Club caught in football's murky world

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The Independent Online
AN ENGLISH football agent who tried to inflate a pounds 75,000 transfer fee by pounds 125,000 is to be investigated by the Football Association. The involvement of the FA comes after The Independent revealed how Tom Lawrence attempted to treble the price of the Swedish striker Mathias Svensson and divert the difference to his solicitor in London.

The FA said yesterday it was examining the deal and would call in Fifa, the world football governing body, if it found any breaches of international transfer rules. As a registered Fifa agent, Mr Lawrence could forfeit a bond of pounds 100,000 if any wrongdoing were uncovered. "Article 13 of the Fifa statutes governing transfers states that there has to be a written contract stating that the agent is representing someone - we will start there and proceed from that," said Steve Double, an FA spokesman. It is thought the association will then contact Elfsborg, the Swedish club that sold Svensson in December 1996, and Portsmouth FC, the club that bought him.

The investigation comes at the end of a two-week period in which the murky world of international transfers has come under unprecedented scrutiny. It began with an Independent investigation into the purchase of two Chinese players by Crystal Palace - and the fact that there was a pounds 400,000 gap between the amount Palace was paying and the amount the Chinese authorities expected to receive. Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai were bought by Palace during the summer, shortly after Terry Venables, the former England coach, took over as manager. The English club said they were paying pounds 1.35m for the players in four instalments. However, inquiries by The Independent in China established that officials at the Chinese FA and at the players' clubs, Shanghai Shenhua and Dalian Wanda, were expecting to receive the equivalent of only pounds 950,000.

Mark Goldberg, the Crystal Palace chairman, was baffled and initiated an internal investigation. Liu Shijun, the Chinese FA's representative in London, refused to discuss the deal other than to say that Mr Lawrence and his company, Strata Sports Marketing, were agents at the English end.

Mr Lawrence, a close friend of Mr Venables, denied being involved or receiving any fees relating to the deal. Subsequently, when Mr Goldberg told The Independent that Mr Lawrence had been paid pounds 25,000 for "introductions and help with work permits", Mr Lawrence refused to elaborate.

The matter was resolved when Palace said they had received confirmation that the Chinese were "happy" with the deal. In fact, they were very happy, because they had been contacted directly by the club and promised the full pounds 1.35m due to them. But that was not the end of Mr Goldberg's worries. Within days, as journalists pored over other Crystal Palace deals, it emerged that pounds 266,666, representing the first instalment of an pounds 800,000 fee for David Amsalem, the Israeli captain, appeared to have gone astray.

Earlier, while announcing an audit of all transfers at the club, Mr Goldberg said the sum had been paid to Maccabi Nevealon in Israel - but the club said they had not received a penny. The FA is continuing to to examine the deal amid rumours that the player was "owned" by a syndicate of businessmen.

Although Mr Venables says he plays no financial role in transfers at Crystal Palace, The Independent revealed that fraud squad detectives had been asked to investigate allegations of "bad business practice" during a period from 1996 to 1997, when he controlled Portsmouth FC.

Among the matters being investigated are the transfers of four Australian players. Mr Venables consistently denies any wrongdoing.

Finally, an ignominious fortnight for football concluded with the revelations over Mr Lawrence's attempt to cream off pounds 125,000 from the Svensson deal.

Correspondence obtained by The Independent showed that Mr Lawrence had asked Portsmouth FC to send pounds 200,000 to the Elfsborg in December 1996, while Portsmouth was controlled by Mr Venables.

However, Ake Larsson, chairman of the Swedish club, and Kjell Hallen, deputy chairman, directly contacted Portsmouth over a delay in payment and told astonished club officials that they had been asked to redirect pounds 125,000 of the fee to Mr Lawrence's solicitor, Stephen Carter, in London.

Mr Carter said his client was simply attempting "to derive as much from the transaction as possible".

But it was the last straw for the FA, which announced that it was preparing proposals that would involve it acting as a clearing house for deals, where all relevant information could be lodged.

Who's Who In The Row Over Transfer Fees

Terry Venables: Former England coach. Manager at Crystal Palace when Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai arrived. Controlled Portsmouth when Mathias Svensson arrived. His purchase of Australian players is being investigated.

Fan Zhiyi: Defender, 29, and Chinese national captain. Arrived with Sun Jihai from China for total pounds 1.35m - although Chinese believed fee was only $1.5m (pounds 950,000). Understood Chinese are now to receive the full price.

Mathias Svensson: Swedish international striker, 24. His club, FC Elfsborg, wanted pounds 75,000 for him and was told by Tom Lawrence to expect pounds 200,000 from Portsmouth and to forward pounds 125,000 to Lawrence's London solicitor.

David Amsalem: Left back, 27, Israeli national captain. Crystal Palace believed it had paid the first of three instalments of pounds 266,666 to Maccabi Nevealon but the Israeli club received nothing. Rumoured to be "owned" by syndicate.

Mark Goldberg: Millionaire businessman. Bought Crystal Palace this summer for pounds 23m before bringing in Terry Venables on reported salary of pounds 750,000. Has ordered full audit of all recent transfers - especially Amsalem's.

Liu Shijun: Managing director of Greatgate Overseas Development, official Chinese FA agent in Europe. Aged 44, law graduate. Acted in transfer of Chinese players but will not discuss transfer fees, which he says are "secret".

Ted Buxton: Assistant manager to Venables at Crystal Palace, former Chinese national coach and scout at Portsmouth. Recommended both Chinese players and Svensson to Venables. Lawrence acted for the players.