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Monthly Archives: November 2016

How West Ham’s Transfer Scandal Upended English Soccer

Richard Scudamore, the Premier League’s chief executive, was in a hurry as he took a cab to West Ham’s Upton Park stadium in a scruffy part of East London in the first week of September 2006. The club had its heyday in the 1960s, when it produced a string of talented young players. It was in the era before the transfer market took off, when commercialism had yet to take hold in the game. In 1964, the club’s manager, Ron Greenwood, had wrapped the F.A. Cup trophy in cloth and taken it home on a London Tube train after the Hammers had beaten Preston North End in the final. Two years later, three members of his team — Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters — helped England win the World Cup, snapping the dominance of Pelé and Brazil.

However, West Ham had dropped out of the Premier League in 2003, the same year that Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and — although it returned two years later and continued to produce talented players — it did not have the financial clout to compete with the biggest English clubs. Its latest generation of talented players — such as Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole — had one by one left for bigger-spending clubs. The club’s song, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” featuring the line “fortune’s always hiding,” was now more apt than ever.

Scudamore’s car made its way down Green Street, where pie-and-mash restaurants stand next to shops selling Indian saris and samosas. Scudamore darted out of the car and strode into the club’s offices to be welcomed by the team’s managing director, Paul Aldridge, who apologized for the absence of the owner, Terry Brown. Scudamore wasted no time, getting straight to the point of his visit. “These players, what’s the story? How have they got here?” he snapped.

The West Ham players Carlos Tevez, left, and Javier Mascherano warming up for a match against Aston Villa in 2006. CreditGlenn Campbell/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A few days earlier, in late August 2006, the Argentine stars Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano had themselves arrived at West Ham. Flanking Alan Pardew, the team’s manager, Tevez and Mascherano held up claret-and-blue shirts and smiled for the news media. How on earth had this struggling Premier League team managed to sign two of the world’s most sought-after players? The story has its roots in South America, but was also tied to the riches that accompanied the breakup of the Soviet Union and to an Israeli dealmaker called Pini Zahavi, who was never far away from soccer’s biggest transfers.

Scudamore was already aware of wealthy individuals buying the transfer rights of players as early as 2000, a year after he took the job at the Premier League. Zahavi had told him all about it.

Zahavi was suave and smooth-talking, and had parlayed a career as a soccer journalist in Israel into being a transfer broker. His first deal, while still working as a reporter, had been to take Avi Cohen to Liverpool from Maccabi Tel Aviv in 1979. After 20 years as an agent, he had turned his attention to acting as a dealmaker to help a small group of wealthy individuals, some of them from the former Soviet Union, to invest in the transfer market. He called the business Soccer Investments & Representations.

Zahavi’s office was on a tree-lined boulevard near the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv, but he spent much of his working life in five-star hotels across the globe or in his apartment in London’s Marble Arch. He had learned how this South American business model worked from his partners in Argentina: Fernando Hidalgo and Gustavo Arribas. Together they had founded the HAZ agency, which took its name from the first letters of their surnames and used a series of companies domiciled in Gibraltar, Luxembourg and Malta to buy and sell transfer rights. The business was so successful that the three men set up their own motor-racing team in 2006, and even considered entering the Nascar series before one of their drivers died in a 120 m.p.h. crash at the Autódromo Juan Manuel Fangio on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The sudden and shocking death had ended their appetite to pursue the racing adventure.

Zahavi was well known in the Premier League’s offices in London. At Christmas he would send a box of oranges to Scudamore from back home. Over a cup of tea one day, Zahavi told Scudamore that he was moving into owning transfer rights. “He said, ‘I’m not an agent anymore. I own players. I actually own them,’” Scudamore recalled. “That’s the future.”

In 2001, Zahavi had helped Gustavo Mascardi, the first registered FIFA agent in Argentina, earn as much as half of the $12 million transfer fee Aston Villa paid River Plate for the Colombian striker Juan Pablo Ángel. Mascardi owned 50 percent of Ángel’s transfer rights through a company called Siglo XXI (21st Century). Aston Villa almost pulled out of the deal at the last minute after hearing of the unorthodox arrangement, but in the end the signing went ahead.

