Inside the world of the men making millions from football transfers
Read more at our Football Leaks page
On 20 January 20 2014, football intermediary Nelio Lucas celebrated his 35th birthday in a lavish manner. Close to his offices in central London, in a former 19th-century church in the plush area of Mayfair, Lucas hosted 118 guests in evening dress for a dinner and dance party that lasted into the early hours.
The cost of the evening came to 195,000 Euro, which he settled from his account in Lichtenstein.
The event, to which were invited friends and business partners, was more a demonstration of strength than a birthday celebration.
Present were Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and Miguel Angel Gil, CEO of Atlético de Madrid, who put aside their sporting rivalry to toast Lucas’s good health.
Also attending the event were Milan AC vice-president Adriano Galliani and his daughter, who Lucas’s company Doyen Sports Investments had recently hired, Inter Milan’s sporting director as well as the directors of English club Fulham, Portuguese side Sporting and Spanish club Sevilla, and also the son of the president of Portuguese club Porto.
Members of the elite of the world of football sat alongside oligarchs from the former Soviet Union (including the owners of Doyen Sports), Swiss tax lawyers specialized in offshore structures, and intermediaries like the former agent Luciano d’Onofrio, with a criminal record for corruption.
Players managed by Lucas’s firm were also at the party, including Barcelona forward Neymar, his then team-mate Xavi Hernández, and Chelsea defender David Luiz.
Nelio Lucas had good reason to feel pleased with himself. In the space of less than three years, this businessman little known to the wider public had steered Doyen Sports Investment into one of the biggest investment funds in European football. The media had begun to compare him to the leading football agent Jorge Mendes, also Portuguese.
An advisor to clubs, who also acted as an agent and intermediary, Lucas manages the marketing of football superstars David Beckham and Neymar, the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, and the AS Monaco football club. But the speciality of Doyen Sports was the trade in Third-Party Ownership (TPO) of footballers, a decried system whereby a player’s economic rights are owned in stakes by investors.
Doyen had invested more than 100 million Euro in TPO deals up until the practice was outlawed by football’s governing body, Fifa - whose president Gianni Infantino likened the system to “modern slavery” - in May 2015.
Documents contained in Football Leaks, obtained by German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, and transferred to the journalistic collective European Investigative Collaborations (EIC), reveal, for the first time, the dark side of Doyen Sports, which features shell companies in Malta and the United Arab Emirates, vast secret commissions to assist with player transfers, false billing and backdated contracts signed by frontmen.
The company, which has prospered from such methods amid wide indifference, is the symbol of a reality far removed from what goes on on the pitch. It is that of a transfer business resembling a cattle market, except that its yearly value reaches four billion Euro. It is a trade where scruples have long been jettisoned in the quest for riches.
The story of Doyen Sports begins with an improbable encounter between Nelio Lucas, the son of a Portuguese family of modest means and the son of a Kazakh businessman.
Lucas studied marketing communication and international politics in California, where he joined an agency representing showbusiness stars.
“I looked after Mariah Carey, I’ve been road manager for Bruce Springsteen,” he told French daily Libération in October 2015.
In the early 2000s he returned to Europe, where he ran foul of the law, picking up fines for tax evasion, driving without a licence and issuing a rubber cheque. In London he began working for a successful Israeli football agent, Pini Zahavi, who taught him the trade, before the two men eventually fell out. Lucas managed a modelling agency before he was eventually hired to launch Doyen Sports.
The owners of Doyen Sports Investment are four brothers from Kazakhstan who are now based in the Turkish city of Istanbul, and who made their fortune notably in the business of raw materials. In 2011, the Arif brothers created a London branch of their Doyen group, including a sports division. Arif Arif, the then 25-year-old son of Tevfik Arif, one of the four brothers, was given the job of managing the London business, running the newly-created Doyen Sports alongside the recruited Nelio Lucas.
Lucas and Arif appeared to get on well together, both ambitious and hungry to make money. “Imagine us in ten years. Inshallah kings,” Arif wrote to Lucas. “Don’t forget our lemma: together forever on good and bad. We will succeed and we will become billionaires,” Lucas told Arif. On his path to reach that goal, Lucas bought himself a Bentley for 72,000 Euro and a yacht for 3.5 million Euro.
