|Pinhas "Pini" Zahavi|
24 August 1943 |
Ness Ziona, Israel
Pinhas "Pini" Zahavi (Hebrew: פיני זהבי; born 24 August 1943 in Ness Ziona, Israel) is a football agent who has been involved in some of the most expensive and controversial transfer episodes of recent times.
Zahavi developed his close connections with football in his native Israel into an unprecedented network of associations and friendships across the footballing world that brought him extraordinary success. His involvement in the change of ownership of Chelsea and Portsmouth gave him a reputation as an agent who could trade not only players but football clubs themselves. His success has led to him being described as "football's first and only super agent" and as "football's great svengali". Zahavi himself played down the complexities of the role, saying: "I just bring people together and I get paid my commission if a deal is struck".
- 1 Early life and career in journalism
- 2 Career as an agent
- 2.1 First transfer dealings
- 2.2 Growing influence and Rio Ferdinand
- 2.3 Roman Abramovich and Chelsea
- 2.4 'Tapping-up' controversies
- 2.5 Portsmouth Football Club
- 2.6 Inquiry into football corruption
- 2.7 Third-party ownership and West Ham United
- 3 Other business interests
- 4 Personal life
- 5 References
Early life and career in journalism
Pini Zahavi is the son of a shopkeeper who sold building materials to local tradesmen. He has two elder sisters and a brother who is a successful heart surgeon. Ya'akov Shahar, owner of Maccabi Haifa, has been his friend since they were in school together as children.
Zahavi grew up with a love of football, playing for the local team and coaching its youth side before his National Service in the army. He abandoned a university economics course after the first year and instead began a career as a football journalist. He worked for the Israeli newspapers Hadashot Hasport, Yedioth Ahronoth -where he expanded the paper's sports coverage- and Hadashot.
Journalism provided Zahavi with invaluable opportunities to develop extensive contacts within football. He described the helpfulness of the World Cup of 1974 in meeting people and building friendships. He was assiduous in cultivating these connections, organising friendly internationals in Israel, inviting players, including Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish, to holiday at his villa in Eilat, and even taking Israeli oranges to Melwood, Liverpool's training ground, as a gift for players and staff.
Career as an agent
First transfer dealings
Zahavi's first transfer deal was undertaken in 1979 when he helped arrange the Israeli defender Avi Cohen's move from Maccabi Tel Aviv to Liverpool for £200,000. Zahavi, who traveled to England regularly to watch football, recommended Cohen to Liverpool when he saw Peter Robinson, then the secretary of the club, at Heathrow airport during a delay caused by fog. The player had got to know Zahavi through his coverage of Maccabi Tel Aviv in Yedioth Ahronoth. Zahavi was paid an introduction fee for his part in the deal.
Zahavi continued in journalism until 1988 and then, in 1990, negotiated the transfer of another Israeli player, forward Ronnie Rosenthal, from Standard Liège to Liverpool. Kenny Dalglish was by then Liverpool's manager.
Growing influence and Rio Ferdinand
In English football his contacts were extensive, his friendships included not just Souness and Dalglish but also Terry Venables, Ron Atkinson and Alex Ferguson, as well as many more among the next generation of managers and players. "In England, as I was emerging," Zahavi explained, "there were managers who did not know anything about European players. You couldn't even find the results of European leagues in the papers. It was a desert island and they couldn't care less about the world game. I was able to help change attitudes."
Zahavi himself identified as one of his most important deals the transfer that took Israeli midfielder Eyal Berkovic from Southampton to West Ham in 1997. Zahavi's association with Berkovic had already been responsible for the player's move from Maccabi Haifa to English football at Southampton, then being managed by Zahavi's friend, Graeme Souness.
The importance of the West Ham deal, however, was that it was brought Zahavi into contact with Rio Ferdinand, whom Zahavi has subsequently described as being "like a son to him". Zahavi said that Ferdinand approached him at West Ham's training ground having asked Berkovic because "he had a feeling he would be better with an international agent like me than a local agent".
