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English FA and West Brom embroiled in Claudio Yacob transfer dispute

updated 7:16 AM EDT, Thu May 30, 2013
Argentine Claudio Yacob has made an instant impact at West Bromwich Albion. His Engish Premier League debut came on the opening day of last season as Yacob helped Albion beat Liverpool 3-0 at the Hawthorns in August 2012. But the story of his move to England is less straightforward..... Argentine Claudio Yacob has made an instant impact at West Bromwich Albion. His Engish Premier League debut came on the opening day of last season as Yacob helped Albion beat Liverpool 3-0 at the Hawthorns in August 2012. But the story of his move to England is less straightforward.....
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Argentine international Claudio Yacob joined English club West Brom in July 2012
  • Yacob's former agent threatening legal action against Argentine midfielder
  • Two unlicensed agents are also seeking compensation over Yacob deal
  • West Brom: "Yacob signing complied fully with all FIFA /FA rules and regulations

(CNN) -- The deal is done. The dream is reality. Photographers' flashbulbs pop as the club scarf is held aloft. Smiles and handshakes ensue.

It is July 2012 and aspiring English Premier League club West Bromwich Albion has just pulled off a major coup in securing the free transfer of up and coming Argentine international Claudio Yacob from Racing Club de Avellaneda.

It is another feather in the cap for the club's technical director Dan Ashworth, who is now working for the English Football Association as its director of elite development -- tasked with ensuring a production line of future England football stars.

Yacob's signing proves a masterstroke as the midfielder helps West Brom punch above their weight in the Premier League this season, finishing eighth in the table to secure the club's hightest points tally in a top-flight season after years of yo-yoing between England's two top divisions.

When Yacob, who will turn 26 this July, signed for West Brom, Ashworth told the club's website he was "pleased to have recruited a player of Claudio's caliber."

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Yacob started his career at Racing, breaking into the first team at 17 before being appointed as captain while still in his teens.

"To achieve that at Argentina's third or fourth biggest club, and then break into the national team with the wealth of talent his country have to choose from, is no mean feat," Ashworth added.

Yet behind Yacob's transfer to England lies a more complex story which has emerged from interviews as well as emails, photographs and documents given to CNN.

"Rambo"

It's a story that involves threatened legal action by Yacob's former agent, while another Argentine lawyer, Ariel Reck, asked the English Football Association to investigate the transfer over the involvement of two unlicensed agents.

It is also a story that raises questions for the FA and world governing body FIFA in the way transfers are regulated and the role of both licensed and unlicensed agents.

The FA declined CNN's request to interview Ashworth, as did West Brom when asked if Yacob could provide his version of events of the transfer.

"We do not comment on whether or not we are looking into such matters," said the FA after CNN asked the organization to confirm if the governing body was investigating Yacob's transfer to West Brom.

According to a letter given to CNN by Reck, in November 2012 the English FA was asked to examine the alleged involvement of unlicensed agents -- including one nicknamed "Rambo," due to his resemblance to Sylvester Stallone's movie hero

The FA, which has never disputed receiving the letter, refused to answer any questions CNN put it to about the Yacob deal.

Back in Argentina, a threatened lawsuit from Yacob's former agent Marcelo Simonian awaits the midfielder.

In England there are nearly 500 licensed agents, while Italy has double that number.

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But the sheer volume of people -- lawyers, family members, licensed and unlicensed agents -- now engaged in carrying out transfers presents huge logistical problems for both national federations as well as FIFA in resolving disputes when they arise.

Yacob's transfer presents a similar Gordian knot with the documentation handed to CNN by Simonian's legal team, as well as information provided by unlicensed agent Jose Daniel Villagran, suggesting a trail of discontented parties chasing compensation has been left.

Many players struggle when they move from South America to the combative English Premier League, but Yacob has adjusted seamlessly, increasing his transfer value for West Brom, with a number of major clubs reportedly monitoring his progress.

All of this while making five times as much as he was being paid in Argentina, where he was earning $350,000 a year with Racing.

Simonian, who is still listed on the authoritative transfer website www.transfermarkt.co.uk is still listed as Yacob's agent, is arguably Argentina's number one agent, representing a number of leading players, including Paris St Germain's$56 million playmaker Javier Pastore and Valencia midfielder Ever Banega.

According to Simonian's lawyer Matias Elmo, the Argentine agent represented Yacob for six years and, between March 2012 and July 2012, was negotiating with Ashworth and his subsequent replacement -- West Brom's legal director Richard Garlick.

Although now working for the FA, Ashworth worked as a consultant for West Brom for one day a week until the Premier League season ended.

