International football players are bought and loaned out by Cypriot club Apollon Limassol in a scheme where they do not even need to set foot on the island of Cyprus.
Instead the Cypriot club buys them out in what could be an ‘investment’ for non-sporting reasons.
The players do not become part of the team. Their presence at the club exists only on paper, not on the field.
From May 2015, FIFA banned the practice of third-party ownership - where a party independent of the player and his club held the ‘economic rights’ to the player.
This allowed the owner to exercise influence over the player’s future and his club’s decision on whether to transfer or keep the player.
Usually an investment fund or a dedicated company undertakes third-party ownership.
But in the case of Apollon Limassol, it appears a football club has taken on the role of third-party owner.
This is backed up by the evidence on player contracts revealed by Football Leaks.
We have identified seven players from Serbia and Romania - Mijat Gacinovic, Andrija Zivkovic, Nikola Maksimovic, Nikola Aksentijevic, Marko Pavlovski, Luka Jovic and Cristian Manea - who were signed or part-bought by Apollon Limassol, often away from public scrutiny.
But they never played for the team. In at least one case, they did not even go to Cyprus.
This is taking place under the nose of a senior UEFA official and member of the FIFA Executive Committee, Marios Lefkaritis.
This Cypriot official is the director of downstream petroleum company, Petrolina, which sponsors Apollon Limassol. He is also a fan of the team.
This news comes at a time when the players' union FifPro issued a report revealing that 29 per cent of football players who moved for a transfer fee said they were either put under pressure to join another club or did not end up in the team they wanted.
This also risks Apollon Limassol being called out by FIFA as a “bridge” club - a destination club where a player never takes to the field, but which acts as a 'conduit' between two other clubs. FIFA has sanctioned clubs in Argentina and Uruguay for this practice.
Also connected to the Cypriot scheme is Israeli super-agent Pinhas 'Pini' Zahavi, the former sports journalist from the 70s who, through a network of lawyers, intermediaries, club officials, politicians and offshore companies, is a pre-eminent football oligarch.
According to one document and the testimony of a former official, Zahavi is a shareholder in Apollon Limassol.
Neither Zahavi or Nikos Kirzis, president of Apollon Limassol, would respond to our questions on this issue.
Shopping boys from eastern Europe
5 January 2015. Two days after FC Porto destroyed Gil Vicente 5-1 in an away match from Portuguese First League.
An influential board member at the Portuguese club, Antero Henrique, received an email from Marc Rautenberg, a Swiss intermediary.
“Following your conversation with Fali and Pini in London please find the five biggest talents in the Balkans and Romania,” Rautenberg wrote, above a list of players’ names.
Fali and Pini are the nicknames of Abdilgafar Ramadani and Pini Zahavi.
Ramadani is the owner of Lian Sports, a Malta-based football management company. He has allegedly been business partners with the Osmani brothers, called the “most important figures of organized crime in Hamburg and other cities in Germany” by the German Federal Intelligence.
He is a close associate of Pini Zahavi, who refers to Ramadani, Fali, as “my guy” in Football Leaks.
From the players we have discovered who signed to Apollon, but never played there - Gacinovic, Maksimovic, Pavlovski and Jovic - are all signed to Lian Sports.
Rautenberg was offering a fresh batch of players from Serbia and Romania to FC Porto.
The oldest of the five on the shopping list was 20. The other four were minors.
None ended up in Porto, but two signed for Apollon Limassol in the utmost secrecy before going to, respectively, Portuguese side Benfica and German team Eintracht Frankfurt.
Apollon is a transit point through which Eastern European club officials are trading their talented players. The price they sell to the Cypriots is often much lower than the final price tag from the big western clubs.
Many players are further sold within days to clubs in western Europe, but the profit stays with the investors in Cyprus, which includes Pini Zahavi.
So who does this involve and why is this happening?
First case: Belgrade wunderkind Luka Jovic
Serbian forward Luka Jovic (born 23 December 1997) is probably the most talented player from the list sent by Rautenberg to FC Porto in January 2015.
At the age of 16, he was the youngest footballer ever to play in the Serbian Eternal Derby between the top clubs in Belgrade, Red Star and Partizan, in October 2014.
On 25 January 2015, Red Star management sold 70 per cent of Jovic’s economic rights to Apollon Limassol in a three-year deal. But he continued to play for his Serbian team.
At that time, the Serbian club officials told the media in Belgrade they needed money to pay their debts. Otherwise they wouldn’t receive the UEFA licence to play in European competitions.
