Zahavi 'linked' to new deal to own Argentine players

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The trend by which promising young South American players are owned not just by their clubs, but partly or wholly by separate companies, appeared to be taken a step further yesterday when the debt-ridden Argentine club River Plate announced the sale of percentages in five of the team's most promising players to an unnamed business group. The Israeli "super agent" Pini Zahavi is thought to have brokered the dea,l said to be worth $13m (£6.8m).

The controversial trend was highlighted last week when the Argentine World Cup players Carlos Tevez and Javier Macherano joined West Ham from the Brazilian club Corinthians. The players were owned by the company Media Sports Investment and the same firm is reported by the Argentine media to be involved in yesterday's deals. Such ownership arrangements are not illegal, either in South America, or in Britain.

Jose Maria Aguilar, the president of River Plate, explained that 50 per cent of 18-year-old forward Gonzalo Higuain and 40 per cent of midfielder Fernando Belluschi have been ceded to an unnamed business group and that the deal also involves the youngsters Augusto Fernandez (20), Juan Antonio (18) and Mateo Musacchio (16).

Musacchio has yet to play for the River first team, but the talented 16-year-old is expected to be given his debut by manager, Daniel Passarella, this weekend.

Passarella is resigned to losing his best youngsters in the future, but had been particularly keen to keep Higuain for the rest of the Argentine season. "I have no doubt he will play at the top level in Europe" Passarella said last week, "but he's so young and it would be nice if we can keep him here at least until January."

Throughout the transfer window there was speculation that Higuain would be joining an English club, with Portsmouth and West Ham mentioned in the Argentine press. But when Aguilar set off for London last week, Higuain said: "It would be great for me if I could stay another year at River."

River Plate are said to incurring substantial losses each month and the deal is necessary to keep the club afloat. If either Antonio, Fernadez or Musaccchio is sold for more than $2m in the future, River will receive 30 per cent. If they are sold for $3m, 20 per cent and if it is for more than $4m, 15 per cent

However, the trend is far from new. When Aston Villa paid £9m for Juan Pablo Angel in January 2001 little of the money went to River Plate, Angel's club. Nothing came of an investigation into the transfer by the Football Association.

River Plate's city rivals, Boca Juniors, also announced yesterday that they were entering negotiations to buy up more of their star player Rodrigo Palacios. The striker, who played for Argentina in the World Cup and is a hero at Boca, is expected to be sold to a European club next summer. At present Boca, the club Diego Maradona used to play for, own only 17 per cent of the player.