Paul Pogba has become a symbol of the business extravagance in today’s football industry.
On 9 August this year, at the age of 23, the French international midfielder became the world’s most expensive player, when Manchester United paid a record 105 million Euro to Italian side Juventus to bring back Pogba after four years away from Old Trafford.
Juventus paid a no less lavish commission of 27 million Euro to Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, who had demonstrated all his talents by pushing up the bidding for his young star.
Five months earlier, the Italian-born Dutch super agent had negotiated a deal between Pogba and sportswear firm Adidas, which Italian sports daily Gazetta dello Sport estimated to be worth 40 million Euro over a ten-year period - or 25 million Euro plus bonuses according to sports daily L’Equipe.
The world-record transfer fees and the massive media commentary were intimidating for the star midfielder. Pogba got off to a poor start with Manchester United at the beginning of the season. He failed to make an impact in the club’s derby with Manchester City, and again in a Europa League tie with Dutch team Feyenoord in mid-September.
United’s manager José Mourinho was forced onto the defensive over the sum paid by the club.
“I just want Paul to forget that and to play his football,” said the Portuguese boss.
While the young Frenchman made an impressive display for his country in a World Cup qualifying match against Holland in October, when he marked the winning goal, he has become something of a scapegoat for his club’s disappointing results in the Premier League. Some fans even took to Twitter to debate his performances under the hashtags “#Pogfraud” and “#Pogshit”.
Pogba’s dip in form in the game is set against a background of sordid business dealings off the field, marked by greed, dubious deals and tax havens. It is a story that features a ferocious battle between Oualid Tanazefti, a Frenchman who first discovered Pogba’s talent when the latter was aged just 13, and the heavyweight agent Mino Raiola.
L’Equipe and the investigative programme Canal + show Enquêtes de Foot have already investigated the rivalry between Tanazefti and Raiola.
But new explosive documents obtained by Mediapart and German weekly magazine Der Spiegel – and passed on to the journalistic collective European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) – demonstrate the vast lengths the two men were ready to go to in order to obtain the wealthy returns from Pogba’s golden feet.
Our documents show how Paul Pogba was first exploited by Tanazefti in 2014, when the agent convinced him to sign a one-sided contract in which Tanazefti appropriated for himself the revenue from the player’s image rights over a period of 15 years via a Luxembourg company.
Subsequently, when Mino Raiola managed to organise a buyout of the rights, he transferred the “Paul Pogba” brand to an offshore shell company, created in Jersey shortly before the sponsoring deal with Adidas was signed.
This raises questions as to whether this was a platform for tax evasion. But Raiola would not respond to questions on the issue.
Our investigation also reveals that Juventus paid to Mino Raiola ten million Euro of commissions during the four seasons spent by Pogba in Torino, almost as much as the cumulated player's salary.
With the 27 million Euro transfer commission on top, the superagent clocked up a skyrocketing 37 million Euro from Juventus between 2012 and 2016.
The story begins with Oualid Tanazefi, the son of Moroccans born in Mantes-la-Jolie, a poor and immigrant-populated town of greater Paris.
In his teens Tanazefi had hopes of becoming a professional footballer. After humble beginnings playing for small clubs in Normandy, an injury he suffered at the age of 18 ended his hopes of a career. Soon after he became a scout for modest French Ligue 1 team Le Havre, who assigned him to seek out young talent in the Paris region.
In 2006, during his scouting work, Tanazefti, then 21, came across Paul Pogba, a promising kid aged 13. The two had similar backgrounds: Pogba, born in France to Guinean parents, grew up, like Tanazefti, in a difficult social environment in a housing estate in the eastern Paris suburbs, the ‘Cité de la Renardière’ in Roissy-en-Brie.
Tanazefti was instrumental in Pogba’s admission to the youth training centre of Le Havre. Two years later, Pogba was called up to play in France’s national under-16 team.
In the summer of 2009, Pogba, by then aged 16, became old enough to sign his first cadet contract with Le Havre. But Tanazefti, who was still a scout for Le Havre but had also become a self-styled advisor to Pogba, convinced the boy to join the youth academy of Manchester United.