In the spring of 2003, Zahavi was introduced by another soccer agent, Jonathan Barnett, to Chelsea’s chief executive, Trevor Birch, at Les Ambassadeurs, a private club in London’s Mayfair, in a move that would help Zahavi — with his contacts in the former Soviet Union — become a broker in the takeover of the then struggling club.

While Zahavi and Barnett loved the high life, fine clothes and trappings of success — like Les Ambassadeurs, which served French Champagne, Belgian chocolates and Cuban cigars — Birch was a more low-key character. He had a first-class degree in accounting from Liverpool Polytechnic and specialized in corporate restructuring. He was an employee of Ken Bates, a gruff Londoner who had bought Chelsea for 1 pound in 1982.

Birch had briefed Zahavi on Chelsea’s financial woes, how it could barely pay the players’ salaries and how Bates wanted to sell up. Zahavi relayed the information to Abramovich. A few weeks later the Russian billionaire, dressed in jeans and accompanied by a Citibank banker and a lawyer from Skadden Arps, came to meet Birch in one of the executive boxes overlooking the pitch at Stamford Bridge stadium. The rendezvous lasted less than an hour and ended with an outline for a deal, which was agreed on a handshake.

Manchester United Defeats Chelsea to Open Up Premier League Race

 Ander Herrera scored one goal, set up another and executed the perfect man-marking job on Eden Hazard to set upManchester United’s 2-0 win over Chelsea, which opened up the Premier League title race on Sunday.

United didn’t even need rested top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic to consign the leaders to their fifth league loss of the season, which left them only four points ahead of Tottenham with six games left.

Marcus Rashford — Ibrahimovic’s replacement up front — ran onto Herrera’s through-ball to give United a seventh-minute lead. A constant menace for Chelsea’s defense all game, Rashford ensured that Ibrahimovic wasn’t missed at Old Trafford.

Herrera shadowed Hazard in a tactical plan by United manager Jose Mourinho that limited the effectiveness of Chelsea’s main attacking threat. On a rare occasion he left Hazard’s side, Herrera popped up in Chelsea’s area in the 49th minute to smash a deflected shot high into the net from 18 meters.

The result didn’t just blow open the title race; it also left the battle for Champions League qualification intriguingly poised. United moved up to fifth place, four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand, and is six points behind third-placed Liverpool having played two fewer games.

United had conceded five goals and failed to score in its two losses to Chelsea this season — one in the league and one in the FA Cup — but Mourinho got his tactics spot on against his former team this time.

Rashford excelled, stretching Chelsea’s center backs with the kind of movement and pace that Ibrahimovic would not be able to offer. Winger Jesse Lingard was played out of position in attack and added more mobility alongside Rashford. Herrera and Matteo Darmian did brilliant stifling jobs in man-marking Eden Hazard and Pedro, respectively. And United center backs Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly succeeded in riling the combustible Diego Costa, who was booked in the first half and played on the edge throughout.

In the build up to Rashford’s goal, Herrera blocked with his hand a pass from Nemanja Matic but the infringement wasn’t picked up. The United midfield anchorman ran forward and split the defense with his through-ball to Rashford, who got in behind David Luiz and bobbled a finish past Asmir Begovic — starting in place of the injured Thibaut Courtois.

Fans in the Stretford End chanted Herrera’s name as he frustrated Hazard time and again in the first half, and they did so again after he made it 2-0 with a shot that clipped off the heel of Kurt Zouma and span beyond an unsighted Begovic.

Chelsea is still the favorite for the title, with the only obvious stumbling block being a trip to Everton on April 30. Tottenham doesn’t seem to be letting up, though, after winning its last seven games and scoring 22 goals in the process.

A Night to Remember, Except for the Referee

 Viktor Kassai was probably still walking off the field at the Santiago Bernabeu when someone, somewhere, decided it was time to update his Spanish-language Wikipedia page.

At the end of a brief list of the highlights of what has been a long, distinguished refereeing career — his appointments in European Championships and World Cups, his distinctions in officiating Olympic and Champions League finals — Kassai’s electronic assailant decided a postscript was needed.

“He was also appointed to the quarterfinal of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich,” it read, before describing Kassai as Real’s “best player” and the “game’s MVP.”

“At the end of the game, Florentino Perez, the president of the Madrid team, awarded him a diamond pin, the greatest honor the club offers to referees who help them in big games,” the passage concluded. There followed a brief, bitter explanation for the malicious edit. “And that is how I lost my bet.”