The two young men travelled together to football matches, to plush London restaurants and enjoyed trips to Ibiza, Italy and the French Riviera where they stayed in the luxury villa of the Arif family in Antibes. In 2013, Arif Arif went househunting in London. “Found a real nice one,” he told Lucas. “Want to show you. Tailor made for orgies.” To which Lucas replied: “Oh yes !!!”
At Halloween, Lucas was dithering between wearing a disguise as pope, Napoleon or Louis XV. “For me the dictator,” Arif told him.
Their text message exchanges on WhatsApp suggest that for them, football players are merely cash cows. In 2014, Arif lists to Lucas his player clients playing in that year’s World Cup in Brazil. “Mangala, Promes, Defour, Januzaj, Xavi, Falcao, Rojo, Negredo, de Gea… Doyen Sports niggas going to World Cup! ”
When Neymar’s Brazil team qualified for the semi-finals, Arif wrote to Lucas: “Neymar bitch. Nigga making us money.”
The comments about players turned particularly nasty if a footballer chose his own interests before those of Doyen Sports. One such case was that of Moroccan player Abdel Barrada, in who Doyen Sports had a 60 per cent TPO stake. In 2013, the midfielder left Getafe, a club close to Madrid, for United Arab Emirates side Al-Jazira. It appeared that for Lucas, the 3.35 million Euro that Doyen received from the transfer – equivalent to twice it paid for its TPO stake two years earlier – was a disappointment.
He wrote to Arif: “We couldn’t control him more. […] If the player had listen to me I will get more… but fucking muslim.”
It was a similar story with Colombian striker Radamel Falcao who, also in the summer of 2013, moved from Atlético Madrid to Monaco, a transfer managed by his agent Jorge Mendes. The transfer fee was 43 million Euro, which earned Doyen, with a 33 per cent stake in the player, a profit of 5.3 million Euro. But Lucas had apparently hoped for greater returns from Falcao.
“He went to Monaco that fuck,” he wrote Arif, before insulting the Colombian player’s mother and concluding: “His career is finished. […] He will end up paying taxes in France.”
For Doyen Sports Investment, it would appear that tax is a most unpleasant word. The company is based in Malta, giving it a respectable European Union base while also offering the appealing compromise of a clement tax regime and business secrecy.
Nelio Lucas owns two offshore companies registered there, hidden behind front names. One of them is WGP, which holds the 20 per cent in Doyen Sports, which were offered to him by the Arif family. The second, called Vela and which has a bank account in Liechtenstein, handles the yearly 900,000 Euro that remunerate Lucas and his colleagues. The Portuguese also has an account with the Crédit Suisse bank in Zurich. The reason, in his own words, is “in order for nobody to disclose nothing about us”.
Nelio Lucas was offered a 20 per cent stake in Doyen Natural Resources, one of the group’s Panama companies which it owns via a shell company in the British Virgin Islands. When he was not buying into footballers, Lucas travelled to negotiate mining deals in Brazil, Sierra Leone and Angola, three countries steeped in corruption.
“Do you thing I should bribe them???” he asked Arif in one message about his dealings in Brazil. “Yes bro,” came the reply. The business deal collapsed apparently after the other party tried to bribe Lucas.
But the speciality of Lucas was above all TPO deals. Doyen Sports acted like a sort of usurer in the world of football, obtaining prohibitive interest rates for clubs in financial crisis and which are forced to sell their team jewels.
The system was that Doyen Sports would buy from a club a stake in a player, in the hope that he would rapidly be sold on at a good profit for Doyen Sports, who received a proportionate share of the transfer fee paid by the new club. Officially, Doyen Sports has no influence over transfer decisions, as stipulated in Fifa rules. But in practice, it was otherwise.
Almost every means was worth employing for Doyen Sports to clinch a deal. In August 2013, Lucas organised a sex party in Miami in an attempt to convince Real Madrid boss Florentino Perez to buy Geoffrey Kondogbia in which Doyen Sports had invested a stake.
On 14 occasions between March 2014 and September 2015, Lucas shuttled around pretty young women from Minsk, Moscow and Saint Petersburg to help with business deals, the plane tickets paid by his offshore company Vela. Some of the women were models. Another, whose first name is Kateryna, boasts on her Twitter account that she is a “Beautiful woman - a paradise for the eyes, hell for the mind and purgatory for the pockets”.