In the end, Red Star agreed to sell Jovic for 1.4 million Euro. Apollon also had a clause for buying the remaining 30 per cent for 600,000 Euro.
But he never played for Apollon. He stayed in Belgrade.
A year later, on 1 February 2016, he went to Benfica.
In his transfer papers registered with FIFA, Jovic came to Portugal as an Apollon Limassol player. It was agreed that the Cypriot club would receive 6.65 million Euro from Benfica, even though it appears Apollon made no contribution to Jovic’s on-field sporting development.
Let’s put the numbers in order. Red Star received a maximum of two million Euro for a player that moved from Belgrade to Lisbon for 6.65 million Euro.
Apollon has a gross profit of 4.65 million Euro, even if the player didn’t play a minute for the club in Cyprus.
How could Red Star officials allow what seems to be such a bad business deal?
The Belgrade’s club supremo is Zvezdan Terzic, the former Serbian FA president between 2005 and 2008. Terzic was indicted on embezzlement charges during four transfers made when he was president of Serbian side OFK Beograd in the early 2000s. He was on the run for two years, before turning himself into the authorities in 2010.
In June 2011, he posted a one million Euro bail and was released from prison.
Soon, he was back in business as a club president at OFK and then Red Star.
Meanwhile Terzic’s sister, Sanja, is married to Nikola Damjanac, a former Partizan Belgrade goalkeeper that represented Benfica during the negotiations with Luka Jovic.
For his contribution, Damjanac received a 100,000 Euro commission from the Portuguese.
Damjanac acts as a co-owner for sports agency Lian Sports, alongside Marc Rautenberg and Fali Ramadani.
Jovic did not respond to questions where we wanted to establish if he had ever even been to Cyprus. Neither Rautenberg, Damjanac, Terzic nor Ramadani would respond to interview requests.
Second case: Mijat Gacinovic - the eight-day player
On 3 August 2015, Vojvodina. The Serbian club transferred Mijat Gacinovic (now 21 years old) to Apollon Limassol for 1.25 million Euro. The Cypriot club bought the rights to the player from two companies based in Delaware, USA and Montreal, Canada.
Gacinovic remained in Apollon’s account books for only eight days. On 11 August, he was transferred from Apollon to Bundesliga club Eintracht Frankfurt for the same amount of 1.25 million Euro.
Asked whether he had ever been to Cyprus, Gacinovic answered:
“I do not want to talk about this issue, but I didn’t have anything to do with Apollon. I do not want to talk about that.”
According to the signed contract with Frankfurt, if the player is loaned or transferred to another football club, the German side shall pay a conditional transfer fee equal to 50 per cent of the amount to Apollon.
Eintracht cannot sell the player to any other club for “a transfer compensation” less than 2.5 million Euro without the written consent of Apollon. But the German club can buy out Apollon’s 50 per cent interest for 2.5 million Euro.
This appears to break FIFA’s regulations against Third Party Ownership - active from May 2015.
The rules state: "No club or player shall enter into an agreement with a third party whereby a third party is being entitled to participate, either in full or in part, in compensation payable in relation to the future transfer of a player from one club to another."
Gacinovic remains under the control of the Cypriot club, and Apollon can oversee over how Eintracht Frankfurt conducts its transfer. This can only happen if Apollon receives at least 2.5 million Euro.
Neither Eintracht Frankfurt or Apollon President Nicos Kirzis would comment.
Third case: Star defender in Italy Nikola Maksimovic
Another star of Ramadani’s agency Lian Sports is centre-back Nikola Maksimovic (born 25 November 1991), an ex-Apollon Limassol player who now plays for Napoli.
Following in the footsteps of former Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic, Maksimovic began football at upstart club Sloboda Uzice before moving to Serbian giant Red Star.
After only six months in Belgrade, he was sold in September 2012 for just one million Euro.
The buyer is once again Apollon.
He was allowed to stay playing at Red Star, under the understanding he would transfer to Apollon in the January 2013 transfer window in a three-year deal.
But this only happened on paper. He remained at Red Star.
Asked whether he had ever been to Cyprus, Maksimovic replied: “I do not talk anymore on this issue and there is no need to go back and discuss this issue anymore.”
Without appearing to play a single minute in Cyprus, Maksimovic went on to Torino and transferred to Napoli last August.
More on Maksimovic's deal can be found here
Fourth case: the Belgian boys Pavlovski, O'Neill, Manea
On 1 August 2013, Serbia became U-19 European Championship winner for the first time in their history. They beat France 1-0 in the final. That summer night in Marijampole, Lithuania, midfielder Marko Pavlovski had the honour to be the first to raise the trophy above his head.
