When Frank Liivak announced he was going to spend the remaining half of season in an obscure Tercera Division (4th tier) club of the Madrid area, most of the Estonian fans were incredulous.
To be honest, I was too.
Neither because the player denied what I had announced (Liivak close to a Segunda B club) and nor because he said no one from his circle talked to media. I really spoke to his then-new Italian agent, Giorgio Timpani, and whether there was a misunderstanding in the tier he was going to play in, I would exclude.
In the end, is a football player really aware of how many journalists his agent speaks to every day? I exclude and ‘forgive’ what Liivak said in the interview to Soccernet.
Furthermore, according to other sources of mine, the Segunda B destination was a sure thing.
Additionally, Liivak himself confirmed recently to magazine ‘Jalka’ (interview reported here by Postimees) that the deal with a bigger club failed due to other reasons:
‘’One reason, why I came to Spanish Tercera Division (4th tier –edit) is hidden in the FIFA rules and concerns the sums for transfers.’’
What happened then? Why Liivak ‘restarted’ his career in an unknown club which does not even have an up-to-date website to proudly announce they have signed one of the brightest hopes of Estonian football? After all, I don’t think Alcobendas has ever had an international in their squad, have they?
We will try to give an explanation to a story that has some blurry sides and shed light on what is going on. We will have to do that in the light of recent developments. In fact, Frank Liivak said he might opt for the Dutch national team (he has only a couple of friendly games with Estonia) and Estonian FA president, Aivar Pohlak, hinted at some pressures put by Liivak’s agent (a powerful agent…) on him in order to have Frank called for the Euro 2016 tie in June against San Marino.
LIIVAK, THE ESTONIAN PLAYER GROWN IN HOLLAND
Before reaching the last chapter of this story, we shall explain who Frank Liivak exactly is. Born to Jaanus Liivak, an Estonian basketball player who moved to Holland to play and is now a coach there, Frank can be deemed a foreign product.
Notwithstanding he is born in Tartu and actually started playing the game in Tammeka (city’s main club) the Estonian striker was raised in Holland. He played for Almere City U-19 until he broke the news in August 2013 when Napoli signed him for the Primavera (U-20) squad. He himself recounted to Postimees that the Southern Italy club signed him after a blitz of the youth scouts of the club. In a rather picturesque way, three men were waiting for Frank in a dark Mercedes at the end of an U-17 game against Germany in Iserlohn (6-0 for the Germans) to offer him to sign with Napoli Primavera (U-20). After being released by Napoli in December 2014 upon his request, he is the last Estonian player to have played in Italy, although the list is not so long (stats of Frank's first season at Napoli can be found here - edit). Frank spent one season and a half there, among ups and downs. ‘The first period I was crying in my bed at night,’ told the young striker to the Estonian press on the eve of his debut against Gibraltar (May 2014) when he almost scored a goal. Notwithstanding the hardships, he learnt Italian quickly and after one year he released to me a couple of interviews in Italian language (check here and here). On passing to Alcobendas, he told Soccernet.ee that this was the best choice for him to be acquainted with the culture and the language.
I assume it has not been hard for him to do that. Italian and Spanish are quite similar, learning the second by starting from the first it was definitely an advantage. Additionally, due to historical reasons, the Spanish culture is quite similar to the Southern Italian one. I would bet the acquaintance process was quite quick.
Additionally, Liivak was allowed to do personal development training, something he was forbidden to do in Sant’Antimo (Napoli Primavera training base). He hardly accepted that and was one of the reasons that pushed him to ask to be released.
Furthermore, Liivak explained in his interview that he had a chance to play more in a Spain Tercera Division club than in Primavera. Additionally, he thought that he will have more space to do what he likes: dribbling. A subtle blame to the Italian style of play: tactics and defence, which he confirmed later on to Postimees some days ago. It is not a mystery that local press in Naples did not rate Liivak’s defensive job as satisfying. However, for a boy who was in the interest range of Ajax, I was able to see a lot of effort to cover the left wing when his coach, former Lazio player Giampaolo Saurini, fielded him. On the other hand, the team did not look much for him when attacking, as the ball was mostly reaching the star player of the right wing, Alfredo Bifulco, a local boy with U-18 caps.
Because this might have been Liivak’s main problem, he was not a local boy.