Le Havre denounced the move by United, accusing it of violating an exclusivity agreement between the French club and the young player, and alleging it had offered Pogba’s parents “very large sums of money” to ensure one of its “best youngsters” accepted the move. The dispute was eventually resolved in a financial deal between the two clubs which has never been public.
Tanazefti resigned from his job with Le Havre and moved with Pogba to England.
“I spent three years with him in Manchester,” Tanazefti would later recall. “It was sometimes difficult because we didn’t have much money.” It was during those three years that a special relationship developed between the young Pogba, distanced from his family at the age of 16, and his “advisor” who took on a role somewhere between that of an elder brother and a substitute father.
“I educated him like my son, in the same way that my father educated me,” Tanazefti told French journalists Antoine Grynbaum and Stéphane Bitton in an interview published in their book “The secrets of the transfer market”.
During the summer of 2011, after Pogba had turned 18, the young Frenchman signed his first professional contract with Manchester United, which was for a 12-month period. Along with two partners, Tanazefi then set up a football agent’s business called Sporteam, based in the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence.
But without an agent’s licence, and with only one football player under his wings, Tanazefi knew that he was little in the face of Manchester United, one of the world’s wealthiest clubs, then led by the mighty Sir Alex Ferguson. For that reason he turned for help to Mino Raiola, already one of the world’s most influential football agents, whose list of clients included Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Italian striker Mario Ballotelli.
After just one year with Manchester United, and following strained relations with Ferguson, Pogba left the club for Juventus. Pogba complained that Ferguson had included him in just seven matches during the season, while Ferguson, who tried to dissuade him from the move, would later, in his book of memoirs, criticise Raiola, accusing the Monaco-based agent of manoeuvring behind the manager’s back and seeking too much financial reward. “I did what was best for my client,” Raiola said of the events.
It is true that the agent obtained from Juventus for the 19 year-old Pogba an annual salary which was comparatively huge for a player of his age: 2.75 million Euro (bonuses included), which makes around 1.5 million Euro net of taxes. After two seasons, Raiola helped to raise Pogba's salary to a net 4.5 million per year, according to press reports. So the player cashed a total of around 12 millions from Juventus. But the agent also negotiated a very good deal for himself.
As Pogba arrived as a free player, with no transfer fee to be paid by Juventus, Raiola seized the opportunity to empty the club's bank account. According to official Juventus documents analysed by EIC, Juventus paid ten million Euro of agent's fees related to Pogba in four years! That's almost as much as the player's salary. What has been the justification of this huge amount? Raiola would not answer questions on this issue.
It is unclear whether Oualid Tanazefti, Pogba's historic advisor, knew about the deal negotiated by his partner Raiola. But as soon as the player went to Torino, their alliance had begun to fall apart. On 3 August 2012, Juventus had called the press to witness the signing of Pogba. Alongside Pogba on the press conference stand, Tanazefti asked “Mino” to join them for the photo call. But upon leaving the room, Tanazefti made a joke that appeared to displease Pogba.
“Come on, leave him,” interjected Raiola, walking out with Pogba and addressing Tanazefti with a mocking “Ciao, ciao”.
So Pogba had acquired an official agent in the form of Raiola, and an “advisor”, who was Tanazefti. The latter was sometimes a little too close to Pogba for comfort. In March 2013, for his first selection with the senior French national team, Pogba arrived at the training base at Clairefontaine accompanied by Tanazefti. The agent tried to enter the premises with him, and was soon escorted outside. France coach Didier Deschamps summoned Pogba to his office to tell him that there should never be a repeat of the incident.
While Tanazefti was trying to penetrate the sanctuary of the French football elite, Raiola was already fuelling speculation.
“If Bale [Welsh striker Gareth Bale bought by Real Madrid] is worth 100 million euros, Pogba is worth at least double that. (…) Pogba is, for me, a Salvador Dali because he is precious and important,” the agent told Sky Sport Italia in August 2013.
Raiola had a personal interest in exaggerating. When he had brought Pogba to Juventus, he had negotiated a golden share on his future transfer, recently disclosed by Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta: the agent would get 18 million if Pogba is sold 90 million, plus a big percentage on sums over 90 million. That's how he would get the 27 million Euro for Pogba's return to Manchester.