He was the captain of Serbia, a creative midfielder who grew up at the OFK Beograd academy from the age of eight. A few days after the final, his club president told the media in Belgrade that no player at OFK is represented by an agent.
The president was none other than Zvezdan Terzic, now president of Red Star Belgrade and brother-in-law of Ramadani’s lieutenant Nikola Damjanac.
You probably remember him. He’s the football official who had one million Euro in spare change to make bail from prison.
At the end of that month and away from the public knowledge, Pavlovski was already an Apollon Limassol player. As in the previous cases, the player signed a ghostly four year contract.
The guys that pulled the strings at Apollon were clearly in a hurry. They didn’t even bother that the player’s name was misspelled “Pavolski” instead of Pavlovski every time they mentioned it in the contract.
This was 28 August 2013. Two days later, Pavlovski moved to FC Porto on loan for the 2013/2014 season.
Before a spell at OFK Belgrade and his current club RNK Split in Croatia, Pavlovski went to Belgian club Royal Excel Mouscron in 2015.
This is a club where superagent Pini Zahavi holds influence - he bought the club for a short time through an investment fund in 2015, and his close relatives are on the board. Players often move back and forth between Mouscron and Apollon. More on Pavlovski here.
The U-19 European champion is among the first players Zahavi moved between what appear to be “bridge clubs”.
One month after Pavlovski arrived in Mouscron, he was followed by Romanian defender Cristian Manea, now 19 years old. Manea was playing for Viitorul Constanta, a Romanian club owned by Gheorghe Hagi, the Romanian midfield legend who played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona during the 90s. The boy had learned his craft at the player's namesake 'Academia Hagi', a training company for young players.
In 2015, according to the official Royal Excel Mouscron (then Peruwelz) website at the time, Manea was on loan from Chelsea. Early that summer, the Romanian and British media announced Manea’s transfer to England from Academia Hagi. The news was fed and encouraged by Academia Hagi officials.
In reality, Manea had already been transferred to Apollon Limassol one year earlier for 2.5 million Euro. One million Euro from Manea’ s transfer fee went to a Maltese offshore company, Dito Trading, listed at the same address as Lian Sports.
He has never been to the football ground. He never had a medical there or trained with them.
“Cristi has never been to Cyprus,” a family member told us.
Apollon is also branching out to capture players from the USA. Take this example. On 24 June 2015, Amadeu Paixao, director of sports management company Principal Sports Management is solicited by Tom Markham, a friend of the sporting director of American team Colorado Rapids, to buy the economic rights of a player. This comes after the FIFA ban on TPO came into effect on 1 May 2015.
The player in question is the Ireland-born US international Shane O’Neill, now 23 years old.
“The Colorado Rapids are interested in selling [Shane O’Neill’s] economic rights as they need money to invest in the rest of their squad. Would he be of interest…?”
O’Neill was sold on 7 August to Apollon Limassol for an undisclosed amount. He made no appearance for them. He signed for Royal Excel Mouscron (as the club is now known) on 31 August 2015. He made no appearance for them.
On 16 February, he was loaned out again to Cambridge United, made two appearances, and came back to Apollon Limassol, before going on to Dutch club NAC Brega, where he is playing.
Never once did he ever play a match for Apollon - and the Dutch club would not respond to questions as to whether he had ever been to Cyprus.
Fifth case: Nikola Aksentijevic - the 48-hour player
For a seven-year period ending in 2014, the Partizan president was Dragan Djuric, who is now being investigated in Serbia for his management at the club. Djuric is a businessman close to Fali Ramadani. When the Serb left, Partizan was over ten million Euro in debt, despite selling players whose transfer fees totalled 97.9 million Euro.
During Djuric’s time at the club, defender Nikola Aksentijevic (now 23 years old) announced himself as a star for the future. In August 2012, the right-back signed for Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.
This was the official version. The reality is different.
On 27 August 2012, Aksentijevic secretly signed a four-year contract with Apollon Limassol. Under the signature of club president Nikos Kirzis, Apollon offered Partizan a 1.8 million Euro transfer fee.
Just 48 jours later, the player went to Vitesse for an undisclosed fee. On the detailed football website TransferMarkt, Apollon's name doesn’t even appear in Aksentijevic’s CV.
After two seasons in Netherlands, Aksentijevic was loaned back to Partizan and then to OFK Belgrade, the clubs then managed by Dragan Djuric and Zvezdan Terzic, both allies of Ramadani.