With Polish talent Igor Lasicki departing, Liivak had become the only foreigner in the squad. Napoli Primavera has never made a mystery over privileging the local talent to the foreign one. Giampaolo Saurini confirmed that in a pre-match interview (check here – with English subtitles).
Why buying Liivak then? This is a broader question, which involves a deeper analysis of the shortsighted way Italian clubs are run: the long-term plans are always tied to the next result, even at youth level. In the end, Frank was invited by Rafa Benitez to train with the first team several times, therefore accusations of ‘not being talented’ appeared in an Estonian article are totally unfounded and aimed at catching clicks. Rather than waiting to be sent to Lega Pro as it happened to Lasicki, Liivak decided to take his future on his hands and make a different choice for himself.
However, how sure are we that the decision to park himself in a Spanish 4th tier club was a real choice and not an (organized) 'plan B'?
For more articles about Frank Liivak's season at Napoli, check here.
ALCOBENDAS SPORT, AN UNKNOWN CLUB IN KNOWN HANDS
Googling Alcobendas Sport does not give much satisfaction.
A dry Wikipedia page where we learn the club has never gone over the Tercera Division (they have now qualified for the play-offs to access Segunda B -edit). The most interesting part in the Spanish version, says it was founded in 1995 by executives of Boca Juniors, the title-stockpiling Argentine club. An interesting coincidence you will understand soon why.
The club has a rather outdated logo which needs refreshment and few pictures of the team were available until some months ago. The original Twitter account was not updated since January 2012 until recently when, a new Twitter account has appeared, claiming itself as official.
However, a very same player of the club (Oscar Valentin) has tweeted a reply asking to please stop spreading false information from a fake official tweet (see embedded tweet above on the right hand of this paragraph - edit). The club itself produced a press release confirming that the account is fake. The official account is this one and exists only since few days.
Most of the information we get from the RFFM page, the Real Federacion de Futbol de Madrid (Madrid Royal Football Association, a regional division of the Spanish FA). A link from there, brings us to the Alcobendas’ website, which is not updated since August 2014 (when I started to write this article there were minimal info and pictures, now it has been completely blanked and no other website exists – edit).
Before the new profile, some scarce info on social media could be learnt by the Twitter profile of other three players at the club I managed to dig, Andres Munoz (a goalkeeper, a produce of Atletico Madrid) , the same Oscar Valentin (on loan from Rayo Vallecano B) and Jorge Charchenilla.
The club looks like it didn't want to appear much, not even when they signed a promising Estonian international coming from SSC Napoli, a club coached by a Spanish manager as Rafa Benitez.
Without knowing it actually existed, one would have thought the club was no longer existing.
A bit of light on the club was shed by Liivak himself in the above-mentioned interview with Soccernet.
‘The club has been bought recently by important people,’ mentioned Liivak to Soccernet. Who were they, what did they do and why would have they bought such an obscure club, he seemed not to know or completely ignored some months ago.
However, it is always worth knowing who is your employer when you sign a contract, even for just 6 months.
This was Liivak’s contract duration at Alcobendas Sport since the player will be 'released' next month. However, considering who these ‘important people’ are, it might just have been smoke and mirrors for us.
We’re neither talking about the president, Alvaro Marquina Lopez, nor the secretary, Pablo Cutillas Navarro. Those names will not tell you much.
However, the name of Gustavo Mascardi shall ring more than one bell in people following football transfer market. And it might not be just a 6-month deal the one on the table (the name of Mascardi appeared for the first time in Estonian press talking about Liivak at Alcobendas in the same Postimees article, however my knowledge of it was already prior – edit)
THE ARGENTINE CONNECTION
For those who don’t know, Gustavo Mascardi is a popular Argentine football agent.
Or better, a former broker who decided to become a football agent. He did see in football market the same chances as in a stock market: making money from moving capitals. However, here the capitals are football players.
He has dealt with the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron, El Piojo Lopez, Fausto Asprilla and many others.
More recently he was an intermediary for Manuel Iturbe (from Porto to Hellas Verona and onto AS Roma) and Paulo Dybala (the Palermo talent everyone has been chasing and is likely to end up at Juventus for season 2015-16).