Excepting the case of a pair of women brought to Ibiza for two days of partying, Lucas used the female company exclusively on business trips. Some joined him for Champions League matches, such as the semi-final in April 2014 between Real Madrid-Bayern Munich at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu home stadium. The women also accompanied him on business trips to Madrid, Barcelona, Brussels and Athens.
One of the trips, in the late summer of 2015, was particularly profitable. On 26 August 2015, Lucas travelled to Madrid with a blonde-haired woman called Sabina for the signing of the transfer of Spanish midfielder Asier Illarramendi from Real Madrid to Real Sociedad. Five days later, Sabina travelled to Marseille with Lucas and the Portuguese defender Rolando Fonseca, where he was to be transferred from Portuguese club Porto.
Did Lucas seek the company of the women for his personal interest? Do they help bolster his status during negotiations? Or are they placed at the disposition of his business partners, as in the case of Miami with the president of real Madrid? He would not reply.
While Nelio Lucas appears to have no trouble finding the women, Arif Arif meanwhile appeared to be a compulsive client of prostitutes, including one he described as an “18 year old blonde, so tender and fresh”.
In one message to a Doyen Sports staff member he wrote:
“Buy a million of those birth control pills. The 72 hours. They don’t sell them in London unless you go with the girl.”
The subject of prostitutes is openly discussed by the two Doyen Sports managers: “It would be nice if you can get me those 2500 GBP, I paid the bitches!!!” wrote Lucas to Arif in July 2013.
There is of course nothing illegal in associating with prostitutes. But Arif Arif appears keen to bring them from east Europe, via two intermediaries, one of whom is a cousin. In exchanges on the subject, he carefully uses the words “footballers” and “players”, as in this message: “Organise footballers now. Don't fucking waste time, we're gonna end up like last night with nothing!!!!”
That was replied to three hours later with a photo of one woman. The intermediary informs him that he is going to take part in a “big casting this weekend” organised by Russian gas-producing giant Gazprom.
Did Arif Arif use his network to find the women who Lucas used in his business dealings?
The Arif family would not answer questions. Through their lawyers, the family told the European Investigative Collaborations and partner Der Spiegel that: "Essential parts of your questions are based on untrue assumptions and/or concern issues, which are protected by the personal rights of the named persons."
As of the autumn of 2013, Nelio Lucas decided to use funds hidden in three shell companies based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), including the capital Abu Dhabi and Ras al-Khaimah.
Doyen Sports was to pump 10.8 million Euro of secret commissions into the companies, called Denos, Rixos and PMCI. The documents contained in the Football Leaks dossiers, do not reveal to whom the money was destined at the end of the chain, but they provide several clues.
The first of the major deals concerned by the commissions involved Belgian international and Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj.
In February 2014, Doyen Sports bought half of the company that managed Januzaj’s image rights, for a payment of 1.5 million Euro, and a second payment of 500,000 Euro that transited via Denos with a false “consulting” contract and a false invoice. In an email sent by Lucas, this was described as “pay Januzaj“, in what appeared to be a move to give the player a bonus payment through offshore structures.
On 22 May 2014, a lawyer representing Januzaj wrote to a female colleague of Lucas to complain: “The payment is not yet received. […] Now the father is really getting nervous.”
In the summer of 2014, the system became more frequent. Lucas demanded that ten per cent of profits from each player transfer should be paid into Denos in Dubai. The first secret commission payment, of 1.3 million Euro, concerned the sale to Monaco in the summer of 2013 of French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia and also Colombian forward Radamel Falcao.
Lucas would explain that the transfer was to pay “people that we need to compensate” and who “could not provide or didn't want to provide paperwork”. He added that he had promised the recipients this but that they were losing patience waiting to receive the payments.
“We can't delay more,” he wrote. “It's costing us other deals and is destroying my good name.” Arif Arif had wanted to know more about the identities of the recipients but his father, Tevfik Arif, one of the four brothers who control the Doyen group, told him “to stay out of it”.
Tevfik Arif ordered his accountants to release the money, despite their concern that no contracts were submitted.
“He’s playing dirty because we are,” wrote Tevfik Arif. “[…] But the payments he owes will not go anywhere either.”
One month later, the secret funds would serve to oil a major operation. In August 2014, English club Manchester City bought French central defender Eliaquim Mangala from Portuguese club FC Porto for 45 million Euro, which was an all-time record for a defender. It was also to provide Doyen Sports with its most profitable return on a TPO investment. With a 33 per cent stake in Mangala, Doyen Sports earned ten million Euro in the deal, which was four times the price they paid for the stake.
