Broker Stijn Francis about the consequences of Operation Zero for football: ‘The culture has not changed at all'

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Broker Stijn Francis about the consequences of Operation Zero for football: ‘The culture has not changed at all’

‘A change of mentality in football? Forget it.’ Former professional player, ex-lawyer and football broker Stijn Francis remains little hopeful about the future of his sector, even after the prosecution’s claim in Operation Zero.

Dimitri ThijskensJanuary 16, 2022, 17:00

On Friday, the public prosecutor’s office made it clear in its draft claim in Operation Zero that it is serious: it wants no fewer than 57 suspects in court for large-scale tax fraud, match fixing and gang formation. This includes many big names, such as players’ agent Mogi Bayat, CEO Vincent Mannaert and chairman Bart Verhaeghe of Club Brugge, former RC Genk director Patrick Janssens, Standard chairman Bruno Venanzi and Charleroi chairman Mehdi Bayat.

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It now sounds to many that this will lead to a real purge in football. But Stijn Francis (39), broker of about sixty football players, including Toby Alderweireld, Dries Mertens, Zinho Vanheusden and Cyriel Dessers, thinks the same. “Three years ago, when Operation Zero exploded, I thought this would change Belgian football. Now I don’t believe in it anymore. I have been naive.”

Why the sudden turnaround?

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“The culture hasn’t changed at all. The Pro League is still run by people from football itself, so there is no independence. There is still no transparency and no level playing field for brokers. It remains an we-knows-us world, in all areas, with the clubs being the spider in the web. That applies to the players’ agents: you have to stand up for your players, but still make sure that you don’t upset the club too much. Otherwise you won’t get in. And that applies to the sports journalists: they are the communication channel of the sports director of the clubs. They also have to maintain a balance between being critical and still being welcome at the clubs.”

In the meantime, politicians have put in place a lot of regulations. Football is now under anti-money laundering legislation and there are certain conditions to become a broker.

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“All of that is of no use. That legislation to become a real estate agent for example: Dejan Veljkovic would have had no problem complying with those rules. What does that mean? And that anti-money laundering legislation will indeed lead to an extra barrier to fraud. But new ways will just pop up. If I’m honest, the way Veljkovic cheated was probably very amateurish. Withdrawing a few hundred thousand euros in cash does not immediately show much sophistication.”

Yet he was able to do it for years without any problems and clubs went along with it. How is that possible?

“Fraud is of all times. Almost forty years ago there was already a major investigation into black money at the Waterschei football club. I think it starts small. It’s like: ‘You have a company in Cyprus, can’t we invoice a little more from there? You can withdraw that money almost tax-free after all.’ But if one sees that one can get away with it, then more and more risks are taken. It’s also part of the culture of football, which has a lot of political connections and at one point may have thought itself untouchable. It’s like one scout told me, ‘We’re sorry… we got caught.’”

CEO Vincent Mannaert and chairman Bart Verhaeghe of Club Brugge risk prosecution.Image Photo News

You are internationally active yourself. Is Belgium unique in that regard?

“No definitely not. You see that a lot of tax investigations have been opened in other countries. Everything is much more sophisticated there, so that it is even more difficult to act against it. In Italy it is almost mafia. But also in the Netherlands, for example, often regarded as a guide country, we hear that scouts of certain clubs ask brokers for expensive timepieces in order to be in good standing with them and to pass on information. At one point, we even had a legal investigation into the extent to which this constitutes bribery. If it’s legal, you almost have to go along with it. But we have kept our hands off it.”

Were you surprised at the scope of the system?

“Of course you hear certain rumours, but I mainly thought that the brokers in question were trying to get more out of the fire for themselves and thus put their own players in the pocket. Veljkovic also distributed a lot of money to players and clubs so that they could benefit. I did not know that. But let’s be clear, there are still the exceptions. I am still convinced that 90 percent of the three to four hundred real estate agents in Belgium do it legally. The problem is that Veljkovic was one of the highest earning brokers. Smaller brokers might then think there was no other way.”

Have you ever been asked to participate in setting up these types of constructions?

“No, never in Belgium. But mind you, I have to admit that in a way I was lucky. For many years I was the lawyer of the then Standard chairman Roland Duchâtelet. He was very much against player agents. So when I became active in that sector myself, they paid extra attention. I was the last person they would think of to set up these kinds of constructions. Plus, my wife is a tax specialist and she has always been watching. When foreign clubs made certain proposals to do deals in a tax-friendly way, she always said no. These are annoying discussions, but that way you immediately draw the line. This line is not always clear to non-specialists. Under other circumstances I might have rolled in.”

And what is the role of the players themselves in this whole story? Are they not to blame?

“No, I don’t think so. The players are the victims, they are deliberately kept stupid by clubs and brokers and often do not even know what exactly their broker has earned on a transfer. As I said, it’s already hard for us to know exactly what’s legal or illegal, it’s all the more so for them. It has also resulted in players having to use a different broker for certain deals. We will not stop them then.”

In conclusion: nothing will and nothing can change. A sad conclusion. Do you see a bright spot, a possible solution?

“Yes, abolish the transfer market. Then 95 percent of all problems will be solved. All that big money disappears from the system. The brokers will then only have to deal with the career of the players and no longer with the well-being of the clubs. But I realize that this is not very realistic at the moment.”

Broker Stijn Francis about the consequences of Operation Zero for football: ‘The culture has not changed at all’

Stijn Francis (left) is a broker for, among others, Toby Alderweireld.Image Twitter Stijn Francis.

Bruges, Genk, Standard, Charleroi, Ghent and Kortrijk risk losing their license

A conviction of suspects can cause problems for certain clubs from the Jupiler Pro League. The association regulations explicitly state that a football club will not receive a license if an associated legal entity “has been convicted of money laundering, human trafficking or gang formation less than three calendar years before the license application”.

Affiliated legal entity is understood to mean: “any entity, which directly or indirectly holds 10 percent or more of the voting rights”. This definition includes the suspects Bart Verhaeghe and Vincent Mannaert (Club Brugge), Mehdi Bayat (Charleroi), Michel Louwagie (AA Gent) and Bruno Venanzi (Standard). In other words, if they are convicted, they will have to sell shares or put them in the name of family or business partners. And importantly, they should step aside as chairman, director or CEO and step down from the board for a minimum of three years.

Because “the chairman, the directors, the general manager (or general manager), the financial director, the sporting director, the manager of the training center and the authorized correspondent” are also explicitly mentioned as an associated legal entity. This also means that general manager Matthias Leterme (KV Kortrijk), authorized correspondent Pierre-Yves Hendrickx (Charleroi), financial director Filip Aerden (RC Genk) and board members Herman Nijs and Herbert Houben (RC Genk) will step aside in the event of a conviction. in order not to jeopardize the license.

This rule applies from the moment that all appeal options have been exhausted. In Operation Zero, that will be faster than usual because the 57 suspects must immediately defend themselves before the Court of Appeal. The reason is that François De Keersmaecker, ex-president of the Belgian football association and one of the suspects, is a deputy judge at the company court in Mechelen. In that case, a trial will immediately take place in the first and last instance.

Broker Stijn Francis about the consequences of Operation Zero for football: ‘The culture has not changed at all’
Source link Broker Stijn Francis about the consequences of Operation Zero for football: ‘The culture has not changed at all’

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