In a legal controversy with Palermo’s owner, Maurizio Zamparini, he obtained a compensation for Dybala’s transfer from Instituto de Cordoba to Sicily. Zamparini was compelled to transfer 8m € to Pencihill Ltd, a company belonging to Gustavo Mascardi. Zamparini claimed the fee of the player was paid entirely to the club of provenience. However, the Lausanne Court (TNAS) sentenced that the Sicilian club was due to pay also Mascardi’s company.
Considering that Zamparini deems football agent no less than parasites, he completely and wilfully ignored a de facto situation: Dybala was not belonging to Instituto de Cordoba any longer, but to Pencihill Limited, a company with main headquarters in London. A situation the Argentine club completely denied back in 2011. Hard to believe considering the sentence pronounced in favour of Pencihill Ltd in August 2014.
According to our sources, AS Roma has also paid an amount of money for Iturbe being transferred from Hellas Verona to the Capitoline club. We have to assume the amount was transferred to Pencilhill Limited bank account. The player was also close to Juventus, according to Italian magazine Panorama who figured out what the fee for Mascardi could have been.
Why such a powerful football agent would buy a modest and unknown club of Madrid area?
THIRD PARTY OWNERSHIP: A PERMANENT PROFIT FOR FOOTBALL AGENTS AND OTHER ENTITIES
The answer to our question lies into a new scheme used by powerful football agents to deal with players representation and their economic rights: the so-called ‘Third Party Ownership’ aka TPO.
The scheme is simple: (part of) the players’ economic rights do not belong to a club or to the player himself, but to a third party which usually is a company. There have been already several cases of TPO’s in the football transfer market including the one mentioned above concerning Dybala and Iturbe. These companies are most of the times investment funds. They deal with footballers as if they were financial assets to buy, sell or even rent. Usually, the most favourable deal is when the company co-owns part of the player’s economic rights together with other entities (other third parties or the clubs themselves). It means that, even if the player is transferred from one club to the other, the company (thus the individuals controlling it) will still earn a profit from the player’s future transfers as it controls a percentage of their economic rights.
The football agents have a great tool to avoid players would cut themselves free and work with other operators, hence making them lose earnings from future transfers.
The scheme is widespread in Southern America (Brazil and Argentina) and ‘appeared’ in Europe when the cases of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano rose more than one eyebrow in 2006.
The two Argentine internationals joined West Ham from Conrinthians (BRA) and the London club faced heavy criticisms from English football officials with the club eventually being put under investigation as facing accusation of being involved in what was defined no less than ‘human trafficking’.
As reported by the Guardian in 2007, the terms of the deal appeared to be the following:
‘West Ham were paying the players' wages (…) and then if an offer to buy them came in from another club at or above a stated figure, West Ham had the option of buying them from the companies at a pre-agreed price. If the club chose not to, the owners could sell them during the next transfer window.’
A situation that basically gives companies the possibility to influence the club’s policies and performances.
Was FIFA happy with this? Not at all.
FIFA BANNED TPO
It is known that Joseph Blatter is not a great sympathizer of football agents. Out of the TPO case, he has already ‘declared war’ to the role by abolishing the ‘licensed agent’ professional figure and introducing the one of the intermediary.
The latter will not be licensed by the football associations (and hence by FIFA – although a formal registration at the local FA will be required) but he will simply receive his status from the football player/club by signing a document (Representation Contract) assigning the intermediary the role to represent them. FIFA have already designed how the new role will look like. Obviously, professional football agents are far from being happy to see the market being flooded with wanna-be football agents from the 1st of April 2015 (this is how Mel Stein – chairman of Association of Football Agents – and James Lippett – licensed players agent at World In Motion agency – spoke to Sky Sports some weeks ago).
Besides this step, FIFA have already taken action against TPO ownerships. However it took a little while.
In October 2007, Blatter spoke confirming that FIFA would have amended their rules in order to tackle the TPO phenomenon, a common practice since a while already in South America.
It had to take a transfer to the English Premier League to make the football governing body to notice what was already happening in one of the biggest continental organizations (CONMEBOL, the association of football federations of South America).
Furthermore, it took another 7 years for FIFA finally reaching a concrete decision over banning TPO’s.
