Geldsporen in de sport

Beeld © Lisa van Casand

The treacherous world of sport transfers: why Stefan de Vrij dumped his agents

Football transfers are a shady business. A player is often in the dark whether his agent is indeed representing him in his contract negotiations, or is representing a football club. Unbeknownst to the players, agents earn millions. The players feel betrayed and badly done by, and all parties accuse one another. ‘There’s a lot of smoke in this transaction.’

Summary

What's this about?

  • Sports Entertainment Group (SEG) is one of the big sports agencies in the world. Forbes recently listed it amongst the twenty ‘most valuable’ companies in the field. SEG manages and represents professional players such as Memphis Depay, Daley Blind and Marten de Roon. The agency, which is Dutch, is run by its owner, Kees Vos.
  • SEG arranges numerous football transfers in Europe. Its part in these negotiations is not always crystal clear: sometimes it acts on behalf of the player, sometimes on behalf of the club he’s transferring to – without telling the player as much. This game of musical chairs creates great uncertainty for the players.
  • Case in point: Dutch international Stefan de Vrij. When his contract with Lazio Roma expired, he moved to Internazionale,free of transfer. Internazionale paid SEG 7.5 miljoen for the transfer. De Vrij believed that SEG represented him, but the agency represented Inter.
  • ‘Players are informed of the negotiations, but are unaware how much commission is paid on the side,’ a former agent claims.

What about the research?

  • This article is based on documents and interviews with SEG owner Kees Vos, former agents, representatives, and lawyers. Some former agents are quoted either anonymously, or have been given pseudonyms because of their contracts or non-disclosure agreements with the company and/or ongoing legal action. Others fear reprisals from SEG. Their names are known to Follow the Money.
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Spanish sports agent Simone Rondanini, in a grey-blue jacket and jeans, taps his foot nervously. An interpreter sits behind him; to his left, his lawyer Roberto Branco Martins. Rondanini has bags under his eyes. 

It’s Monday 19 April, and he has taken an early-morning flight to be at the Amsterdam court hearing. Rondanini is suing his former employer, the Dutch agency Sports Entertainment Group (SEG), which handles football transfers worldwide. He wants to be paid for the work he’s done: at least €216,000.

Kees Vos, the owner of SEG, sits on the opposite side of the courtroom, in a beige tailored suit with a pocket handkerchief. Both parties have repeatedly said they’d rather not be here at all, but negotiations have broken down; there was a ‘delta’ between them that remained ‘unbridgeable’. SEG, in fact, claims that Rondanini owes it €207,000, and moreover, it wants to penalize him for breaches of non-competition and confidentiality. It’s hard to build bridges when the gap is several hundreds of thousands of euros wide.

Rondanini was responsible for SEG’s Spanish operations from October 2014 to the end of 2019. Among others, he was involved in the transfers of Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and Belgian international Thomas Vermaelen.

"Vermaelen, who was free of transfer, signed for 2.5 year. Documents show that Vissel Kobe paid SEG €950,000"

In the summer of 2019, FC Barcelona decided not to renew Vermaelen’s contract. SEG went looking for a new club for him; by then, Vermaelen was free of transfer. In July 2019, SEG brokered a deal with Japan’s Vissel Kobe, and Vermaelen signed a two-and-a-half-year contract. According to documents seen by Follow the Money, Vissel Kobe paid SEG €950,000.

Rondanini was involved in Vermaelen’s transfer as a ‘service agent’. He claims SEG’s role in the deal was dubious. ‘€750,000 was siphoned off from the player,’ Rondanini’s lawyer claims during the hearing. Hence, Rondanini decided not to extend his own contract with SEG. The affair represents ‘a serious difference of views that goes against the core of his own moral and professional values’, his lawyer states.

During that period, Rondanini spoke to SEG owner Kees Vos on the phone and found out exactly how the money was to be ‘siphoned off’. He told Vermaelen about the conversation in order to warn him, which SEG claims was a breach of confidentiality. ‘Rondanini did not share all the information with SEG at the time of the deal,’ SEG’s lawyer tells the judge. ‘That’s disturbing. We have a reputation to maintain, and we can’t have things going on that we don’t know about.’

