Football Leaks Money Trail The Profligate, Profitable World of Sports Agents

With massive amounts of money flowing into professional football, sports agents are making a killing. They cash in on colossal commissions and the money often ends up in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands. By SPIEGEL Staff

AFP

Mino Raiola, 49, drove Borussia Dortmund (BVB) crazy over the summer. The sports agent had once again achieved his objective, and when it comes to Raiola, that means he had pushed the team to the brink of despair. No matter what the club decided to do, there could be only one winner: Raiola.

At issue was Henrich Mchitarjan, an Armenian football player who wanted to leave Dortmund. Raiola had secured an offer from Manchester United in England's Premier League, where the big money can be found, but Mchitarjan's contract seemed to be presenting a problem. The midfielder was still bound to BVB for another year, and Dortmund Managing Director Hans-Joachim Watzke had said publicly several times that he wouldn't sell Mchitarjan -- not under any circumstances. End of discussion.

Raiola, a small, boisterous Italian with a protruding belly, didn't much care. He's been in the football business for over 20 years and has a client base that includes superstars like Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, France's Paul Pogba and Italy's Mario Balotelli. Raiola has dealt with such illustrious figures as Silvio Berlusconi, the former owner of AC Milan, Florentino Pérez, the president of Real Madrid and Nasser al-Khelaifi, the Qatari investor behind Paris Saint-Germain.

Having done business with people at that level, he wasn't likely to take proclamations from executives like Watzke all that seriously.

Plus, Raiola was in possession of a wildcard the public could never have dreamed of -- a paper that can be found in the Football Leaks data trove. The document, dated March 1, 2014, is a three-page amendment to Raiola's agent contract that may ultimately have played a decisive role in the final stages of the negotiations.

It stipulates that not only would Raiola receive a share of the fee should Mchitarjan be transferred, he would also receive a fee if the player wasn't sold. It's the contractual version of thumb screws. Had Borussia Dortmund rejected the offer from Manchester and insisted that Mchitarjan fulfill the terms of his contract, BVB would have had to pay Raiola a compensation fee worth millions.

Check. Mate.

Watzke ultimately sold Mchitarjan for around 42 million euros. Raiola presumably received 2.5 million euros of that sum in addition to a commission from Manchester United. The fact that the midfielder since then has been doing little more than moving between the bench and the stadium bleachers is a different story.

Lots of Profits

Because this story focuses on the greed of agents, their business practices and their craving for fast and even dirty money. It's a scene in which the most brazen, and not necessarily the smartest, tend to prevail; it's a world of unbridled capitalism. The data from Football Leaks provides a deep look into this world of shadowy figures, puppet masters and soldiers of fortune, a place where relentlessness, speed and negotiating talent are the most important skills. It's a climate in which even top players, adored by millions of fans and fueled by millions of euros, are seen as little more than investments that need to generate profits. Lots of profits.

Players like Julian Draxler.

The German national team player, who first caught the world's eye at the European Championships this summer, is an extremely hot stock. That, at least, is the impression given by the contract negotiated by Roger Wittmann's agency in 2013 with Germany's FC Schalke 04.

Wittmann, who runs the agency Rogon, is one of Germany's most successful sports agents. The slick professional has been in the business for decades and is well networked internationally. A plumber by training, Wittmann has never obtained an agent's license. Last year, he repeatedly came under fire for placing a number of players simultaneously at clubs like FC Schalke 04, TSG Hoffenheim and VfL Wolfsburg, opening himself to accusations of having significant influence over the teams' decisions.

What is the EIC?
  • Finding stories and reporting them together, exchanging information and publishing texts simultaneously: That's the concept behind the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network. Since December 2015, 10 European media outlets have collaborated on investigative projects. In addition to DER SPIEGEL, this network includes: El Mundo (Spain), Falter (Austria), L'Espresso (Italy), Le Soir (Belgium), Mediapart (France), NRC Handelsblad (Netherlands), Newsweek Srbija (Serbia), Politiken (Denmark) and the platform RCIJ/The Black Sea (Romania). The network's first article, about the international trade in illegal weapons, appeared on March 19. For the research into Football Leaks, the network was joined by Expresso (Portugal) and The Sunday Times (UK). About 60 journalists were involved in the evaluation of the data, including editors, data and research experts, graphic designers, lawyers, IT specialists and translators.