Zahavi handled the transfer that took Ferdinand from West Ham to Leeds United for £18 million in 2000, and then his £30 million transfer from Leeds to Manchester United in 2002. As part of that deal Zahavi was himself paid £1.13 million.
Zahavi was a friend of the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, whom he had first got to know in the late 1980s, and by the time of the Ferdinand transfer he was responsible for brokering almost every major Manchester United deal, including the sale of Jaap Stam to Lazio for £16.5 million and the purchase of Juan Sebastián Verón from the same club for £28.1 million in 2001. Verón had been signed for Lazio by another friend of Zahavi's, Sven-Göran Eriksson, whom he knew first as a young coach at Benfica.
Roman Abramovich and Chelsea
In 2003 Zahavi was central to Roman Abramovich's acquisition of Chelsea Football Club, and to the influx of players that followed. Zahavi became an influential member of Abramovich's inner circle and was estimated to have earned as much as £5 million from the £111 million Chelsea spent on players that summer.
Zahavi had been able to develop contacts in Russia and the old Soviet Union through his close links to important figures in Israel's immigrant community, and particularly through one of his closest friends, the businessman Eli Azur, among whose interests are a number of Russian-language newspapers in Israel. In 1980 Zahavi was the first non-communist Israeli to obtain a visa to the Soviet Union, nurturing his connections over 20 years of regular trips to Moscow and Kiev, where he came to know Valery Lobanovsky, then manager of Dynamo Kiev.
In 1998 Zahavi had been introduced to Abramovich in Moscow by a mutual friend and so was able to provide an introduction when he was approached by Trevor Birch, the chief executive of the heavily indebted Chelsea, who were on the verge of being unable to pay their players' wages. Abramovich had previously considered buying Manchester United and then Tottenham Hotspur.
After the takeover Ken Bates, the previous owner of Chelsea and at that point still chairman of the club, described Zahavi by using a strongly pejorative term, leading Zahavi to respond that Bates was a "revolting character" who ought to "wake up every morning praying to God and thanking him that Pini Zahavi saved him from bankruptcy and put £19 million in his pocket".
In the summer of 2003, Zahavi was swept up in the furore surrounding a possible move to Chelsea by the then England coach Sven-Göran Eriksson. Eriksson was pictured attending a meeting with Roman Abramovich and Zahavi, and then the following March was seen visiting the home of the club's chief executive, Peter Kenyon. Zahavi responded to the blizzard of press speculation by saying “What’s the big secret? This has all been going on for months. What has Sven done wrong by meeting Peter Kenyon? I can’t see what the fuss is all about."
Zahavi's closeness to Eriksson gave added interest to comments he made to the press about the England football team's performance at the 2006 World Cup, when the by-then-departed Eriksson was in charge of the side. Zahavi said: "If Eriksson would ever tell the whole story, and I've talked about it with him a lot, everybody would understand what was going on inside the England dressing room", going on to suggest that there were internal problems within the England squad centred around the status and treatment of David Beckham, who had captained the side at that tournament.
In 2005 The Football Association (FA) recommended that Zahavi be investigated by the responsible bodies for his part in the 'tapping-up' of the Arsenal left back Ashley Cole, who was approached by Chelsea in contravention of Premier League regulations.
The independent commission established by the Premier League to investigate the incident after an official complaint by Arsenal concluded that Zahavi, and Cole's agent, Jonathan Barnett, had extended an invitation to Chelsea, to which the club had responded. Zahavi and Barnett were then present at the Royal Park Hotel in London on 27 January 2005 when Cole met the Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, and club's chief executive, Peter Kenyon.