Kees Vos agrees. ‘All I said in that phone conversation was that if you act as a friend towards clients [players, ed.], you’ll end up empty handed. You need to be businesslike. This sounds like I acted dishonestly for years, it suggests I wasn’t honest. It’s total nonsense to say that €750,000 was siphoned off.’ He looks at his lawyer, who nods briefly.

SEG states that Rondanini’s claim about SEG attempting to divert €750,000 is ‘completely unfounded, false, and defamatory on top’

Since Follow the Money is present in the courtroom, SEG’s lawyer says he ‘doesn’t wish to discuss the matter any further,’ nor does he want the recording of the phone conversation to be played. But the judge does summarise the conversation: according to him, ‘ it boils down to the company not atcing fairly’.

In response to FTM’s questions, SEG states that Rondanini’s claim about SEG attempting to divert €750,000 is ‘completely unfounded, false, and defamatory on top’. ‘SEG was paid for its services according to market standards, and this payment was divided amongst all agents involved, in accordance with the revenue share model previously agreed upon. Nothing untoward took place. In its database, SEG keeps a note from Mr. Rondanini in which he indicates that he has completed the transaction independently. This appears to be inconsistent with the notion that SEG attempted to divert money.’

FTM approached Vermaelen to discuss the matter, but was unsuccessful. A friend says: ‘Thomas really doesn’t want to talk about it. He was very affected, it was extremely difficult for him. Kees Vos had been a witness at his wedding just two years earlier.’

Dossier

Foul play

In professional sports, huge financial interests are at stake. Often, this leads to foul play.

Volg dit dossier

High turnover at SEG 

Just over 500 metres from Amsterdam’s Johan Cruijff ArenA stands the MediaArena, built for media company Endemol, the creator of Big Brother, Deal or no deal, and Peaky Blinders.

 It is also the home of SEG. In a conference room on the fifth floor, Follow the Money meets with Kees Vos and two SEG employees. The walls are lined with competition shirts of Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and Robin van Persie. The latter is one of SEG’s clients. ‘A very satisfied client,’ Vos says, ‘and he’d love to explain to you why.’ About the break-up with Vermaelen, Vos says: ‘That’s a very painful matter. For me – and for him.’

In 2020, Forbes listed SEG as one of the twenty most valuable sports agencies

In the course of twenty years, SEG has become one of the world’s biggest and most prominent sports management agencies. Besides Van Persie – who is now retired – It manages and represents professional footballers such as Memphis Depay, Daley Blind, and Marten de Roon. In 2020, Forbes listed SEG as one of the twenty most valuable sports agencies.

The company’s website used to say that since it was founded, it has ‘built a reputation for reliability and integrity in the football world’.  It claims to be dealing ‘with all the elite clubs in Europe’, but ‘is also active on a local level’. With its ‘unique way of operating, focused on long-term career development’, SEG wants to ‘maximise talent development.’ In the conference room, which overlooks Ajax’s training complex, Vos emphasizes that SEG has started a trajectory to ‘change the football industry for the better’. Vos and his colleagues agree: indeed, ‘there is a lot going on’.

Some of that is going on right under their noses. In the past three years, the turnover of professional footballers at SEG has been significant, according to a data analysis by Follow the Money. High-profile departures include Rick Karsdorp, Stefan de Vrij, Thomas Vermaelen, Marco Bizot, and the German international Robin Gosens. Since 2018, no less than 223 players have left SEG, according to archived pages of Transfermarket’s database. A whopping 40 percent of those left after having been signed only a few years.

The majority of SEG’s agents (mostly freelancers) joined the firm in the course of  the last three years. Since 2018, 41 agents have left. Several took their leave because the work ‘wasn’t what they expected’. A former top agent says: ‘Everything was going great until I discovered that the company wasn’t being transparent.’