In the case of Draxler, Wittmann's people showed just how tough they can be as negotiators. Draxler was only 19 at the time of his 2013 contract extension, but he had already captured the attention of many major clubs. The fact that his on-field performance fluctuated wildly between brilliance and ineptitude didn't appear to threaten the strong position held by Wittmann's company Rogon in negotiations with Schalke. There's no other explanation for the kind of contract the team ultimately signed.

The True Winner

In brief: In exchange for Draxler's contract extension, Schalke agreed to wire 1.2 million euros to Rogon, along with 450,000 euros for each subsequent season of the contract. After taxes, of course. Rogon also included a clause that Schalke would soon regret: In the event of a transfer, no matter when or to which team, the club had to pay a commission of 15 percent of the total transfer fee to Wittmann's agency. The team celebrated the extension anyway, acting as though they had won a title. They plastered images of Draxler, their new hope for the future, on a truck and even drove it through Dortmund, the home of their archrival. The message of the vainglorious stunt was clear: You may be the champions today, but we have the player who will make us the champions of tomorrow.

The true winner of the deal, as became clear two and a half years later, was Roger Wittmann's company. That's when the Draxler stock shot upwards.

On the final day of the transfer period in August 2015, Draxler was sent to VfL Wolfsburg for around 36 million euros. As a consequence of that deal, roughly 5.4 million euros found its way to Rogon's account. All in all, the company made around 7 million euros for the contract extension of a 19-year-old player. And for 28 months of speculation.

Preposterous? Nope. Just part of the daily lunacy that characterizes the world of football agents.

Billions in revenues are generated by professional football and one of its largest warts is the agent industry. For many players, contract negotiations are too stressful and the resulting documents too complicated -- and they often lack the contacts needed to approach other clubs or to find sponsors.

Agents assume such responsibilities for them, often providing comprehensive services and even friendship -- at least what 18-year-old overnight-millionaires take for friendship. They buy mansions for their players, manage their wealth and answer their WhatsApp messages even late into the night. The closer the agents are to their investments, the less likely it is that a competitor will poach them away.

In the last five years, the fees paid to agents in Europe have doubled. In Germany and Britain alone, agents received more than 370 million euros from football clubs in 2015. There are 6,400 agents around the world, and together they are estimated to have earned around 1.5 billion euros in 2015 -- though if one adds unreported payments, it is likely much higher.

'Only Very Few Succeed'

The agent contracts in the Football Leaks data trove provide an overview of how creative, unscrupulous and money-grubbing they can be when it comes to securing their commissions.

The Rogon agency is a perfect example. According to the company's website, six managers work there, including Christian Rapp, a 38-year-old who is the director of Rogon's branch-office in Brazil. In an interview with Germany's Die Tageszeitung newspaper, he once described the player trade in the country as a "massacre of hopes." Many young players compete for contracts on professional teams, he said, "but only very few succeed." What Rapp didn't mention is that agents can earn a mint even on lesser talents. It's a story few would be better positioned to tell than he.

Among the Football Leaks data is a contract dating from April 28, 2014, between Benfica Lissabon, Portugal's top team, and Rogon. It was signed by Rapp and involved striker Kevin Friesenbichler.

Kevin who? In 2014, Kevin Friesenbichler, a striker from Austria who was 19 at the time, played on Bayern Munich's reserve team in Bavaria's regional league, testing his skills against obscure teams like TSV Buchbach and Bayern Hof. What did a Champions League participant like Benfica want with a player like that?

The answer is simple. Nothing.

That same summer, the Portuguese team loaned Friesenbichler to Lechia Gdansk. Two of Wittmann's close buddies were involved in the Polish club's business matters at the time.

Rogon received a net 1 million euros from Benfica for sending Friesenbichler their way. The leading Portuguese team also granted the agency a 50 percent commission on any future transfer involving Friesenbichler, minus the million already paid. For comparison, in 2013 Rogon received a fee of 1.2 million euros for arranging the transfer of Brazil national team player Luiz Gustavo in August 2013 from Bayern Munich to VfL Wolfsburg plus an annual commission of between 300,000 and 350,000 euros for the duration of Gustavo's five-year contract.

Is a Brazilian national team member at the peak of his career worth roughly the same as a striker in the Bavarian regional league? Is Benfica Lissabon just stupid? Or is there another story behind the money?

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