Chelsea, Mourinho and Cole were all fined for their part in the affair, while Barnett was fined £100,000 and had his licence suspended by the FA for 18 months, later reduced to a 12-month ban. Neither the FA nor the Premier League had any jurisdiction over Zahavi but referred the matter to FIFA, whose investigation was -as of October 2009- ongoing. Zahavi maintained his innocence of any wrongdoing, claiming that "at that time I did not represent Chelsea or Ashley Cole".
In April 2005 Zahavi denied that Chelsea had been engaged in an illegal approach to the Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand when it emerged  that the defender had met Zahavi and Chelsea's chief executive Peter Kenyon at Carpaccio, a restaurant in Chelsea, meeting again at the Elysee Greek eatery near Tottenham Court Road hours later. Chelsea denied any approach had been made, although the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, accused the former United executive Kenyon of treating his former club with "contempt". Zahavi called the story "the joke of the century" and further denied that the meetings were an attempt to pressure Manchester United into improving their offered contract to Ferdinand -negotiations on a contract extension were then underway. Zahavi said, "I could find 10 million other ways. I could arrange that clubs bid for him."
Portsmouth Football Club
Beginning of association and Yakubu transfer
Zahavi became associated with Portsmouth Football Club under the ownership of Milan Mandaric. He worked on the signings of Eyal Berkovic and Yakubu Ayegbeni from Maccabi Haifa, owned by Zahavi's school friend Ya'akov Shahar, in April 2003 and was involved in the recruitment of Collins Mbesuma in August 2005.
In July 2005 Zahavi agreed a fee of £3.64 million for his part in Yakubu's transfer from Portsmouth to Middlesbrough F.C. The fee, agreed with middlesbrough's chief executive, Keith Lamb, was to be paid in ten installments over five years if Yakubu remained at the club. The amount was the largest agent fee disclosed in English football at that time and was regarded as being extraordinary.
As part of the deal Zahavi made payments to Barry Silkman, the agent who is understood to have spotted Yakubu's potential when he was playing in Nigeria and to have been responsible for the $500,000 transfer that took the player to Maccabi Haifa in 1999.
Takeover by Alexandre Gaydamak
In January 2006 Zahavi facilitated the sale of Portsmouth to Alexandre Gaydamak. Earlier in his career Zahavi had paved the way for Beitar Jerusalem to be taken over by Gaydamak's father, the Russian-Israeli businessman Arkady Gaydamak.
Zahavi worked on a number of deals for Portsmouth's new regime, bringing Avram Grant to the club, initially as a technical director in June 2006, signing a two-year scouting contract worth £800,000, and being involved in signing and selling a number of players. He was reported to have been involved in signing Glen Johnson from Chelsea in August 2007 and Younès Kaboul from Tottenham Hotspur the following year. In 2008 he handled the departure of Sulley Muntari to Internazionale for £12.7 million.
In 2009 Zahavi also brokered the deal that saw Tal Ben Haim join Portsmouth on a contract worth, after the inclusion of image rights, around £50,000 a week. The contract became notorious as Portsmouth remained obliged to meet its terms despite relegation and prolonged financial difficulties.
When Portsmouth went into administration after multiple changes of owner in February 2010, Zahavi was among the 24 agents to whom the club owed almost £9 million. His own share of the outstanding amount totalled £2.074 million. "This money was the scouting and agents' fees from four to five years of hard work," Zahavi told The Guardian, "and I didn't get a penny."
Inquiry into football corruption
Zahavi's transfer dealings, including Yakubu's move to Middlesbrough, were the subject of public attention when the final report of Lord Stevens's investigation into irregular transfer payments, published in June 2007, refused to sign-off on five deals with which he was involved.
The transfers in question were:
- Didier Drogba, from Marseille to Chelsea for £24 million, 20 July 2004;
- Petr Čech, from Rennes to Chelsea for £7 million, 1 June 2004;
- Collins Mbesuma, from Kaizer Chiefs to Portsmouth for £808,171, August 2005;
- Fabio Rochemback, from Barcelona to Middlesbrough on a free transfer, 31 August 2005; and
- Yakubu Aiyegbeni, from Portsmouth to Middlesbrough for £7.5 million, 4 July 2005.