The company has four main job titles, according to documents in Follow the Money’s possession. ‘Recruitment agents’ sign up new players, ‘service and player agents’ keep them onboard, ‘club agents and gate openers’ maintain relationships with clubs, and ‘dealmakers’ handle the transactions. Service agents generally receive 10 to 20 percent of the commission, player agents between 35 and 50 percent. SEG itself gets about 40 percent of each commission for every transfer. SEG claims that their percentage is lower.

The dealmakers – which include owner Kees Vos and top agent Jeroen Hoogewerf, who is also present in the conference room – would get involved only when there was big money to be made. ‘If a player becomes good, and represents a certain value, SEG wants to pocket a large share of the money,’ a prominent former agent told us. ‘Only when a player is making big bucks, senior management will step in.’

Nothing out of the ordinary, Vos says: ‘That’s what happens in every company’. ‘People who we’ve asked to leave are badmouthing us. They were asked to resign, he explains, because of the ‘transition period’ which the company had entered. ‘We were changing course, primarily to make matters more transparent. Not everybody was at ease with that.’  

€7.5 million commission

Dutch international Stefan de Vrij has been managed by SEG agent Doniphan Slager since he turned sixteen, when he had already been playing in Feyenoord’s youth development program for six years. Slager – who still works for SEG – visited De Vrij’s parents during the 2008/9 season to get acquainted, and the family took a liking to him. He also took other Feyenoord talents under his wing, including Sven van Beek and Rick van Haaren.

De Vrij joined Feyenoord’s first team in 2010, starting out as a right back but very soon assuming a key role in the centre of the defence. He caught the eye of national coach Louis van Gaal, who debuted him in the Dutch national team two years later. In 2014, he excelled at the World Cup in Brazil, where the Netherlands came third. De Vrij  was voted best defender of the tournament.

That summer, De Vrij transferred to Lazio Roma for four years. His contract had been finalized before the World Cup, when the subtop Italian team had been the only club interested in him. Lazio got a good deal, paying a ‘mere’ €6.5 million for the best defender in the World Cup. Nobody knows how much commission SEG earned, not even De Vrij. According to SEG, De Vrij was properly informed: ‘But we were representing Lazio at the time, not De Vrij,’ Vos explains to Follow the Money.

"De Vrij believes that SEG represents him, SEG claims that De Vrij himself negotiated with Lazio Roma"

The player and his agent became intimate friends, holidaying together and seeing each other at weddings and a funeral. At times, their close friendship causes the footballer to forget that they have a business relationship. De Vrij doesn’t have a written agreement with SEG, for example: why would you need one, when you trust each other?

When De Vrij’s contract with Lazio neared its end in early 2018, negotiations for renewal were difficult. Meanwhile, other clubs were showing an interest in him, including FC Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, FK Zenit Saint Petersburg, and Internazionale. De Vrij is not planning to leave free of transfer, but SEG and Lazio are unable to reach an agreement. De Vrij believes that SEG represents him, SEG claims that De Vrij himself negotiated with Lazio Roma and ‘various other clubs’, ‘but he didn’t arrive at an agreement’.

In February 2018, Lazio’s technical director Igli Tare ended the negotiations by telling La Gazzetta dello Sport that they had reached the ‘limit’. A few days earlier, Tare had said there was ‘a problem with the player’s agents’.

SEG agents gradually steer De Vrij towards top Italian club Internazionale. The transfer is announced in July 2018. According to a document from the Italian football federation, the five-year contract was finalized by Jeroen Hoogewerf, one of SEG’s leading agents.

Things went well for De Vrij at the Italian club. He hit the ground running, and in August 2020 he was named as Serie A’s best defender. But gradually, De Vrij grew suspicious of his agents, because he didn’t received a signing fee.

Inter paid €7.5 million gemoeid for De Vrij, who was free of transfer. That money disappeared into SEG’s pockets, in three installments

De Vrij was a free transfer to Internazionale: since his contract had expired, any other club could sign him without a transfer fee. However, Inter’s 2017/2018 annual report shows that it paid out €7.5 million for him. That money disappeared into SEG’s pockets, in three installments, according to confidential documents seen by Follow the Money. The documents state that SEG only represented the interests of Internationale in this deal – not those of De Vrij. De Vrij discovers this after the deal has been closed.