It is a shame indeed that, at the end of one of the most absorbing games in recent Champions League history — won by Real, 4-2, after extra time — the performance of the referee should attract such attention.

In an ideal world, it would warrant no mention whatsoever. Kassai would be afforded the anonymity that in his chosen profession indicates excellence. The focus would instead rest solely on those players who had produced a game of the very highest quality, two hours of grueling, enthralling, breathless entertainment between two of soccer’s true heavyweights.

All of the questions directed at Zinedine Zidane, the victorious Real Madrid coach, in the immediate aftermath would have been about the brilliant ruthlessness of Cristiano Ronaldo, whose hat trick eventually finished off Bayern; about the energy of Marcelo, Real’s unstinting fullback; about the poise and panache of Toni Kroos.

Zidane would have been asked about Real’s seventh straight visit to the semifinals in this competition, about the chances of the club that lionizes the Champions League more than any other would become the first to retain it since its reinvention in 1992.

His counterpart, Carlo Ancelotti, meanwhile, would have been given the chance to pay tribute to his Bayern team’s refusal to be beaten, and forced to consider whether this defeat represented something close to the end of an era. Philipp Lahm, his captain, will never play in the Champions League again; neither will Xabi Alonso, one of the finest players of his generation. Both have said that they will retire this summer. The likes of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben will, sadly, not be too far behind.

Kassai, though, obscured all of that Tuesday, denied the game the epilogue it deserved. With one exception, all of the questions Ancelotti faced were about the performance of the Hungarian referee. Ancelotti is a good-humored man, not given to unnecessary exaggeration. When asked if he had spoken to Kassai after the game, if he had made his unhappiness known, he simply cocked an eyebrow. “I told him ‘good job,’” he said.

His fury, though, was evident. The red card that saw Bayern deprived of Arturo Vidal for extra time — arguably the game’s pivotal moment — was not “a foul,” Ancelotti said. Two of Ronaldo’s three goals were offside, he said.

He might have added that Robert Lewandowski lost a clear run at goal when he was adjudged, incorrectly, to be offside; that Casemiro, the Real Madrid midfielder, might have been sent off long before Vidal was. It was no surprise that Ancelotti declined to mention that Bayern’s first goal, a penalty, was, at best, debatable, or to expand on Zidane’s claim that Bayern’s second goal stemmed from another offside.

He did not need to, though, to prove his point that “the decisions penalized Bayern a lot.”

“In a quarterfinal, there has to be a referee with more quality,” he said. “They are trying, but it is the moment to bring in video referees. There are too many errors. In some decisions, there is a lot of doubt, but there was no doubt here. You did not need to see a video to see that Vidal got the ball. I saw it straightaway.”

He was not the only one simmering with anger. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern’s chief executive, said Kassai had left the German champions “distraught.” Claudio Bravo, the Manchester City goalkeeper and an international teammate of Vidal’s, pointed out that — although there were six officials on the field, per UEFA’s regulations — they all appeared to be “blind.”

Such criticism — in general — is the last thing the referees deserve. Soccer gets quicker every year; the players are faster, stronger, and the rules ever more intricate; as Robben demonstrated amply here, there are plenty out there committed to hoodwinking them, too.

And yet this level of controversy is unsustainable. After Barcelona’s miraculous comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in this tournament last month, P.S.G. sent a dossier to UEFA, which runs the tournament, detailing its grievances about the referee’s performance in that game. Now another high-profile fixture has been stained by the same problem, and the same complaints.

As Ancelotti acknowledged, video referees will be a reality in the near future; experiments have already taken place to see if they can be used effectively to adjudicate on penalty decisions. That, though, has to be merely the start; a more comprehensive system is required if there is to be any hope of these situations being avoided in the future.

For Barcelona, the End of a Campaign, but Not of an Era

 The 87th minute came and went. The moment when the last miracle began was the point at which any hopes of another were definitively ended.

Barcelona won a free kick. Neymar did not, as he had against Paris St.-Germain last month, fizz it into the top corner. Camp Nou did not roar. AJuventus head cleared it, instead, into the sky once more. The ball came back in. It collided, yet again, with a body clad in black and white.

