Mark Goldberg, the chairman of Crystal Palace, asked for FA help yesterday after the paper's inquiries revealed a huge gap in the amount he agreed for the players - Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai - and the amount expected by the Chinese football authorities. The pair of Chinese players joined Palace after Terry Venables, the former England coach, was appointed manager in June.
The club agreed to pay pounds 1.35m for the players in August. However, in a series of interviews, officials of the Chinese Football Association and the players' clubs told The Independent they were expecting just $1.5m - a difference of pounds 400,633 at August's exchange rate.
Mr Goldberg, who is to raise the matter at a board meeting today, said last night: "We are disturbed to learn that there is apparently a major discrepancy between the transfer fee, which we agreed with officials of the Chinese FA in London, and the amount which the Chinese FA in Beijing are said to be expecting. As a result, we have launched an immediate inquiry and have asked the English FA to assist us."
The Independent has established that the difference cannot be accounted for by normal levels of agents' fees - usually about 10 per cent. The Chinese authorities said that their European agent, Greatgate Overseas Development Ltd, known in China as Gaode, was to be paid 10 per cent from their $1.5m.
Mr Goldberg said the only English agent involved, Tom Lawrence, had been paid just pounds 25,000 plus VAT for introducing the players and helping with their work permits - a sum separate from the transfer fee. However, Mr Lawrence had said earlier that neither he nor his company, Strata Sports Marketing Ltd, was involved in any way. In spite of repeated requests for clarification, Mr Lawrence has failed to explain the club's insistence of his involvement.
When told of the pounds 400,000 gap, Mr Venables, who has no role in the financial management of the club, replied: "Well thank goodness transfers have nothing to do with me any more - I am just the coach. You will have to talk to the chairman about it."
Liu Shijun, the official Chinese representative in the deal, whose Greatgate company is based in Brondesbury, north- west London, refused to discuss the transfer fees. He said that a confidentiality clause had been written into the contract.
Peking-born Mr Liu has been forging links between Chinese and Western clubs since 1994, when football in China became professional. In 1996, he arranged a tour of China and Hong Kong by the England team during Mr Venables' tenure as national coach. Arrangements at the English end were made by Mr Lawrence's company. Mr Liu also knows Ted Buxton, Mr Venables' assistant at Crystal Palace, who for 14 months was Chinese national team coach.
There is no suggestion that anyone involved in the transfer deal behaved improperly. The chairman of Shanghai Shenhua, Yu Zhifei, said his club had agreed a transfer fee of $800,000 for Fan. Other sources in China and the UK said Dalian had agreed $700,000 for Sun. The first of four instalments has been paid to the Chinese FA.