When he raised the 200 million Euro figure on TV, Raiola already knew that he could score big, as the French player’s talent and worth blossomed with Juventus. In Summer 2013, just after he won his first Italian title with Juventus, he was part of the French national team that won the Fifa under-20s World Cup.
That same year he was awarded the Golden Boy award for the best under-21 footballer in Europe. One year after, he won a second national title and took par to the the 2014 World Cup. It had been his first major tournament with the France national senior team, for which he was awarded Fifa’s Best Young Player title.
The rising star was not only shining on the field. His laid-back attitude, his youth and haircut, not to mention what became his cult “Pogdance” display before matches, made him a huge hit with the Juventus fans. “Pogboom” had soon become a marketing icon, one of the rare players able to obtain a ten-figure contract with a sportswear company.
In 2014, on the contrary, his first “advisor” Oualid Tanazefti was in difficulty. His football agent firm Sporteam had turned into a fiasco, and he winded down the business after it had posted a turnover of only 22,000 Euro in two years. Meanwhile, Pogba’s relations with Mino Raiola were ever closer, and the heavyweight agent was now involved in all the negotiations involving the player.
Tanazefti had just one card left to further his ambition of striking gold, namely image rights. In their book La bande à Deschamps, French journalists Damien Degorre and Raphaël Raymond wrote that on the eve of the 2014 World Cup, Pogba was “the only French international player who had not signed a contract with a sportswear supplier because his advisor reckoned he had received no acceptable offer”.
The journalists reported that he had turned down an offer from Nike worth an annual 900,000 Euro. “During the World Cup, Pogba wore Nikes because he liked the look of the boots, without being remunerated,” they wrote. “The British sportswear firm Umbro, lying in ambush, offered him a contract worth one million Euro per year. But in July 2014, nothing was yet signed.”
It is unclear whether Tanazefti was about to broker a big deal, but what is certain is that four months later, he convinced Pogba to sell to him his image rights.
To complete the operation, Tanazefti teamed up with one of his old associates in Sporteam, Ylli Kullashi, then aged 34. Son of a Kosovar refugee, Kullashi arrived at the age of 12 in France, where he grew up in a housing project in a poor suburb of north-east of Paris, Kullashi went on to study law and subsequently acquired a licence to act as a football agent.
The two men signed the deal with Pogba on 5 November 2014. That contract, revealed for the first time, was incredibly unfavourable for the player, who was perhaps blind to the situation because of the confidence he had in his mentor. Manifestly, they took advantage of the Juventus star.
Tanazefti bought 60 per cent of Pogba’s image rights and Kullashi 40 per cent, for a total price that had to be fixed between 1.8 million euros and five million euros, payable in five instalments. The first of these was due only in June 2015, seven months after the signature. The pair therefore handed over a maximum of one million Euro upfront, and which they were certain to swiftly recover.
The contract allowed for Pogba to receive 70 per cent of the value of rights sold, while Tanazefti and Kullashi were to receive 30 per cent. But it stipulated that Tanazefti and Kullashi would be paid their share as soon as money from the sponsoring deals hit the account, while Pogba would only begin to receive his share after 15 years, “at the earliest on 31 October 2029”.
All that the footballer was granted is a yearly fee payment to be negotiated separately “in good faith”… but that was not to exceed 33,000 Euro.
During the 15 years that Pogba would receive almost no payment of his share in the rights deals, Tanazefti and Kullashi were free to invest the money due to him as they thought fit. Furthermore, when he would finally receive his payment, in October 2029, he was bound to repay to the two men the sum they themselves paid to him to acquire the rights (1.8 -five million Euro), as well as their salaries and expenses for brokering sponsorship deals.
Lastly, but not least, Tanazefti and Kullashi were allowed to sell on Pogba’s image rights without his approval, with the only condition of remaining “associates”, even with a minority status, of the new rights owner.
The pair had also set up a structure to reduce their tax liability. When they were involved together in Sporteam, both were French residents. But the day they closed the the deal with Pogba, Tanazefti had adopted residency in Morocco, while Kullashi became a resident of Kosovo.