After Pini Zahavi took over Royal Excel Mouscron (then known as Royal Mouscron Peruwelz) in the summer of 2015, the Serbian was loaned to the Belgium club for one season.
Now, he is in Serbia - a Vojvodina Novi Sad player, who came on a “free transfer” from Apollon.
Tell me about this club Apollon Limassol
The Cypriot First Division is not a major league. Outside of the top four clubs, the remaining teams only host between 50 and 300 supporters per match.
One of the major teams - but not the largest - is Apollon Limassol, based in its namesake seaside town on the Med, which has become a haven for tens of thousands of Russian expats. So many that local Cypriots have dubbed Limassol "The Russian City".
Founded in 1954, Apollon Limassol has won its national championship three times (1991, 1994, 2006). Since 2012, the president of Apollon Football (Public) Limited - the company that administrates the club - is former football and basketball agent Nikos Kirzis. The 41 year-old was born into the the wealthy family of the former Apollon president Dimi Kirzis.
Meanwhile the President of Cyprus, Nikos Anastasiades, is a keen Apollon fan and is seen as a kind of protector for the club. To acknowledge this, in June 2015, Nikos Kirzis publicly thanked him for “his efforts regarding the construction of the new football stadium” that will be ready by 2019.
Another former board member of the club (1972-1977) is the controversial UEFA treasurer and FIFA ExCo member Marios Lefkaritis. He was one of the men who voted for Russia and Qatar to hold the World Cup in 2018 and 2022 respectively.
Honorary president of the Cypriot Football Association, Lefkaritis is also a sponsor of Apollon, as his family founded downstream petroleum company Petrolina (where he is a director).
Petrolina was also involved in a controversial deal with Russian gas giant Gazprom just two days before he voted in the selection of Russia for the 2018 World Cup.
Lefkaritis said at the time: “They were totally straightforward commercial deals and nothing to do with what I voted for.”
But Lefkaritis told us that he has no business dealings with the Kirzis family, and refused to answer our questions on the accusations above, directing us instead to Apollon Limassol or “other authorities” we might think necessary. As those authorities would be FIFA and UEFA, where he is an executive, the answer seemed bizarre.
The club president also did not reply.
Apollon’s share capital was increased in March 2016 from 2.389 million Euro to 3.185 million Euro. One of the shareholders with 16 per cent is SLIVA Trading Limited, an offshore company that is owned by Israeli super-agent Pini Zahavi, according to this agenda understood to be from a shareholders' meeting.
A former official at the club told us Zahavi's finances are “keeping the club afloat”. Zahavi would not respond to our questions.
So who is Pini Zahavi?
The 73-year old ‘original superagent’ Pinhas (Pini) Zahavi is most renowned for helping organise the Roman Abramovich takeover of Chelsea and assisting with French-Israeli businessman Alexandre Gaydamak’s takeover of Portsmouth in the English Premier League.
He also oversaw England defender Rio Ferdinand’s move from West Ham to Leeds (2000) and to Man U (2002).
”He's 73 years old and still he's running after deals,” says a competing agent. “He has the youth of a 15 year old kid because he possesses an ego and the will to prove that he is not finished.”
A former football journalist, he has also leveraged his contacts in the Russian and Ukrainian ex-pat communities to help spread his influence in eastern Europe.
However Gaydamak’s takeover of Portsmouth was seen as a failure, as the club went bankrupt in 2010 and he is accused of asset-stripping the club before it went bust. After winning the FA cup in 2008, Portsmouth's fate began to nosedive. Now the great club languishes in the fourth tier of the English league. Zahavi has claimed he lost money on Portsmouth.
Now Zahavi's biggest clients is the Argentine defensive mid-fielder for Barcelona Javier Mascherano.
One of Zahavi’s former South America business partners is an agent called Gustavo Arribas, who since 2015 has been director general of Argentinian secret services.
Zahavi, Arribas and an agent called Hidalgo own HAZ, a company from Gibraltar involved in dubious player transfers from Argentina to Europe.
The Israeli also holds shares in HAZ Racing Team, a motorsport teams in Argentina - the "Z" in HAZ comes from Pini's last name.
An offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands, Leiston Holdings, to which Zahavi is repeatedly connected in Football Leaks, is also a multi-million sponsor of an Israeli association Elad (Ir David), which has caused controversy for buying up parts of east Jerusalem in moves which push out Palestinians and has been accused of contributing to an "ethnic cleansing" of parts of the Holy City.
So who is Marc Rautenberg?
