Over 14 times the entire population of Tillmitsch, located in the mountainous wine-growing region of Styria, Austria, could be accommodated in Manchester City FC’s Etihad Stadium, which has a capacity of 53,400 seats.
The local team plays in the lowly fourth tier of Austrian football, a far cry from the pinnacle of the global footballing pyramid occupied by the Manchester club.
However, if life had gone in a slightly different direction, Emir Dautović, a 6ft 4in center back for SV Tillmitsch and a frozen foods company employee, could have been a standout player for the current English and European champions.
At the age of 16 in 2012, Dautović was a player for NK Maribor in Slovenia and was highly regarded as one of the most skilled prospects in eastern Europe. This led to him being given a week-long opportunity to try out for City.
The young and impressive player caught the attention of Manchester. Following the trial, Maribor officials informed him that the Premier League club had made an offer of €600,000.
Dautović was skeptical of the offer, thinking it was too good to be true. However, Maribor rejected it. A few weeks later, he received another proposal that appeared to offer even greater rewards. Pinhas “Pini” Zahavi, a well-known agent for top football players, expressed interest in representing him.
According to Dautović, a mediator employed by Zahavi offered the Israeli’s unparalleled networking abilities as a motivation. The agent allegedly claimed to be able to facilitate a swift transfer to Chelsea.
Dautović said that it felt like I was advancing onto a fast lane in my career. He mentioned that having Pini Zahavi as his agent was the greatest thing that could have happened to him.
Even though his father had doubts, the inexperienced athlete eagerly agreed to the opportunity and officially relinquished ownership of his skills by signing a contract. This type of deal, referred to as “third-party ownership” in the soccer world, is a contentious form of investment that has been compared to “modern slavery” by Gianni Infantino, the current president of Fifa.
In 2015, the governing bodies of football prohibited the global practice of investors purchasing “economic rights” to players.
The investment gave complete control over the player’s career, allowing them to choose which team they played for and keeping the profits from transfers. In some cases, it also included image rights that determined their earnings from endorsements and sponsorships.
After that point, Dautović explains, he was treated as a “commodity” rather than a person and felt like a “chess piece” being controlled by someone else.
Additionally, a recent inquiry conducted by the Guardian and global collaborators has uncovered that Dautović was not the only promising individual to opt for this course of action.
The opposite side of the agreements consisted of two influential figures in the football world: Zahavi and the ex-owner of Chelsea, Roman Abramovich.
The inquiry reveals that young men who agreed to these contracts were essentially treated as commodities, recorded as resources on company financial records, and used to serve a system where their own well-being was of little importance.
Abramovich and Zahavi have previously engaged in third-party ownership, but the extent and specifics of their partnership have now been revealed through a previously undisclosed contract. This information has been made available thanks to the Cyprus Confidential files, a collection of 3.6 million offshore records that were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and Germany’s Paper Trail Media. The Guardian, Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), and other media outlets were given access to these files. The records, which were obtained from a Cypriot offshore services provider called MeritServus, were shared with the ICIJ by the nonprofit organization Distributed Denial of Secrets.
The documents expose transactions that specialists in sports law believe may have violated Fifa regulations regarding the interactions between companies and soccer teams. They also provide insight into the operations of a profitable market in which vulnerable young men were at a disadvantage.
According to numerous players who spoke to the Guardian and its collaborators, they frequently fell victim to extravagant pledges that ultimately disappeared, crushing their aspirations and damaging their professional paths.
The Abramovich-Zahavi partnership
Neymar Jr’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 was a monumental event in the world of football finance, even by modern standards. The amount paid for the Brazilian striker, a staggering €222m, not only shattered the previous transfer record but also more than doubled it.
Pini Zahavi played a crucial role in the groundbreaking agreement, as he held the authority to change the entire landscape of the sport.
The Israeli, known as the pioneer of football’s “super-agent” role, has been actively negotiating since the 1970s, arranging notable and occasionally contentious transactions.
According to reports, he played a crucial role in negotiations that resulted in Abramovich, who was already a billionaire in his mid-30s, purchasing Chelsea in 2003.
After eight years, records show that they joined forces once more, this time for a business venture aimed at profiting from the valuable skills of young soccer players.
In 2011, Zahavi signed a confidential agreement known as a “player investment agreement”, in which he agreed to search the globe for up-and-coming players. Upon finding them, he would then negotiate for the exclusive rights to fully utilize their commercial and economic interests as footballers.
Leiston Holdings, a business incorporated in the British Virgin Islands and owned by Abramovich, would provide the financial muscle, investing €10m over two years. If players were sold on at a profit, Zahavi and Leiston would split the proceeds.
According to documents, Dautović was one of the investments made by Leiston.
He and his parents entered into an agreement in which Maribor transferred his financial interests to the company for €1m, surpassing the offer from Manchester City.
A review of the documents from Cyprus Confidential conducted by the Guardian and TBIJ revealed that 25 individuals, equivalent to a full team for the Champions League, received attention from corporations owned by Abramovich.
A minimum of 21 individuals joined Leiston, sourced from various countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Several were below the age of 18 and needed both their own and their parents’ signatures.