The contract has been signed in Turin, but came under Luxembourg law. And three months after the deal was struck, the pair created a Luxembourg-based company called Koyot Group which was to manage the sale of the player’s image rights.
Mino Raiola soon discovered the existence of the deal, and was furious, as was also Paul Pogba, when he at last understood the consequences. The player broke off his relations with Tanazefti in December 2014, one month after signing. From then on, it was open war between Raiola and Tanazefti, fought via their lawyers.
Raiola’s first counter-attack was launched in March 2015. That was when an Italian lawyer, writing as Pogba’s representative, contacted the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), requesting that the trademark Paul Pogba be transferred to an Irish company, Blue Brands Limited. The declared activity of the company, a shell structure which belongs to a local trust company, is that of “providing nominee services”.
Tanazefti, as owner of the trademark, attempted to contest the move, but the EUIPO refused to become involved in the dispute which it said should be settled in a court of law. The result was that Tanazefti and Kullashi could not use the trademark, but neither could Raiola.
The problem was that without the image rights, it was impossible to envisage signing up with a major football club. Tanazefti therefore had powerful leverage, which he intended to use to maximum benefit. It was because of this blockage that Pogba was unable to leave Juventus during the transfer window of the summer of 2015, even though he was sought after by several major clubs, including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.
Press reports claimed that Tanazefti offered to unblock the situation in exchange for 15 million Euro, but Raiola refused.
Football Leaks documents suggest that Tanazefti then tried to sell the rights behind the player’s back. He began by contacting a London-based investment firm, Doyen Sports, and met with its management in the British capital on 19 November 2015. Just before the meeting, a Spanish lawyer for the firm expressed his surprise at Tanazefti’s move: “Doesn’t Pogba work with the pizzaiolo Mino Raiola?” he asked.
Doyen Sports turned down the offer, apparently because it was worried about damaging its relations with Raiola, but also because even with the law on its side it would be very difficult to use a player’s image rights if he does not agree to it.
But Tanazefti continued with his project, approaching a British intermediary who relayed his proposition to Chinese investment group Fosun, which was initially interested, believing that Raiola was behind the deal on offer. It contacted the Portuguese player agent Jorge Mendes, a leading figure in the business, to find out more. But Mendes, who had also been proposed the deal, dissuaded the Chinese.
“Please be careful with the Pogba image rights situation - it's pretty tricky, we know this issue very well”, wrote the agent's right hand man to Fosun.
In the world of football, the golden business opportunities with Pogba could not remain on hold for long. On 16 March 2016, German sportswear giant Adidas announced it had struck a deal with the player, estimated to be worth between 25 to 40 million Euro over ten years, including the marketing of a line of football shoes carrying Pogba’s name.
Two weeks later, French sports daily L’Equipe reported that the deal, brokered by Raiola, was made possible only after the agent arranged the buyout of Pogba's rights for ten million Euro. Which makes five million each for Ylli Kullashi and Oualid Tanazefi. The detail of the agreement remains a mystery, including the question of whether Pogba was himself capable of handing over ten million euros, and whether he had truly re-acquired all his rights.
The structure that closed the deal is also shrouded in darkness. We can reveal today that the Paul Pogba trademark does not directly belong to the player, but to an offshore shell company called Aftermath Limited, registered in Jersey, the famous Channel Island tax haven. The real owner of Aftermath is hidden behind a nominee shareholder - the local corporate services provider Whitmill Nominees.
Aftermath Limited was set up on 4 February 2016, one month before the deal with Adidas was announced. At the time, The Paul Pogba trademark was registered with Blue Brands, the Irish company created by Raiola during his dispute with Tanazefti.
On 15 July 2016, an Italian lawyer wrote to the European Intellectual Property Office to register the transfer of the trademark to Aftermath. However, the Paul Pogba trademark registered in France, and the international Paul Pogba trademark applicable for markets in the United States and China, remain the property of Blue Brands.
Feature by Yann Philippin, Michael Hajdenberg and Michael Henry and published in French in Mediapart, a member of European Investigative Collaborations