The same documents show that SEG would be paid €200,000 for every six months that De Vrij would be playing for Internazionale. If he was to transfer elsewhere, the company would receive a 7.5 percent resale fee. Inter’s 2018/19 annual report states that money was paid to agents that season, including those of De Vrij.

According to the documents, SEG’s fee was conditional on two things: De Vrij must sign with Internazionale, and he is not to earn more than €50 million from his five-year contract. SEG negotiated a salary that is significantly lower.

De Vrij knew nothing about the agreement between SEG and Internazionale. The company apparently told him only that it earned a 12 percent commission on his salary, and that the signing fee was incorporated into this salary.

One prominent former agent at SEG – we’ll call him Vex – told Follow the Money: ‘Inter was probably the right choice for De Vrij. But if it hadn’t paid SEG that much money, he wouldn’t have gone there, and SEG would have found another club for him. They paid SEG enough, so that’s where De Vrij went, even if he hadn’t wanted to.’

Another former SEG agent, whom we’ll call Ingo, says of the transfers: ‘What happened was dishonest. There was no transparency towards the players. At the same time the players agreed, because SEG was acting on their behalf. I’m not defending the company, but what they did was permissible. The players agreed to be represented by SEG, and it just cost them commission. The relationship is based entirely on trust: the players thought they could trust their agent, but when it came down to it, they couldn’t.’

FIFA’s regulations for intermediaries clearly state that agents may not represent conflicting interests. Kees Vos is aware of that: ‘We didn’t represent De Vrij, but Inter. He was aware of that.’

De Vrij declined to speak with FTM. Both De Vrij and Vermaelen are no longer represented by SEG.

Greed

Follow the Money spoke with six former SEG agents, located all over Europe. All of them had been enthusiastic when they began their work there. ‘You start this job full of good intentions,’ one told us. ‘At first they seem to be a really decent organization, with ambitions to become the world’s best agent, and who say that they are transparent.’

The company uses a franchise structure: agents work freelance and are paid on commission; they are not employed. Ingo says many agents are not very capable. ‘You can’t really call most of them agents. They’re more like lifestyle agents, people who are crazy about football.’ Other former agents confirm this picture. ‘They come straight out of school, and aren’t really equipped to be agents,’ says one.

So SEG organises so-called ‘intake courses’. ‘They tell you how to do your job as an agent,’ Ingo explains. ‘Call clubs and players every day, make sure you attend youth training sessions. It provides you with a certain mindset.’

 ‘Players are supposed to make the agents’ lives comfortable. That’s SEG’s motto’

The former agents claim this mindset is based primarily on greed. Several note that the work is not about the players. ‘Players are supposed to make the agents’ lives comfortable. That’s SEG’s motto.’ Ingo confirms this: ‘It’s ultimately all about making money. I don’t think it helps either the industry or the players’ development.’

Another ex-agent says: ‘It’s more about quantity than quality’. ‘It’s better to sign ten lower-level players and earn a bit of money, than to hope for the one big break. Don’t spend too much energy on the youth players, because you won’t make anything from them. It’s all about the business.’ Another said: ‘It was just about signing player after player after player, and hoping you’d make a pile of money.’

Vos states that he ‘rejects these assertions vehemently’. ‘SEG commits itself, day in, day out, to promote the interests of the players it represents.’

Transparency

SEG’s agents hold meetings with their players every three months, sharing market feedback and telling them which clubs are interested in them.

‘Players believe the feedback, but half the time it’s made up,’ says one former agent. ‘SEG simply doesn’t have the network it claims to have.’ Vex says that sometimes, the company conjures up this information to keep players quiet. ‘If a player asks whether there’s any interest from other countries, I never knew if the feedback from agents in those countries was reliable. Sometimes it turned out to be fake.’ Another says: ‘SEG pretends to be holding meetings all over the place… but nothing happens.’ SEG denies that feedback is ever conjured up.


