The entire population of Tillmitsch, in the mountainous Austrian wine-growing region of Styria, could fit into Manchester City FC’s 53,400-seater Etihad Stadium more than 14 times over.
The team from the area competes in the fourth division of Austrian soccer, which is a significant distance from the top of the worldwide soccer hierarchy where the Manchester club resides.
However, had life taken a different path, Emir Dautović, a 6ft 4in central defender who currently plays for SV Tillmitsch and works at a frozen foods company, could have potentially been a star 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 top prospects in eastern Europe. As a result, he was given the opportunity to participate in a one-week trial with City.
The young and tall player left a mark in Manchester. Following the tryout, authorities at Maribor informed him that the Premier League team had offered a bid 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, another proposal came in that appeared to offer even greater benefits. Pinhas “Pini” Zahavi, a well-known agent for some of the top players in football, expressed interest in representing him.
According to Dautović, Zahavi’s middleman enticed him with the promise of the Israeli’s unparalleled connections. He was informed that the agent could easily facilitate a transfer to Chelsea within a single night.
Dautović stated that his career took a big step forward when he joined forces with agent Pini Zahavi. This partnership was a major turning point for him.
Despite his father’s hesitation, the youthful athlete eagerly took advantage of the opportunity, signing a contract that relinquished his talent with a simple signature. The agreement he made is commonly referred to in the world of football as a “third-party ownership” deal, which is a contentious form of investment that has been compared to “modern-day slavery” by current Fifa president, Gianni Infantino.
In 2015, governing bodies of football worldwide prohibited the practice of investors purchasing “economic rights” to a player under these types of agreements.
The investment provided complete control over the player’s career, giving the investor the authority to choose the team they played for and the ability to receive profits from any transfers. In some cases, this investment also included image rights which regulated income from endorsements and sponsorships.
Afterwards, Dautović explains, he was viewed as a “product”, not as much as an individual but rather a “pawn” to be manipulated by someone else’s demands.
According to a joint investigation by the Guardian and global collaborators, Dautović was not the only up-and-coming talent to choose this path.
At the other side of the transactions were two influential figures in the sport of football: Zahavi and the ex-owner of Chelsea, Roman Abramovich.
The inquiry explains how adolescent males who agreed to these agreements were essentially purchased and traded like property, recorded as possessions on the financial records of a business, serving a system where their own welfare was almost insignificant.
Abramovich and Zahavi have both been involved in third-party ownership in the past. However, the specific details, extent, and process of their partnership, which was kept under wraps with a previously undisclosed contract, can now be revealed thanks to the Cyprus Confidential files. This cache of 3.6 million offshore records was leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and Germany’s Paper Trail Media. They then granted access to the Guardian, Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), and other media outlets. The information originated from a Cypriot company called MeritServus and was shared with the ICIJ by the nonprofit organization Distributed Denial of Secrets.
The documents expose transactions that legal experts in sports believe may have violated Fifa regulations regarding the connection between companies and football teams. They also provide insight into the operations of a profitable market where young men were at the mercy of the product.
Frequently, athletes shared with the Guardian and its collaborators that they were lured in by extravagant commitments that ultimately disappeared, resulting in their aspirations and professional paths being destroyed.
The Abramovich-Zahavi partnership
Neymar Jr’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 was a significant event in the world of football finance, even by modern standards. The final price of €222m for the Brazilian striker not only surpassed the previous transfer record, but it also more than doubled it.
Pini Zahavi was a central figure in the groundbreaking agreement, possessing the ability to significantly impact the landscape of the sport.
Since the 1970s, the Israeli has been known as football’s pioneering “super-agent”, involved in negotiating noteworthy and occasionally contentious agreements.
According to reports, he played a crucial role as a mediator in negotiations that resulted in Abramovich, who was already a billionaire in his thirties, purchasing Chelsea in 2003.
Eight years after, records show that they collaborated once more, but this time for a business venture aimed at capitalizing on the profitable skills of young soccer players.
In 2011, a confidential contract known as the “player investment agreement” was signed, in which Zahavi agreed to search for promising players around the world. Upon finding them, he would then negotiate to obtain the sole rights to fully utilize the commercial and economic aspects of these young footballers.
Leiston Holdings, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands and under the ownership of Abramovich, would supply the necessary funds by investing €10m over a span of two years. In the event of players being sold at a gain, Zahavi and Leiston would divide the profits.
According to documents, Dautović was one of the investments made by Leiston.
He and his parents entered into an agreement where Maribor transferred his economic rights to the company for €1m, which was higher than Manchester City’s offer.
A review of the Cyprus Confidential documents by the Guardian and TBIJ reveals that 25 individuals, equivalent to a full Champions League team, received attention from corporations owned by Abramovich.
A minimum of 21 individuals joined Leiston, coming from various parts of Europe, Latin America, and Asia. A significant number of them were minors, thus needing both their own and their parents’ signatures.
The young players were believed to have enlisted the help of the top agent in international football. However, after the contract was finalized, it seemed that it was Leiston’s team who were working for Zahavi and, possibly without their knowledge, for Abramovich.