The youth had supposedly secured the assistance of the top agent in global soccer. However, after the contract was signed, it seemed that Leiston’s players discovered they were the ones working for Zahavi and ultimately, whether aware of it or not, for Abramovich.
Both Gaël Etock and Fabrice Olinga left Cameroon and came to Spain with the goal of achieving success in one of Europe’s premier leagues, La Liga.
Etock was a product of FC Barcelona’s renowned “La Masia” academy, which has produced top talents such as Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, and Xavi Hernández. Olinga made his mark on the global stage at just 16 years old, scoring in La Liga for Málaga and becoming the youngest player to do so.
Both Leiston and Zahavi were quickly signed, with contracts guaranteeing a promising future.
According to the documents, the agreement with Olinga included plans for “endorsement campaigns” and royalties for promoting “premium and souvenir items” on TV and in movie theaters. Additional payments were dependent on the possibility of being transferred to the Premier League or Germany’s Bundesliga.
The truth was not as extravagant. As part of the agreements, Leiston compensated their players with salaries.
The documents show that Olinga asked the company for a loan. Etock also got loans from Zahavi and Leiston deducted the amount from his salary. The pay was only €50,000 per year, which is not a lot for a football player who is about to make it big.
Leiston’s up-and-coming talents seemed to have limited control over their own professional paths.
In January of 2014, followers of Olinga on Twitter inquired about speculations of his transfer from Málaga to the Cypriot team Apollon Limassol. Olinga informed his followers that this was untrue, but he was mistaken.
The Limassol connection
Throughout history, various rulers such as the ancient Greeks, Venetians, Ottomans, and British have controlled the coastal city of Limassol in Cyprus. In recent times, Limassol has become a hub for affluent Russians seeking financial privacy and access to Europe through Cyprus.
The boats docked in the harbor, along with the opulent residences scattered throughout the city, serve as proof of the influx of money.
According to the Cyprus Confidential files, Apollon Limassol, a local organization seemingly unrelated to Russia, has been involved in situations where young footballers, whose aspirations to join Chelsea have failed, were then transferred to Apollon through arrangements made by Zahavi and financed by Abramovich.
Based on the records from a 2016 shareholders’ gathering that was posted on a club’s website, but has since been removed and is only available through an online archive, it was revealed that Apollon Limassol had a shareholder owning 16% of the company: “Sliva Trading (Pini Zahavi).”
According to various records, Sliva frequently utilized Zahavi’s connection with Leiston to obtain loans. He would then use these funds from Leiston to cover player transfer costs and even their salaries for Apollon.
Olinga was an example of such a player.
The player’s Twitter account suggested that he was going on loan from Málaga to the Belgian club Zulte Waregem. However, it was later revealed that he had actually been sold to Limassol without his consent.
A young individual who also followed this path was Cristian Manea, a full-back from Romania who was highly regarded as a potential talent. In May 2014, he was selected to play for his country at the age of 16, setting a national record.
During the upcoming summer, there were numerous reports indicating that Manea would be joining Stamford Bridge, with some even suggesting that he had already signed for Chelsea. However, documents reveal that Leiston actually loaned Sliva €3m to cover his move to Apollon Limassol.
The repayment of the loan was dependent on the receipt of future transfer fees for the player, and Zahavi’s company was entitled to a €25,000 share of any profits.
According to an interview he gave in 2018, the child became upset and cried upon discovering that he would not be going to Chelsea after all.
Manea did not participate in any matches for Apollon. Out of the six Leiston players who were transferred to the Cypriot team, only one actually played, but only in three games.
Many were instead loaned out, with some going to Mouscron, a Belgian club where Zahavi had a stake in ownership.
Their professional paths have hit roadblocks in multiple instances. Currently, Olinga is a member of FC Botosani, a team struggling in the highest level of Romanian soccer. Etock’s previous team was FC Lahti in Finland, but he is currently without a team.
Samuel Cuthbert, a prominent sports lawyer, has raised concerns about possible violations of Fifa’s article 18bis in the transfer deals that brought players to Limassol. This article prohibits third parties from having influence on a club’s transfer decisions.
In at least three cases – the transfers of Etock, Nikola Aksentijević and Valentín Viola – Leiston was granted “sole discretion with regard to the transfer” of the players in future.
Cuthbert expressed concern over the clause. He found it challenging to understand how a third party could have complete authority over a player’s transfer, especially considering the rule in article 18bis of the Fifa regulations regarding player status and transfers.
It is possible that the football players who joined Zahavi were not aware that they were being owned by the former owner of Chelsea.
A player, who preferred not to speak publicly, claimed that Abramovich may have been involved in Leiston Holdings, although there was never any confirmation.
Dautovic had absolutely no clue, even ten years later. When the Guardian’s global collaborators spoke with the Slovenian in September 2023, it was the first time he had learned the true identity of his boss.
“I was employed by Abramovich? This surprises me. I assure you, I had no idea.”
Maribor stated that all individuals involved in the transaction are no longer affiliated with the club.
Roman Abramovich did not respond to comment requests. Pini Zahavi refused to comment. Requests for comment from Apollon Limassol went unanswered.
Additional information provided by Timo Schober, Ed Siddons, and Stéphanie Trastour.