This was not to be another of those nights. There would be no comeback. Barcelona believed, right until the end, that it was possible. Three goals had come in the dying minutes against P.S.G. last month, after all, so why not against Juventus? If anyone could, then Barcelona could: Lionel Messi and Neymar and Luis Suárez, the finest attack ever assembled, the spearhead of a team that can touch the stars.

This, though, was a step too far; this was too much to ask. There were moments when it seemed as if it might happen, as if the magic might return, particularly in a first half when Messi and Neymar both carved out openings, raised the pulse, shredded Italian nerves. But Juventus held firm, jealously guarding the 3-0 advantage it had gained in the first leg last week, and out Barcelona went, absent from the semifinals of the Champions League for the third time in four years.

The temptation, of course, is to declare this the end, to suggest the sun has now set on Barcelona’s golden age. Such a prognosis, though, would be misleading, just as declarations of the demise of Bayern Munich after Real Madrid’s elimination of the German team on Tuesday are hopelessly exaggerated.

When the Champions League group stage rolls around again in September, both clubs will resume their place among the three favorites to win the competition. Barcelona will still have an attack built around Messi, the greatest player of his generation, and Neymar, his heir apparent.

Whoever replaces Luis Enrique as coach will have the pick of reinforcements this summer, too. There will be no especially relevant financial limit on recruitment plans; the only players who might refuse a move will be those destined for one of the game’s other superpowers.

Only a startling loss of form would deprive one of those teams a place in the knockout rounds. Only another exceptional team, or a breathtaking performance from a merely excellent one, will be able to prevent one of them winning it.

Barcelona and Bayern — and Real Madrid, too, for that matter — are simply too big now to fail in the conventional sense. Their squads are too stocked with talent, their accounts too swelled with cash, their brands too appealing to fans and players alike for them ever to drift into mediocrity.

They might fall short of their own lofty expectations now and again — by definition, in the Champions League, two of the three have to be disappointed every single year — but they will do so on a bungee cord, destined always to return to the skies, far above the teeming masses. It is anachronistic to talk about the end of Barcelona. Barcelona is not finished, nor will it be, not for the foreseeable future. Like Bayern, it is inoculated, financially and otherwise, against failure.

But if it is not the end of an era, it is nonetheless a watershed moment for the Champions League. For the first time since 2009, only one of Europe’s Big Three — Real — will be present in the semifinals. This is as close to a transition year as is conceivable in the era of the superclubs.

It is, in truth, more a changing of the guard than a revolution. Juventus played in the final in 2015; Atlético Madrid, very much the Ringo Starr of the quartet that has dominated this tournament for the last few years, is now in its third semifinal in four seasons. Both must now be considered peers, if not quite equals, of their bigger, richer rivals.

They are no less welcome for it, however. Predictability, in sport, is a carcinogen. The appeal of this competition, the most glamorous club soccer can offer, was starting to wither under the unassailable hegemony of Barcelona, Bayern and Real. This has been the most enthralling edition in some time.

Much of the credit for that should go to teams like Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and, in particular, Monaco, and to the set of vibrant young attacking players — Antoine Griezmann, Neymar, Paulo Dybala, Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic — who have illuminated the competition.

For the first time since the Messi/Ronaldo era dawned in the mid-2000s, it is possible to list the players who will shine when those two are, eventually, gone. This season may well be remembered, for example, as the one in which Neymar and Monaco’s Mbappe — on a breakneck upward trajectory — emerged as their regents, ready to rule as soon as the kings vacate their thrones.

Equally significant, though, is that Barcelona and Bayern, in particular, find themselves forced to consider a question they have not needed to ask for close to a decade: What comes next?

The issue is most pressing in Munich, where Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso are scheduled to retire this summer and Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, both on the wistful side of 30, will doubtless be wondering when it will be time to join them.

“Big clubs always have transitions,” Bixente Lizarazu, a former Bayern defender who is now an ambassador for the club, said last week. “And they can always manage them.”

Bayern has proved that before; Barcelona less so, but it must start to contemplate how to do so now. Messi will be 30 in June; Suárez, Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano have all passed that milestone already. Yet this team is not finished by a draw against Juventus. Barcelona’s elimination, like that of Bayern, does not herald the dawn of an age of giants diminished.

Financial power, and global recognition, means this is merely the turning of a page. This is not the end of Barcelona. It is, in many ways, something more complicated: time to start again.