Then, on 2 September, just five days after receiving the money, Lucas wrote to Doyen’s banker to arrange that two million Euro be transferred on to shell company PMCI in Abu Dhabi. That represented 20 per cent of the profit made on the transfer of Eliaquim Mangala, twice the usual ten per cent that was siphoned off abroad.
As justification for the bank transfer, Lucas sent to the Doyen banker an unsigned contract according to which PMCI had carried out consultancy work for Mangala’s transfer. Once more, the beneficiary of the sum remains a mystery.
Franco-Algerian midfielder Yacine Brahimi grew up in France and began his senior career with Rennes before later moving on loan to Spanish club Granada in 2012, signing a permanent deal with the Spaniards in 2013.
In the summer of 2014, Portuguese side Porto announced that it had bought the player for 6.5 million Euro. In reality, Brahimi cost the Portuguese 9.5 million Euro, of which eight million Euro was paid for by Doyen Sports in exchange for an 80 per cent stake in the player.
Doyen Sports had in all secrecy bought up the stake in Brahimi of another investor, which avoided a commission payment for Rennes which, according to Lucas, had “a share in the profit of the future transfer”. Porto paid a commission of 500,000 Euro into the account of Doyen Sports shell company Denos, in Dubai. Because Lucas did not have an agent’s licence it was his colleague Juan Manuel Lopez who signed the contract papers.
The following year, on 29 July 2015, Lucas organised the secret payment of 1.5 million Euro for Brahimi, via Denos.
“Brahimi is our priority even because it might happen a deal this summer!” wrote Lucas. The nature of the deal was unclear. A few days later, on 4 August, Lucas was concerned that the process of payment was taking too long. “Is this paid?” he wrote. “Need that swift today […] Player wants to speak with club and will be embarrassing for me.”
The money was finally transferred on 10 August. One month later, Brahimi successfully renegotiated his contract with Porto and which concluded in the club buying up his image rights for four million Euro.
Lucas received 500,000 Euro in a commission payment from Porto, which was sent into Lucas’s Maltese-registered company Vela via its Liechtenstein bank account. Vela was also given a mandate for the future sale of Brahimi, along with a 10 per cent commission on whatever sum that would be for. It was a quite extraordinary situation given that Lucas headed Doyen Sports which itself owned an 80 per cent stake in Brahimi.
The Brahimi deal was not the only example of how Lucas would do business in his own name as well as that of Doyen Sports, via his shell company Vela, in which his name is never apparent. Because he did not have a Fifa agent’s licence, which was necessary until 2015, he used front men, including three business colleagues who in parallel work as agents.
On 20 August 2014, Maltese Fifa-licensed football agent Kevin Caruana, now working on the island in the financial sector, wrote to Doyen Sports to propose his professional services after he had seen the company was registered in Malta.
His proposition arrived with perfect timing for Lucas was on the point of receiving a 1.6-million Euro commission for his role in the transfer of Spanish defender Alberto Moreno from Spanish side Sevilla to English club Liverpool. Lucas needed a frontman agent to sign the contract on Vela’s behalf.
Lucas’s lawyer was concerned about involving Caruana. “We don’t know who this person is, he didn’t participate in the operation, and we don’t understand the presence of another person who is not Nelio,” he wrote. Lucas was under pressure to sign the contract himself. Meanwhile, Sevilla refused to pay the commission into Vela’s Liechtenstein account because the Spanish tax authorities had black-listed the principality.
Lucas concluded that he would have to use his Swiss bank account with Crédit Suisse, but he was concerned. “But what will be the tax implication for me?” he asked, in a message to his Swiss financial affairs advisor who managed Lucas’s offshore structures. “Also not sure if good idea to disclose my account,” he added. The expert replied: “As long as you do so and do not use a UK account I do not envisage problems. Obviously if you use the money from your account […] it will be difficult to argue towards the tax authorities that it is not your money.”
For Doyen Sports, it appears there is no profit that was to be overlooked. Porto defender Sergio de Oliveira was released on a free transfer by his club to move to a modest Portuguese side. But in January 2015, shortly after Doyen Sports had begun representing the player, Porto decided to ask him back with Doyen Sport’s financial help. The process was steeped in a conflict of interests, because Doyen Sports was Sergio de Oliveira’s agent, also holding a 25% stake in the player which it had bought for 500,000 Euro from Porto, while Lucas was paid a 300,000 Euro commission as agent for Porto.