Ingo, voormalig SEG-agent

"When you talk to a player, you have to take their mood into account. Lies can sometimes help."

Ingo tries to put this in perspective. ‘When you talk to a player, you have to take their mood into account. Are they going through good times or bad? You ultimately have to be a psychologist, and lies can sometimes help.’

Former agents say other information is regularly withheld from players, including the amount of commissions and signing fees. ‘The players know what’s going on with the negotiations, but not how much commission is negotiated under the table,’ says one. ‘When push comes to shove, and the player finds out, they leave, like Vermaelen and De Vrij did.’ Other ex-agents tell similar stories.

This is how it works, says Ingo. ‘Most players don’t know what commission the agent gets. They’ve signed an agreement, so they know the agent receives a commission. The club pays the agent, but they never get to see the bigger picture.’ SEG denies this vehemently: ‘SEG does not hide commissions from players and we communicate this openly.’

Various former agents say SEG keeps this information secret because it’s trying ‘to get the best deal possible for itself’. ‘If two clubs are interested, and one pays SEG more, the player will always go to that club,’ Vex says. ‘But you should also bear in mind  which club is better for the player. But sometimes that gets forgotten when another club offers more money.’

De Vrij was not allowed to see the contract between Internazionale and SEG. But SEG claims to have shared its contents with De Vrij

In De Vrij’s case, it’s clear that essential information was neer part of the picture – for instance, the contract between Internazionale and SEG. De Vrij was not allowed to see that. ‘That contract is confidential,’ Vos and head legal Jeroen Hoogewerf explain to Follow the Money. But, they claim, its content has most certainly been explained to him, although not on paper. What is on paper, is that SEG represented Internazionale. Hoogewerf shows Follow the Money the Italian document on his computer, that states that SEG is acting on behalf of Inter and that De Vrij is not represented by anybody. The document is signed by De Vrij.

‘There’s a lot of smoke in this transaction,’ says Hoogewerf, ‘but we don’t accept the claim that we have kept this from him on purpose.’

Follow the Money asked FIFA, the international federation of football associations, whether they had ever heard of agents trying to earn commissions, or reaching other agreements, without ‘their’ players’ knowledge. They said they had. ‘During the past years, FIFA has identified a series of worrying trends that have severely affected the transfer market, including the lack of transparency. In particular, FIFA has observed a growing number of abusive practices, widespread conflicts of interests, and a market driven by speculation rather than solidarity and redistribution across the football pyramid.’

In November 2020, FIFA even launched a plan to tighten up the rules for agents and managers. It also consulted FIFPRO, the international federation of professional football players. In the future, FIFA wants to publish details of all commissions earned by agents, and cap these commissions at 3 percent of the player’s salary or 10 percent of the transfer fee. It also wants agents and player managers to comply with stricter rules before acting for a club or player. Additionally, FIFPRO wants that ‘a player must sign off on each and every payment made by the club to the agent and that a player has the right to obtain all documentation that relates to his transfer to a new club.’

FIFA’s plan met with a lot of opposition – mainly from agents and managers.

SEG replies:

All facts and findings have been submitted to the Sports Entertainment Group before publication. Answers given by SEG include the following:

‘In general: SEG does not identify at all with the false and misleading picture painted in this document and distances itself from it entirely. It is clear to SEG that a number of vindictive former SEG agents are attempting to discredit SEG in this way, as they have previously tried to do, by other means. These former agents are competing with SEG and appear to be using FTM to slander SEG and cast doubt on its activities.

With regard to the Internazionale transaction: SEG acted on behalf of Internazionale. There are documents that confirm this, that have also been signed by Stefan de Vrij. These documents were submitted to the Italian Football Federation. Stefan de Vrij was also fully informed of the remuneration received by SEG from Internazionale even though SEG was not obligated to disclose such details to Stefan de Vrij.’

SEG agent Doniphan Slager says that he ‘cannot have acted as player agent’ in De Vrij’s transfer to Internazionale. ‘I have been affiliated as an agent with SEG for 16 years. I fulfil numerous roles for various clients and clubs. At SEG we work in teams. I received less than the percentages that you mention.’ 