In brief: the Executive Committee approved to stop TPO’s only in September 2014 and passed the works onto a special working group which finally reached conclusions gathered into circular nr.1464, ‘Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players – third party ownership of players’ economic rights (TPO)’ .
The circular amended article 18bis and introduced article 18ter of the Regulations concerning the players transfers. 18ter introduced the interdiction for clubs and players to enter into agreements with third parties that entitle them to participate in compensation payable for future transfers. The interdiction has already come into force since the 1st of May. At the moment, we’re in a transitional regime for agreements signed before the start of the year, whereas the contracts signed after cannot last more than one year since the date of signing.
What do you think the most clever football agents have been doing during all this time?
Certainly, they were not hands in hands waiting for the ban to tackle their businesses. They started implementing a ‘plan B’ that would offset the consequences of the upcoming ban by simply going round it.
FAÇADE CLUBS TO GO ROUND THE TPO BAN
In order to explain what was the agents' 'plan B', we have contacted Pippo Russo.
Pippo is a journalist, an author and a sociology professor at the Florence University.
He wrote an essential book on the TPO topic, 'Goal di rapina. Il lato oscuro del calcio globale' (it exists only in Italian and could be roughly translated into 'Poacher's goal - the dark side of global football'). In his book Pippo extensively describes and gives examples of how the unlimited business logics applied to the Beautiful Game are completely turning it into something else.
Pippo agreed to explain us why an agent like Mascardi would buy an obscure Spanish club.
'We still don't know if the FIFA ban will be effective,' wants to clarify Pippo about the FIFA's circular nr.1464 we mentioned above 'however, even before it was approved, they started to purchase small clubs.'
Pippo went on illustrating us many examples of this trade of clubs.
In his blog, Cercando Oblivia, he describes many examples: in Portugal, Brazilian group J-Winners bought a majority stake of Leixoes and Argentine agency Goldplayers the 70% of Freamunde; in Spain, Argentine agent Humberto Grondona with partners was trying to buy Girona FC (references for these stories here) and Gustavo Mascardi bought Alcobendas Sport.
Pippo, what is the logics behind it?
It's simple. This way, the investors are freeing themselves from the TPO role. They become owners of clubs and they can handle transfer market policies. That means they can decide if and how much they want to pay as commission fees.
What does this mean for a club purchased by the agents?
It means that they are just stopovers for the football players who are directly under the control of the investors.
The description given by Pippo is exactly the one we received about Frank Liivak from Spain. Spanish sources got in touch with Alcobendas Sport. People at the club confirmed that Frank's playing rights do not belong to the club itself, but to those who acquired the club. However, they stressed this is an off-the-record status.
What happens if they sell the player to another club?
The consequence is that they become two parties in the same bargain: sellers (or buyers, in the other situation) and agents of the same footballer. It is not Liivak's case, however they sometimes can use clubs to make players transit without playing or even reaching physically the club (the case of Gonzalo Higuain's passing through Swiss club, Locarno - edit). It's another passage, another bargain, another round of fees into their pockets.
FUTURE SCENARIO, BETWEEN UPCOMING TRANSFER MARKET AND THE ESTONIAN FA
June is just behind the corner and, with that, also Frank Liivak's expected move to another club.
His words to Postimees were not really appreciated by the Estonian FA president, Aivar Pohlak.
What did Liivak say in the past days? 'Since I represented Estonia only in friendly games,' he told to Postimees.ee 'in the future I might represent Holland.'
The reply from Mr.Pohlak came the day after with the Estonian football head hinting at Liivak's words influenced by the agent(s) behind him.
The reason is obvious in the chairman's speculation we much agree with: trying to get the boy a call-up to the national team for the Euro qualifiers game against San Marino (14th of June) and exploit the international spotlight to offer the player to a better club for next season. 'At the same time, I hope it's not the case,' concluded Pohlak adding that he hopes that Liivak has got trustworthy advisors. Has he?
Pohlak's aversion towards football agents is known, although he operates the same role through a dummy (see short story in the picture box above). He will hardly allow that an agent might influence a national team player to push a call-up to the national team. Even if we are talking about one of the most talented players from the youth ranks.
Unless Alcobendas Sport will earn their right to play in Segunda B through the play-offs (they play on the 24th of May against CD Gerema) we will soon know what Mascardi can really do for Liivak without a national team call-up to boost the player's value.