The report criticised Zahavi, saying:
"There was an initial failure to disclose his involvement in a number of transfers but, more seriously, he has failed to provide the inquiry with complete bank statements due to the confidential nature of them. There has been a lack of responsiveness from Zahavi. There remain questions relating to his relationship with and payments to Barry Silkman and Barry Silkman's failure to initially disclose his involvement in all the transactions in which he received fees."
Zahavi's association with Barry Silkman went back to his time as a player and the two men had retained the connection once Silkman became an agent. Silkman once said of Zahavi, "I owe him my position in football, the house I live in, everything", calling him "a trusted friend".
Zahavi responded by saying that he had co-operated fully with the inquiry and described the claims as "false, misleading, groundless and legally invalid". He demanded an apology and was reported to be considering taking legal action, calling the report "the joke of the century" and saying "I am an honest man full of integrity and this lot have treated me like a criminal".
Third-party ownership and West Ham United
Zahavi was also associated with the third-party ownership of footballers, a practice regarded as controversial, particularly in English football where it was banned by the Premier League for the start of the 2008-9 season.
Zahavi himself defended the practice of third-party ownership as a way of spreading the risk of investing large sums in a player, declaring that it was common in South America and necessary "if English football is to survive". He suggested: "In England they don't understand it at all. It's easier to buy a player who you are unsure about for £10m if you are sharing the risk with a partner. Now, if the player becomes top-drawer and is sold for £30m, then of course you may feel stupid only to own half. But if the player turns out to be merely average or a failure, if he cannot even be sold, you will say, 'Fantastic, the disaster was not only mine'. That's exactly the way it works."
Zahavi acted as a broker to Media Sports Investments, who attracted considerable attention for its third-party ownership of the Argentinian international, Carlos Tévez, and for its brief control of Corinthians in Brazil, where it was heavily involved in the third-party ownership of players. MSI was headed by Zahavi's friend Kia Joorabchian.
Tévez's transfer from Boca Juniors to Corinthians was brokered by the Argentinian football agent Fernando Hidalgo, Zahavi's partner in the company HAZ Sports Agency based in Buenos Aires, and Zahavi was involved in the deals that took Tévez and Javier Mascherano from Corinthians to West Ham United in 2006. Zahavi had a close association over a number of years with the company Global Soccer Agencies that owned a half share in Mascherano at that time.
Commenting on the Tévez and Javier Mascherano transfers Zahavi said: "If the players are a big success I make money. Not just if they leave West Ham in the future but if they do well at West Ham. That said, I would be involved in any transfer. But if they stay at West Ham and they are successful I will be one of the beneficiaries."
Zahavi also suggested that he had the idea for the takeover of West Ham United in 2006 by unrevealed investors represented by Kia Joorabchian, although the deal was never completed. He denied being an investor himself in the project:
"I am not involved in the takeover. The deal has nothing to do with me. But it is true that I look for the right investor and then I look for the right place for them to invest. Was it my idea? Yes it was. But it could have been Kia, you or President Bush. I just bring people together and I get paid my commission if a deal is struck. It was the same with Portsmouth and Chelsea."
In 2006 Zahavi he was engaged as a consultant to the Hero Football Fund, established by investors to raise £100 million to purchase shares in young professional footballers, although the fund did not proceed with its association with Zahavi because of the possibility of a conflict of interests.
Other business interests
With his friend and associate, the businessman Eli Azur, Zahavi co-owns a media company, Charlton, that holds the television rights in Israel for major sports, including those of the English Premier League and the top flight of Israel's domestic football. The decision of the company to broadcast the 2006 FIFA World Cup through a pay-per-view offering proved very unpopular in Israel, leading to a boycott of the service and compromising Zahavi's reputation in the country.
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