SEG continues:

‘In most countries, the player has to co-sign the commission agreement between the club and SEG (dual-representation). We applaud this. SEG does not hide commissions from players, we even communicate them openly. In order to be as transparent as possible, and to prevent misunderstandings of any kind, we have created a so-called “transparency statement” that is signed by both the client and SEG and that, amongst others, openly lists all SEG’s revenues.

Agents leaving, or being asked to take their leave, may indeed be related to a difference in (future) expectations. A lack of transparency within the company does not seem to be the cause, as we work in teams, various agents are engaged with a transaction, and all information is shared via our database.

For each transaction, we assess who is best suited to assist the client, taking into account the different roles and expertise within SEG. In all cases, the total commission is divided according to the formula agreed upon among all agents. A transfer is more complex than, for instance, a labour contract.This is because (at least) 3 parties are involved (current club – player – signing club). This requires a certain level of expertise and experience. We can confirm that Kees Vos and Jeroen Hoogewerf sometimes partake, when their attention is desirable.’

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Comments by FIFA and FIFPRO

FIFA:

‘During the past years, FIFA has identified a series of worrying trends that have severely affected the transfer market, including the lack of transparency. In particular, FIFA has observed a growing number of abusive practices, widespread conflicts of interests, and a market driven by speculation rather than solidarity and redistribution across the football pyramid.

In light of the above, FIFA is in the process of reforming the football regulatory framework, of which agents are an essential part. After a lengthy and comprehensive consultation process which started in 2018, FIFA shared a draft of its Football Agent Regulations in November 2020 with relevant football stakeholders to coincide with the start of the third and final stage of the consultation process. This process is still ongoing, and all feedback received is already being, or will be, taken into account and may result in changes to the draft regulations.

All in all, the regulations seek to introduce basic service standards to the relationship between a football agent and their client, and reinforce the duty of loyalty that exists in all types of agent-client relationships.

Some of the key proposed measures include:

  • The reintroduction of a mandatory licensing system and continuing professional development to be able to provide football agent services, which will include the obligation to meet character requirements, mainly to protect the football industry from individuals that have been convicted of serious criminal charges or other serious wrongdoings;
  • The establishment of a cap on percentage based commissions particularly to avoid abusive practices;
  • The limitation of multiple representation primarily to avoid conflicts of interests;
  • The payment of all commissions to agents through the newly created FIFA Clearing House mainly to guarantee better financial transparency;
  • The establishment of an effective FIFA dispute resolution system to address potential disputes between agents, players and clubs; and
  • The publication of all agent-related work in transfers, including the amount of transfers and commissions paid, to increase financial transparency, improve the credibility of the transfer system and support the implementation of the new regulations.

As part of the new regulations, and precisely to provide more transparency, FIFA will also publish an online agent directory on legal.fifa.com, including the contact details of all licensed agents and their respective companies, thus enabling all players to check whether a certain individual is a licensed agent or not.’

FIFPRO:

  • Is it common in the soccer industry for agencies to not be transparent about the amount of commission they earn?

‘We do not have any statistics on this, but believe that it is not uncommon, especially outside the big 5 markets. Remarkably, the current international football regulations do provide for an obligation for clubs to disclose to their National Associations the full details of agreed payments to an agent, yet there is no similar obligation for a club and/or agent to disclose the agreed payments to the player.’

  • What is FIFPRO's opinion on agencies who are not transparent to players about the commission they receive?

‘We believe it is very important that a player is informed about the commission a club pays to an agent. The player must be able to determine whether the commission paid to the agent is proportional to the remuneration and benefits the agent negotiated for him and thus whether the agent has looked out for the best interest of the player.’

  • What is FIFPRO's take on the lack of transparency of commissions earned by agencies?

‘FIFPRO was invited to provide input for the new Agent Regulations that FIFA is preparing. Points that we have raised are, amongst others, that a player must sign off on each and every payment made by the club to the agent and that a player has the right to obtain all documentation that relates to his transfer to a new club.’

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