Marc Rautenberg is a Swiss agent who acted as a Board member - financial counsellor - to the Belgian club Royal Excel Mouscron (as it is now called).
His presence in the club structures was denounced earlier in 2016 by three clubs in Belgium which showed to the Belgian FA that Rautenberg is in fact “a players agent”.
FIFA rules ban player’s agents acting as club officials - so this was an outrageous conflict of interests.
He resigned from the Board and the FA commissions awarded Mouscron the licence allowing them to play in the 2016/2017 season.
“Rautenberg is not an agent,” said Mouscron spokesman Nicholas Cornu after the club received the licence.
But Football Leaks emails show that during his time as a Board member at Mouscron, Rautenberg acted as an intermediary for agency Lian Sports.
In January 2016 he and Lian Sports owner met Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira Ferreira to close the Luka Jovic transfer from Apollon to the Portuguese side.
Rautenberg would not respond to interview questions.
...And who is Fali Ramadani?
For a former manager of a chain of small restaurants in Germany, the key owner of Lian Sports has incredible influence in today’s football.
Photograph-shy Abdilgafar Ramadani (born 1963) is a Macedonian agent of Albanian origins who currently resides in Mallorca. He’s the unofficial transfer counsellor for Italian club Fiorentina’s owners, but his influence extends from Romania to Germany.
“He’s a big builder with an exceptional network," says a competing agent. "He easily seduces players who respect him for a reason: when he says something, he does it. It is very effective, but he is not one of the agents who are great connoisseurs of football. Do not ask him if Cristiano Ronaldo is right-handed or left-handed, it does not interest him. On the other hand, he knows the market value of a player and knows how much a young player can bring him."
Controversy goes hand-in-hand with this agent born in the Macedonian town of Tetovo. In 2003, his name appeared during an investigation made by German prosecutors against the Albanian brothers Burim and Bashkim Osmani.
Linked to organised crime in Hamburg, the Osmani clan took unsecured loans of over 70 million Euro from Volksbank Lauenburg in Germany. They used a part of the money in a controversial residential project in Skopje, Macedonia, nicknamed the 'Chinese Wall'. Ramadani himself took a one million Euro loan from the same bank despite he and his wife, Sabine, providing a yearly income proof for only 35,000 Euro.
According to the Macedonian media, Ramadani and the Osmani brothers were the “German investors” behind a company named Lian LBO Engineering LLC that became embroiled in a scandal in Skopje following erection of a grandiose residential building on the green site of the city’s Gradski Park.
The piece of land was initially bought from the authorities by Vardar Skopje boss, Borce Riseski, at a cheap price with the declared intention of building a parking garage for the sporting club. Overnight, the garage became a five storey hotel and Riseski sold 20 per cent of it to Ramadani’s Lian LBO motivating a lack of funds.
Journalists in Macedonia wrote about a minister receiving death threats amidst public pressure to demolish the building.
Ramadani was questioned by prosecutors and he denied that he pressured or bribed state officials to receive construction approval. The case ended with his business partner Riseski being convicted for one year along with a City official. The construction stopped, the investors had to demolish the top floor and the attic then sold the apartments. Ramadani reportedly received 25 million Euro from selling his part in the still standing Chinese Wall to German businessman Siegfried Greve.
The building is now a luxury facility owned by the wealthy businessman Enver Maliqi.
Tell me about this club Royal Excel Mouscron - that was called something else last year
Apollon Limassol has an ongoing relationship of player-transfer with Royal Excel Mouscron, a Belgian club in the country’s first division that until this year was known as Royal Mouscron Peruwelz.
Currently three Apollon players are on loan to Mouscron - Valentin Viola, Luka Stojanovic and Cristian Manea.
Mouscron is a club where Zahavi retains a massive influence.
In the summer of 2015, after half a decade in financial limbo, the club was bailed out by a Maltese company called Gol Football Malta Limited for 8.5 million Euro, connected to Pini Zahavi. The rumour at the time was that Zahavi would use his Chelsea links to "blood" players at the Belgian side.
In May 2016, Gol Football Malta sold the club for a ridiculous fee of ten Euro to another Maltese company, Latimer International Limited, owned by Zahavi’s nephew Adar.
Two of Zahavi's relatives, Adar and Gil, sit on the board of directors of the club. The argument is that both Apollon Limassol and Royal Excel Mouscron are part of a carousel used by Zahavi's network to move players from place to place.
Asked if Zahavi had influence over any other clubs in Europe or further afield, an agent recently stated to us:
“These two are only the ones the media know about.”