Gaël Etock and Fabrice Olinga both migrated from Cameroon to Spain with the aspiration of achieving success in one of Europe’s premier leagues, La Liga.
Stock emerged from FC Barcelona’s renowned “La Masia” training program, which has produced world-class players such as Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, and Xavi Hernández. Olinga made a splash on the global scene at just 16 years old, becoming the youngest goal scorer in La Liga history while playing for Málaga.
Both were quickly signed by Leiston and Zahavi, agreeing to contracts that guaranteed a promising future.
According to records, the deal involving Olinga included plans for “endorsement campaigns” and compensation for promoting “premium and souvenir items” through TV and movie advertisements. Additional payments were dependent on the potential for a transfer to the Premier League or Germany’s Bundesliga.
The truth was not as fancy. Leiston compensated their players with salaries as part of their agreements.
Records show that Olinga requested an advance from the company, while Etock also received advances that were initially paid by Zahavi but later taken out of his wages by Leiston. Despite being on the verge of a successful football career, the salary offered was only €50,000 per year, which was considered low.
Leiston’s up-and-coming talents seemed to have little control over their professional paths.
In January of 2014, Olinga’s Twitter followers inquired about rumors of his transfer from Málaga to the Cypriot team Apollon Limassol. Olinga dismissed these claims as false, but he was mistaken.
The Limassol connection
Throughout history, various rulers such as the ancient Greeks, Venetians, Ottomans, and British have had control over the coastal city of Limassol in Cyprus. In more recent times, Limassol has been under a different type of influence – that of affluent Russians who are drawn to the island’s financial privacy and access to Europe.
The boats docked in the harbor, along with the lavish residences scattered throughout the city, serve as proof of the added financial boost.
According to the Cyprus Confidential files, Apollon Limassol, a local institution seemingly unrelated to Russia, was involved in a scheme where young footballers whose dreams of playing for Chelsea were shattered would then be transferred to Apollon, with the arrangement made by Zahavi and funding provided by Abramovich.
Per the 2016 shareholders’ meeting minutes, which were previously available on the club’s website but can now only be accessed through an internet archive, Apollon Limassol had a shareholder holding 16% of the shares, identified as “Sliva Trading (Pini Zahavi).”
On several occasions, records reveal that Sliva utilized Zahavi’s connection with Leiston to obtain loans. These funds were then utilized by Sliva to cover player transfer fees and even their salaries on behalf of Apollon.
Olinga was a player who fit this description.
The player’s Twitter account suggested that he would be going on loan from Málaga to the Belgian team Zulte Waregem, but in reality, he had been sold to Limassol without his awareness.
Cristian Manea, a Romanian defender, was one of the young players who followed this path. He was considered a highly talented prospect and at the young age of 16, he was selected to play for his country in May 2014 – setting a national record.
During the upcoming summer, there were widespread reports that Manea was heading to Stamford Bridge, and some even claimed that he had already signed for Chelsea. However, according to documents, Leiston actually loaned Sliva €3m to cover the cost of his move to Apollon Limassol.
The repayment of the loan was dependent on the future transfer fees earned for the player. Zahavi’s company was entitled to a 25,000 euro share of any profits.
According to an interview he gave in 2018, the child cried when he learned that he would not be going to Chelsea as expected.
Manea did not participate in any games for Apollon. Out of the six players from Leiston who were transferred to the Cypriot team, only one actually played, and even then it was only three times.
Several were loaned out, with one being to Mouscron, a team in Belgium that Zahavi was a part-owner of.
Their professional paths have hit a standstill in numerous instances. Olinga currently competes for FC Botosani, a struggling club in the highest league of Romanian soccer. Etock’s last team was FC Lahti in Finland, but he is currently without a team.
Samuel Cuthbert, a prominent sports lawyer, has raised concerns about the contract arrangements for certain players joining Limassol. These arrangements may potentially violate Fifa’s article 18bis, which forbids third parties from having control over a club’s transfer decisions.
Leiston was given complete discretion in future player transfers for at least three instances – Etock, Nikola Aksentijević, and Valentín Viola.
Cuthbert expressed concern over the clause, stating, “It is challenging to reconcile a situation where a third party seems to have complete authority over a player’s transfer with the regulatory ban outlined in article 18bis of the Fifa regulations on players’ status and transfers.”
The soccer players who joined forces with Zahavi might not have realized they were under the ownership of the former Chelsea owner.
A player, who preferred to remain anonymous, stated that he had a feeling that Abramovich was the mastermind behind Leiston Holdings, but was never certain.
Dautovic remained clueless, even ten years later. In September 2023, when the Guardian’s global collaborators spoke to him, it was the first time he learned the true identity of his employer.
“I was employed by Abramovich? That surprises me. I can assure you, I had no idea.”
Maribor stated that none of the individuals involved in the transaction are currently affiliated with the club.
Roman Abramovich did not respond to comment requests. Pini Zahavi refused to comment. Apollon Limassol did not respond to comment requests.
Extra information gathered by Timo Schober, Ed Siddons, and Stéphanie Trastour.