Because Portuguese law prohibits a person or company from representing more than one party in a transfer deal, Lucas turned to the Maltese Kevin Caruana who signed for the 300,000 Euro-commission (to be paid via Vela). Caruana was paid 2,000 Eurp for his services. Shortly afterwards, Caruana wrote to Lucas to ask him to “introduce me to the Porto people”, the very same people he was officially supposed to have done business with in the Sergio de Oliveira deal.
Lucas’s wealth and networking opened doors even in countries where the practice of TPO had always been outlawed, such as in France. Doyen Sports has had a good working relationship with Monaco, which in 2014 gave it the mission of finding new marketing contracts for the club in exchange for a ten per cent commission on the deals. Lucas also had excellent relations with Vincent Labrune, who from 2011 until July this year was president of Marseille football club.
“In 2014, I had many meetings with [French] League 1 clubs,” Lucas told French daily Libération in October last year. "They came to me to find solutions. I hear [Lyon] chairman Jean-Michel Aulas criticised investment funds. But Lyon is one of those clubs […] Vincent Ponsot [Lyon club director] sent me a thousand messages to tell me that Aulas wanted to meet me.”
Fifa’s move to ban TPO deals, which would take effect in May 2015, was naturally unwelcome for Doyen Sports. The ban prevents anyone other than clubs from holding a stake in a player’s economic rights.
“These cocksuckers want to bash third party ownership continually,” wrote Arif Arif of journalists critical of the TPO system. In November 2014, one month before Fifa representatives were to vote over the then proposed ban on TPO deals, there was a rush of activity at Doyen Sports. Lucas sent a note out to his staff insisting on the urgency to do deals while time allowed, citing three players, one Brazilian and two Spanish, in who he wanted to buy a stake.
“It’s now coming a moment that will affect badly our business as deals as we been doing are probably going to be forbidden,” he wrote. “[…] So we should focus in make new deals now, THE MAXIMUM WE CAN.”
After the Fifa ban was introduced in May 2015, which began with a transitional period, Lucas attempted in vain to buy on his personal account 25 per cent of French midfielder Gilbert Imbula during the latter’s transfer from Marseille to Porto. Doyen Sports, meanwhile, tried buying into players in lower divisions.
In November 2015, six months after the Fifa ban came into effect, Doyen Sports bought stakes in two players with Spanish second division side Cadix, at a total cost of 1.5 million Euro. The partners to the deal agreed a clause by which the sale of the stakes purchased would be validated only if and when the Fifa ban was overturned. Until then, the money that was paid served as a loan.
Because only clubs are now allowed to hold a stake in players, Lucas turned to buying a stake in clubs, with the aim of again taking a cut in a transfer fee when the club sells a player. In July 2015, he attempted to buy a stake in Spanish club Granada via one of the Dutch companies at his service in what he referred to as a tax-free environment.
“I have to close urgently with Granada and I need the structure,” Lucas wrote to his lawyers on 15 July 2015. In the end, the Spanish club preferred a deal with Chinese investors.
Lucas also became involved with a protracted attempt by Thai financier Bee Taechaubol to invest in Italian club AC Milan. After months of talks, in May 2015 Taechaubol appeared on the cusp of buying out 48 per cent owned by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Fininvest company.
Taechaubol appointed Doyen Sports as an advisor for the deal. It appears likely that Doyen Sports’ involvement was the result of Lucas’s friendship with Adriano Galliani, the club’s vice-president, and whose daughter is employed by Doyen Sports. On 10 June 2015, Taechaubol published a photo on his Instagram account showing Lucas and Galliani shaking hands in a private jet, alongside the caption: “Building together under the guidance of the President.”
But the deal eventually fell through. For even though Bee Taechaubol insists he remains in the bidding, Berlusconi this summer agreed to sell the club to a Chinese investment group in a deal yet to be finalised.
In November 2015, Football Leaks published details of a TPO deal struck between Doyen Sports and Dutch club FC Twente. The revelation of the underhand agreement resulted in the club being banned by the Dutch football association from European competitions for three years, while the club was also handed a 170,000Eeuro fine by Fifa.
Meanwhile, Doyen Sports has mounted legal challenges to the TPO ban, which have so far failed.