Francis Collado can still remember the day two years ago that he turned up at Peter Kenyon's Stamford Bridge office and asked the Chelsea chief executive to pay him the money his club Lens believed they were due for their teenage prodigy Gaël Kakuta. "Kenyon looked at me and smiled," Collado said. "He told me: 'That's not possible'."
On that day Lens wanted €5m for Kakuta, about £5m under today's exchange rates, but rather less when that conversation took place. He was a young player no one had heard of from a small club who bounced around the first and second tiers of French football. For Chelsea it must have been easy to say no. It would turn out to be the costliest mistake they ever made.
Yesterday The Independent caught up with Collado, who no longer works for Lens. When he visited Kenyon he was the managing director, the right-hand man to the club's president of 21 years, Gervais Martel. When the news broke of Chelsea's extraordinary transfer ban and fine, Collado was happy to talk about the story that has turned English football upside down.
In the room that day were Kenyon and Frank Arnesen. The two men have fought a bitter battle for influence behind the scenes ever since the latter's appointment as chief scout and director of youth development in 2005. Both of them have always sought to be the club owner Roman Abramovich's representative at Stamford Bridge. And on this occasion with Collado, Kenyon was trying to clear up a mess not of his own making.
Arnesen, 52, who was promoted to sporting director this summer, had found Kakuta through his extensive network of scouts and brought him to Chelsea in 2007. The Dane, who was formerly a footballer at Ajax and Valencia, had established himself as one of the leading youth scouts and was mandated by Abramovich to sign the best young talent in the world. Recruited in controversial circumstances from Tottenham, he had been given an unprecedented budget by the Russian to do so.
Kakuta was just one of many unproven young talents that Arnesen had bought at great expense. He had infuriated Leeds chairman Ken Bates by signing two England Under-17 internationals, Tom Taiwo and Michael Woods, who eventually cost £5m. He had signed an Argentine, Franco Di Santo, from Audax Italiano in Chile for £3m. Jacob Mellis came from Sheffield United for £1m. There were many more, from Europe and beyond. It was a bigger budget than many Premier League clubs would spend on their first team.
But Kakuta was the pick of them all. Signed in April 2007 at the age of 15, he was left-footed, fast and immensely skilful. He was soon in the France Under-17 team and no secret among Europe's scouts. Collado had been told by Martel that if Lens did not get the compensation they thought they deserved for the player they would have to go to Fifa. This was a unique player and one worth fighting for.
"I told Peter Kenyon that Kakuta had signed a contract," Collado said. "In France we call it the contract aspirant. Players are not allowed to sign professional deals until they are 16 so instead they sign a bridging deal with the clubs. It is a deal that says when they get to 16 they will agree to sign a professional contract with the club. Kakuta's contract was lodged with the FFF [French football federation]. It was all above board. He was our player."
Kakuta had first trained with Lens at the age of nine. He was born in Lille, 40 kilometres to the north-east of Lens, and came from a family who are believed to have emigrated from Ivory Coast. Collado admitted that Kakuta's background did appear a little chaotic – the club were not certain who of those who brought him to training was his father or his uncle. But his ability with a ball was not in doubt.
Collado said: "He signed with our centre de formation and then he signed a contract aspirant. Our academy programme costs €5m every year to run and we cannot just afford to lose our players for nothing. I said to Kenyon: 'He has a contract with our club, you have to pay us the right money.' Kenyon said: 'It's my information that he does not have a contract'.
"So I told Kenyon that we, as a club, were in the right and that we were prepared to take it all the way. I think that their lawyers thought they were right, that they had a good case and they would not get punished, or that the major sanctions would not apply to them. I said to them: 'Please reflect on this and call us back.' They never, never, never called."
Instead, a move to Chelsea was facilitated with the help of Roger Boli, the player's agent. Boli, a brother of the famous France international Basile, was also a footballer, albeit less successful. A long-serving Lens player in the early 1990s, he played at Walsall and Bournemouth towards the end of his career. He did not respond to a call from The Independent yesterday. It is understood he no longer represents Kakuta.
When Martel, the Lens president, was contacted by The Independent yesterday he was even more strident about the behaviour of Chelsea. "It's a logical punishment for a club that goes around trying to turn the heads of players through their intermediaries," he said. "It was a feeble amount that Chelsea offered us for this young player when you consider his potential. The clubs must respect the rules of other countries."
Kakuta was a major success in Chelsea's youth teams. He played above his age group in the club's Under-18s team that competed in the prestigious FA Youth Cup while he was still only 17, and was in the side that lost in the final to Manchester City last year. At Chelsea, Kakuta was known as one of those players whom Arnesen personally promoted along with Di Santo and Jeffrey Bruma, the Dutch midfielder expensively acquired from Feyenoord.
Chelsea were well aware that the Fifa case against them was outstanding but they expected it to take at least three months before the dispute resolution chamber came to a verdict. When the governing body made its decision yesterday there was disbelief at the club. Arnesen was still on holiday in Puerto Banus in Spain. It was hours before the club's lawyers could get out a statement. They may be one of the few to benefit from the months of legal wrangling ahead.
Lawyer's view: What next for Chelsea?
Chelsea have the right to appeal the case to Fifa, but the substantive appeal lies to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. They will be looking to adopt the same tactics as Sion, and ask for a stay of the ban pending the final hearing, which was granted in the Swiss club's case.
But when will the appeal be heard? If it is before the January transfer window, then the issue of seeking a stay is irrelevant; if the hearing occurs after January then one issue arises: what will happen if the ban gets upheld and, in the interim, Chelsea buy a player who influences matches which result in clubs getting relegated and eliminated from the Champions League? We could end up with another situation like West Ham had with Carlos Tevez, who scored goals that relegated clubs – only worse.
Adam Morallee, partner at the law firm Mishcon de Reya
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