterwards.
The Italian’s business relationship with the brother-agents Ioan and Victor Becali was cemented through numerous visits to Romania, which generally ended with sumptuous parties at a secluded restaurant just outside Bucharest. The Doi Cocosi restaurant, owned by Becali brothers, is a place well known in the football world, and is also frequented by José Mourinho, who first visited the restaurant in 1998 when the young Barcelona scout came to monitor players at U-21 European Championship in Bucharest. This was the Becali brothers’ favourite ritual. They would pick up the foreign scouts from the airport, transport them to the hotel, and then took them to the games. Afterwards, the Becalis would throw a party for their guests at Doi Cocosi. Some of the scouts returned to their clubs with glowing reports. Ever since the above mentioned Under-21 tournament, Mourinho has used the term „my brothers” when referring to the Becalis.
Becali regularly referred to Pantaleo Corvino as „my friend Leo”. In 2005, Corvino was named Fiorentina’s sporting director. One of his first transfers was Bogdan Lobonț, Becali’s client, from Ajax Amsterdam. One year later, Adrian Mutu arrived in Florence after a difficult period at Juventus and Chelsea. Mutu had been one of Roman Abramovich’s first transfers at Chelsea, but the Romanian striker had struggled with life in England.
Corvino and Mutu are now two of dozens of players, club officials, and agents from Italian football who are under investigation in the Offside dossier. Napoli prosecutors suspect them of money laundering and fraud. Corvino has restrictions placed on a €69,000 bank account. Mutu also has a bank account worth €211,000 frozen.
Pietro Chiodi – The story of a defector
After he missed out on the transfer of Niculae to Lecce, Pantaleo Corvino opened the Eastern European market to Fiorentina. One after another, Stefan Jovetić, Adem Ljajić, Matija Nastasić, Nikola Gulan, and Sead Žilić came from Partizan, the club that was controlled by the Macedonian agent Abdilgafar Ramadani, nicknamed Falji or Fali. Corvino bought five Serbians and they all had and still have the Ramadani as their agent.
At one time, the Macedonian agent’s agency LIAN Sports had 14 Serbian international players under contract. Ramadani’s influence over Serbian football is exercised through his trusted lieutenant Nikola Damjanac, a former Partizan goalkeeper. Damjanac’s brother-in-law is Zvezdan Terzić. You probably remember from our second part that Terzic was the former president of the Serbian football association and also of OFK Belgrade. As president of OFK, Terzić was detained for fraud in November 2010. In July 2011, he was released after posting €1 million bail.
With Corvino as a sporting director, Fiorentina continued to focus on clients controlled by Ramadani and Zahavi. The transfers of Stefan Savić, Milan Badelj, Ricardo Bagadur, Marko Marin, Micah Richards, and Mohamed Salah consolidated Ramadani’s reputation within the Florence based club.
In 2012, Corvino left Fiorentina, and Daniele Prade, a former AS Roma official, took his place. According to Italian journalist Pippo Russo, after this change of personnel, Ramadani became the unofficial Fiorentina transfer adviser.
Despite a conflict with the Romanian agent Ioan Becali during the negotiations for Cristian Chivu’s transfer to Inter, Prade maintained good relations with his countryman Pietro Chiodi, Victor Becali’s godson.
Chiodi had started as an employee at Becali’s agency and he remained in charge of the business after his bosses and six other Romanian club presidents were detained in March 2014, following their conviction in a case involving fraudulent transfers that left four Romanian Liga 1 clubs with a total damage of $10 million. Following the Becali convictions, Chiodi became close to Gheorghe Hagi, probably the most famous player Ioan and Victor Becali had under contract.
Hagi was disappointed with his former agents and he considers them responsible for the incarceration of his former teammate, friend and brother-in-law Gheorghe Popescu. A business partner of Popescu, Chiodi soon became the main player agent of the Academia Hagi. It was he who negotiated the bizarre deals between Hagi’s club and Zahavi’s Balkan Empire.
In the summer of 2014, Daniel Prade managed to transfer Ciprian Tătărușanu as a free agent after his contract with Steaua expired. Chiodi, Ramadani, and Prade were behind the deal. One year later, the links with Fiorentina were activated once more but, this time, the deal involved Hagi’s own son.
Academia Hagi’s financial crisis of 2013
“Hagi had a very difficult time in Viitorul’s first year as a first league team. He was in debt, the banks were calling at his door, he refinanced credits and mortgaged almost everything he had”, claims a close source to Hagi. In 2013, Academia Hagi and Viitorul barely managed to survive, thanks to the TV rights that were secured after a miraculous battle against relegation. In a decisive game, Viitorul won 5-2 away to league leaders Steaua and even die-hard Steaua fans thought that the match could have been fixed.
This was also the moment that Hagi started to talk to investment funds that were interested in his talented players. Back in 2013, FIFA still allowed Third Party Ownership.
That year, the information that Fiorentina had secured the first option on Ianis Hagi, a 14-year-old kid at that time, first emerged. “Ianis was loaned to Viitorul for six months. Together with Fiorentina, we will decide Ianis’ future this summer”, Hagi said the week after the first story on his deals was published. According to simple logic, in order to be loaned back by Fiorentina, Ianis Hagi first had to be transferred to Fiorentina.
On the Italian Seria A website, there is an official list where you can find all the transfers made during the last two transfer windows. We checked it and found that 27 players had been permanently transferred or loaned by Fiorentina. 14 came during the summer of 2015 and 13 in January 2016.
Every single player is there, including an anonymous Marco Buonavita from a club you definitely haven’t heard about called Margine Coperta. Ianis Hagi is missing though. That means Fiorentina didn’t buy him.
So how can Gheorghe Hagi say his son is loaned from Fiorentina? Where did he sell his own son and who loaned him back?
The answer came two days after ProSport published this story in a press statement released by Academia Hagi. It said: “In 2014, Fiorentina concluded with us an agreement regarding Ianis Hagi first option on a future transfer.” In conclusion, despite the statements made by his father, Ianis Hagi is not yet a Fiorentina player.
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