LONDON — During the Nineties the Football Association launched what was to be a four-year inquiry into alleged “bungs” — dodgy transfer dealings where various middle men, ranging from agents to club managers and chairmen, were alleged to have benefited illegally.
The bungbusters team interviewed countless people, examined enough paperwork to empty a rain forest, went through financial transactions and bank accounts and found . . . nothing.
Well, not quiet nothing. A former assistant manager no longer in the game and a chief scout were the only two guilty people the four-year investigation could come up with for minor indiscretions.
George Graham, the former Arsenal manager, was sacked and suspended for receiving money but he was not caught out by the authorities. An investigative journalist revealed Graham had received what the Scot thought was an unsolicited gift from an agent — a thank you for help and assistance though those in high places did not see it quite like that.
But the exhausting inquiry nailed nobody of note and nobody for anything earth-shattering.
With this in mind we can assume one of two things: that English football is, in fact, just about as clean as a whistle — or else the people involved are so good at covering their tracks that finding proof of any impropriety is almost impossible. You do not have to phone a friend before you answer the question.
Yes, it goes on. Yes, it is lucrative. But like so many criminal activities, knowing and proving are two very different matters.
The F.A. through its compliance unit is once more on the trail of those who take a fistful of dollars — sometimes about 10 very large fistfuls — from transfer fees involving overseas players.
It is a worthy exercise because football needs its money to stay in house rather than helping to build a mansion somewhere for a third party. The main problem the bungbusters face is that the people who could supply any incriminating evidence are also the ones who have become millionaires on the back of backhanders.
What is undeniable is that there have been some very unlikely foreign players joining English clubs over the past 10 years. Clubs in the Premiership and Football League claimed domestic players had been priced out of the market which is why they looked elsewhere in Europe or South America. No other reason.
Yet a lot of money has been paid for very little in too many cases and while managers over the years have been guilty of wasting cash on homegrown players, suspicions are raised when Carlos Kickaball (as former Spurs chairman Sir Alan Sugar memorably tagged a fictitious footballer) makes maximum money with minimal impact.
Aston Villa is currently under the F.A.’s microscope though there is no suggestion any employees of the club past or present have done anything illegal.
There is, however, a suspicion that in some of the deals under investigation agents acted for both the buying and selling clubs which is strictly forbidden under FIFA regulations.
Another problem is that sons of some Premiership managers and directors are FIFA registered agents and while there is nothing illegal about this, acting for a player joining your father’s club is bound to raise eyebrows because of a possible conflict of interest.
The three players at the center of the F.A.’s Aston Villa investigations are Juan Pablo Angel (£9.5 million from River Plate), Bosko Balaban (£6 million from Dinamo Zagreb) and Turkish World Cup defender Alpay (£5.6 million from . . . well, no one seems absolutely certain).
Around £4 million of the £9.5 million for Angel — the fee of £8.75 million was increased by £750,000 because of agents’ payments — Villa paid River Plate seems to be unaccounted for.
Of the £8.75 million, £1.3 million should have been paid to Angel, the Colombian striker, under Argentine rules which guarantee players 15 percent of any deal.
A further two percent — £175,000 — should have been paid to the Argentine F.A. players’ fund. Of the money left over, £2 million should have gone to Nacional where Angel began his career and £2 million to agent Gustavo Mascardi.
In 1998, Mascardi visited Medellin in Colombia and negotiated with the directors of Nacional to buy Angel, then a promising young striker — a practice Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, calls “an expensive slave trade.”
Mascardi secured a loan deal for Angel to River Plate and then persuaded the Argentine club to buy out half his share in the player for around £1.5 million.
The pay day would come if and when Angel joined a European club but Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman, was not happy that the contract stated River Plate owned 50 percent of the player, Mascardi 25 percent and Nacional the rest.
The deal almost fell through and an unhappy Taylor wrote to the English F.A. about it. Eventually the transfer went through with all the £8.75 million being paid to River Plate though around half of this sum has yet to be fully traced.
Balaban, now back on loan at Dinamo with Villa still paying much of the striker’s wages of around £20,000 a week, made eight substitute appearances for the Midlands side.
Again, questions are being asked where all the money from the £6 million fee went. The agents involved say everything is above board and John Gregory, the Villa manager at the time, was not involved in the financial transactions.
Alpay was on loan to Fenerbahce when he joined Villa in July 2000. His registration was held by a club called Siirt Jetpaspor run by Fadil Akgunduz who faces unrelated charges of fraud and money laundering in Turkey.
Pini Zahavi, the Israeli agent paid by Villa for his part in the transfer, said: “Alpay belonged to Siirt Jetpaspor and the club was owned by Akgunduz. I had never met him before until he came to England for negotiations.”
The suspicion is that Alpay was effectively the property of Akgunduz — good luck to the bungbusters on this one.
At the end of the last investigation a member of the inquiry team told me that they had traced money from one transfer to a bank account in Switzerland, but the trail suddenly went cold. A dead end — so near yet so far.
Bent businessmen and leaders of certain third world countries have made siphoning away billions of dollars into private bank accounts into an art form.
Crime, sadly, does pay and whatever may or may not be going on with football transfers, proving it is likely to be more difficult than the challenge King Canute attempted.