On the day that up-and-coming football prodigy Thierno Mamadou Ballo turned 16, FC Chelsea's youth academy sent out a tweet. It was Jan. 2, 2018. The club, the tweet read, "will this week finalise the signing of Austrian Under-17 international Thierno Ballo" and it went on to say that the player would be joining the Premier League club's U-18 team.
At that moment, Ballo was playing for Viktoria Köln's B-junior team in the Bundesliga West. A year-and-a-half earlier, in summer 2016, he had unexpectedly transferred to the Cologne club from the youth academy of Bayer Leverkusen.
The regional football magazine Reviersport wrote a brief article about the transfer of the talented offensive player to England and quoted Viktoria Köln's patron, a tax advisor named Franz-Josef Wernze, saying of Ballo: "In summer 2016, almost everyone wanted him. FC Bayern, RB Leipzig and 1. FC Köln were all going after him. But his guardian opted for a transfer to FC Chelsea." Because Thierno wasn't yet old enough to transfer to England, Wernze goes on, "Chelsea parked him with us. We, of course, were happy to have him and didn't have to pay any expenses for the young man. He is a great, down-to-earth young man who is unbelievable with the ball. When you talk about football child prodigies, Thierno Ballo is one of them."
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The way it has been told until now, Thierno Ballo's story sounds like a football fairy tale. The boy from the Ivory Coast city of Fresco moves to Linz, Austria at age four, where a youth trainer sees him on the playground and invites him to join his club. Ballo's first trainer, named Peter Huemerlehner, would become his guardian and would then move to Germany for work. The 11-year-old boy moves with him, leading him to Bayer Leverkusen, Viktoria Köln and, ultimately, to FC Chelsea in London.
"We chose a couple of clubs for the shortlist and then we didn't just take a close look at the infrastructure, but also at the work of the trainers," says Huemerlehner. "Chelsea made the best impression."
A Completely Different Story
In an interview with the streaming service Dazn, Ballo said of his guardian: "He's like a second father for me. I always have fun with him and he helps me whenever I need it."
But hidden behind Ballo's development is a completely different story, one that illuminates the business of underage football talent. It is a perfect example of how club representatives get what they want: Witha lot of money, and with alax approach to the existing rules designed to protect young players. Ballo's case, which is revealed in the data compiled by the whistleblower platform Football Leaks and shared with DER SPIEGEL, is just one of many. But it is a particularly brazen one.
On June 21, 2016, when he was just 14-and-a-half years old and living in Cologne, Ballo signed an "agreement" with FC Chelsea. Ballo's guardian Huemerlehner also signed the document, as did Ballo's mother. The document outlines that Ballo would transfer to FC Chelsea "on or around 1 July, 2018."
Ballo made a four-year commitment, with a "scholarship agreement" attached to the first year, according to which the player would receive 135 pounds per week. But starting in summer 2019, FC Chelsea promised much larger sums to the rising star: an average of 215,000 pounds per year. He received a taste of that money just seven days after signing, with a payment of 10,000 pounds. The documents also indicate that Ballo, his mother and his guardian Huemerlehner signed a second contract as well. And there is also a draft of a third deal. The signed document outlines strikingly high bonus payments, a kind of advance on for his transfer to FC Chelsea.
According to that deal, the club guaranteed Ballo payments of 441,500 euros and 550,000 pounds by the end of June 2018, payable in six installments. The first tranche of 441,500 euros was to be paid at the latest within seven working days following Ballo's signature, with the last payment due in June 2018. FC Chelsea, according to the draft contract, was to send the money to a Cologne savings bank where Huemerlehner had an account.
But Chelsea also made sure to protect itself. Should the young man not fulfill his contractual obligations in the years between 2018 and 2022, Ballo's mother and his guardian Huemerlehner would have to pay compensation, as outlined in an additional draft contract. According to that document, they would be obligated to reimburse Chelsea for all of the payments it had made to that point. That also included the transfer fee that Viktoria Köln was to receive for having allowed the London club to park Ballo there for two years. The value was assessed at 150,000 euros.
Luring Younger Players
This contractual structure violates important regulations that have been established to regulate the transfer of underage players. According to FIFA rules, it is forbidden to sign young players under the age of 16 to cross-border contracts and paying them for it. Premier League rules likewise ban financial offers designed to lure younger players.
But FC Chelsea nevertheless appears to have relied on significant financial incentives in their efforts to sign a then-14-year-old Ballo. Email correspondence between a lawyer for Chelsea and an external adviser reveals how cunning such option contracts can be. Because it is difficult to hold minors accountable for their signatures, the exchange noted, they wanted the pressure to fall on parents or guardians. "The purpose of the agreement was to have the parents believe that they are personally obliged to ensure that the player signs with Chelsea and that he cannot sign elsewhere," the adviser wrote. And he seemed confident of success: "Parents may sign whatever is put in front of them."
Other contracts show how parents bowed to pressure and declared themselves "unconditionally and irrevocably" liable for all costs that could arise from a refusal by their son, including legal costs, claims for damages and penalties.
DER SPIEGEL contacted Huemerlehner, Ballo himself and the player's mother with a request for comment, but only Huemerlehner responded. From his point of view, the development of his protégé is a perfect example of "successful integration" and "social responsibility." The decision to transfer to FC Chelsea, he says, "was made by Ballo alone and we gave our blessing once we felt we could guarantee stable social and personal surroundings."
Not A Lot of Money
Huemerlehner wrote that he would "not comment further" on "contractual details and confidential documents," adding that they had been "illegally obtained." He also said that the numbers DER SPIEGEL presented to him "did not reflect the facts," but he declined to provide alternative sums. He wrote that FC Chelsea, "with its financial support, provided the possibility to shape things as such."
In response to queries about whether FC Chelsea had violated regulations with the deal it struck with a 14-year-old Ballo, Huemerlehner responded: "I honestly can't speak to legal questions, but we consistently had the impression that everything was done in harmony with the regulations." He said he knew nothing about the 150,000 euros transfer fee that FC Chelsea appears to have paid Viktoria Köln. "But even if 150k was in circulation, that isn't a gigantic sum of money these days, to my understanding."
Viktoria Köln declined to comment on the size of the transfer fee, nor did it respond to accusations that a six-digit fee for the sale of a 14-year-old player who had just transferred to Köln from Leverkusen was an example of unethical business practices. In response to a request for comment, FC Chelsea told DER SPIEGEL it would respond to questions pertaining to the transfer. That response, however, remains outstanding.