Saturday, July 07, 2007

An Amusing Debacle

The really amusing thing in the whole Tevez transfer saga is not the obvious bit about what the hell Fergie is thinking in trying to sign a Rooney clone while simultaneously attempting to hawk his only real striker (Saha) and integrate two other attacking midfielders (Anderson and Nani), though - come to think of it - that is pretty funny.

No, the amusing thing is watching West Ham flail around trying to explain how, exactly, they have a legal right to the proceeds of the sale of Carlos Tevez when they didn't pay a cent for him in the first place.

To recap: on August 31, 2006, just hours before the transfer deadline, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, who had both been linked with just about all of Europe's top clubs after the World Cup, suddenly signed for, of all teams, West Ham. For sheer improbability, one has to imagine ...well, you know how unlikely it was that Ric Ocasek ever managed to pull Paulina Porizkova? OK, now imagine that he also managed to simultaneously hook up with Angelina Jolie - that kind of level of improbability.

Both had been playing for Corinthians, a team to which they had been lured from Argentina by a rather obscure 35 year-old operator by the name of Kia Joorabchian, an Iranian-Canadian-British entrepreneur who had set up a company called Media Sports Investment (MSI) three years previously. (see here for Brazilian journalist Rafael Maranhao's intriguing account of this transaction)

MSI had bought Corinthians in 2004, amidst much speculation that Joorabchian, who had connections to super-agent Pini Zahavi and exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, was in fact a front for Roman Abramovich, whose connections to both Zahavi and Berezovsky are well-documented. Fired on by Tevez, Corinthians did well at first, but by the time of the World Cup they were languishing mid-table and fan unrest grew. At this point, Joorabchian bailed on Corinthians, but remained owner of the Tevez and Mascherano's contracts.

Joorabchian went looking for a foothold in English football, and, rather belying the theory that he was and Abramovich front, decided to try to buy West Ham. Tevez and Mascherano, who signed 4- and 5-year deals, respectively, for absolutely no transfer fee whatsoever, were in effect collateral "down payments" on this proposed deal - but when Joorabchian couldn't stump up the rest of the required cash, renowned Icelandic biscuit-maker and haberdasher's nightmare Eggert Magnusson snuck in and bought the club instead.

This is where it gets complicated. According to Premier League head Richard Scudamore, former West Ham CEO Paul Aldridge told him that "a gentleman's agreement existed that West Ham would release the two players for a modest fee if the takeover did not take place". Why this did not happen is not clear, but their limited effectiveness and subsequent benchings in October may have lessened their re-sale value and prompted Jorabchian to bide his time until their value rose again.

The Premier League inquiry found that while Tevez's sporting contract with West Ham was entirely legitimate, they contained clauses which basically said that West Ham may not transfer either player, that their economic rights were held by Joorabchian, and that Joorabchian could reclaim their playing rights from West Ham for the sum of 2 million pounds. In other words, anyone who wanted to negotiate directly with Joorabchian could do so, and he could yank Tevez from West Ham for the sum of 2M. It was this clause, and West Ham's cover-up thereof, which earned West Ham the wrist-slapping fine of 5.5 million pounds.

(Anyone wanting to read the full transcript of the League's judgment - a surprisingly readable document - can do so here).

OK, so then West Ham claim to have complied with league rules by "tearing up" the third-party relationship. One would have thought that it takes two to tango and that Joorabchian would have had to agree to this for it to be legal, but not West Ham, apparently. They seem to think that since those clauses were legally unenforceable anyway (restraint of trade, etc.), they could do what they wanted. This seems like expropriation to me, but what do I know?

Then comes news that ManU want to do a deal. But who to deal with? West Ham or Joorabchian? Man U went with the latter and appear to have signed a two-year loan deal worth 6 million pounds. However, West Ham claim they own the player since he is registered with them and that the third-party deal is no longer in force. The Premier League, having withstood a legal attack from Sheffield United for not having awarded a points deduction to the Hammers for the whole fiasco (a decision which effectively cost the Blades another year in the Premiership), is now in effect honour-bound to support the West Ham position - to do anything else would be to admit that they failed to do due diligence in the first place.

Despite breaking the story four days ago, it is only today that the Mail managed to spell out exactly how bad the ownership mess is. The League says any fee must go to West Ham, not Joorabchian. Since turnabout is fair play, the latter is now threatening to hand over incriminating documents to Sheffield United to bolster its high court case against the Premier League. FIFA, despite being much more comfortable with third-party contracts than the Premier League, are going to come down like a ton of bricks on this - resolving sporting matters by recourse to the civil courts is the kind of thing that has got other FAs thrown out of FIFA, which has inevitably nasty implications for minor things like Euro 2008 qualifiers as a FIFA ban is effectively a ban on all international competitions.

So, to sum up - the Scottish coach of an American-owned team bidding for an Argentinian player, who came to East London via Brazil courtesy of an Iranian/Canadian to play for a team owned by Icelanders has the potential to interfere with England's journey to a Swiss/Austrian-hosted European championships.

Is this a great sport, or what?

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