Garlick declined to answer on the record a number of specific questions asked by CNN over the Yacob move.

Gung-ho approach

Despite Simonian's relationship with Yacob, when the deal was finally signed, another agent was on the official transfer documentation -- the lawyer Xabier de Beristain Humphrey.

Simonian's legal team have filed an "Acta de Mediacion" (mediation certificate) in Argentina that states he tried to reach an agreement prior to taking legal action against Yacob.

"Here in Argentina this is mandatory in order to sue somebody," explained one of Simonian's legal advisers Juan Ramilo, who works with Elmo. "Unfortunately, this instance has failed and we are now legally ready to sue Yacob".

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If Simonian feels aggrieved, so too, do the two unlicensed Argentine agents, Villagran and Oscar Bianco.

They claim that they were cut out of what they say is the commission they were due on Yacob's transfer.

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Bianco and Villagran contend they played a key role in Yacob's move, alleging that they brought him to England and accompanied him to Napoli to arrange a European Union passport, based on his Italian heritage.

On legal advice from his lawyer, Villagran declined CNN's request to provide purported mobile phone records that might have indicated the level of contact they had with Yacob and Humphrey as well as West Brom and Ashworth.

Villagran and Bianco have also been unable to provide CNN with any written contract that sets forth a relationship with Yacob in relation to the transfer to support their claim for compensation.

FIFA licensed agent Humphrey -- the agent of record on the transfer -- and his partner at DBW Global Limited, John Wallace, who are both lawyers, firmly deny the assertion that unlicensed agents were engaged on the deal.

"Villagran did not perform any agency services either on behalf of the player or the club in respect of the transfer of Yacob to WBA," DBW Global Limited said in a statement sent to CNN.

Having not been paid, Bianco and Villagran decided to take a more gung-ho approach to secure payment for their alleged involvement in Yacob's move to West Brom.

They got in touch with Reck, who contacted the English FA in November asking it to investigate Yacob's transfer "for the use of unlicensed agents in connection with the registration of the player for the club," according to a letter, a copy of which was given to CNN by Reck.

"It is my client´s intention to report these acts to the FA, so you can investigate if they are in breach of the relevant regulations and to examine the responsibility of WBA and of the agent Xabier de Beristain Humphrey," said Reck's letter to the FA.

Under English Football Association rules "a player or club must not at any time use the services of, or seek to use the services of, pay, or seek to pay, either directly or indirectly, an unauthorised agent in relation to any agency activity."

So in May 2011, for example, the FA fined Queens Park Rangers £113,000 for breaking Rule A1 in relation to Argentine midfielder Alejandro Faurlin's transfer to the London club.

English FA informed

On November 21 last year, the FA's Financial Regulations Officer, Lee Champion, informed Villagran by a purported email -- provided to CNN by Villagran -- asking him "about apparent email exchanges between yourself and Dan Ashworth of WBA in June/July 2012.

"The print quality of the emails is poor and they cannot be read this end. Can you please email copies of these emails direct to me or re-send more readable copies via fax."

The FA declined the opportunity to confirm or deny the authenticity of the purported email and, over several months, repeatedly declined to answer on the record a number of questions CNN asked it about the Yacob deal.

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However, according to a source in Argentina with knowledge of the situation, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, the FA did speak to Yacob in December.

That source also says that Yacob returned to Argentina after West Brom's final game of this season in an attempt to resolve the legal complexities that have arisen from his transfer.

West Brom, for its part, insists that its conduct throughout the convoluted process of signing Yacob was exemplary.

"As with all of our transfer dealings, the negotiation process regarding the signing of Claudio Yacob complied fully with all FIFA and FA rules and regulations," said West Brom in a statement to CNN.

"All negotiations were conducted and concluded directly with a FIFA-registered agent."

However, like the FA, West Brom declined to address on the record a number of specific questions about Yacob's transfer put to it by CNN since February.

Email exchange

Villagran says he became involved in the transfer in May 2012.

Yacob was prepared to move to England and -- according to Villagran -- agreed to a financial arrangement with the Argentine fixer.

Villagran claims he aimed to obtain Yacob a salary higher than $1.3 million a year in the expectation of obtaining significant compensation for his work on the transfer.

In a solitary email exchange between Villagran and Ashworth, which West Brom acknowledges to be authentic, the club's former technical director details the length of Yacob's proposed contract -- a three-year deal with the option of a fourth year -- that would pay him $1.5 million gross a year plus performance and appearance bonuses.

In the email -- dated July 18 2012 -- Ashworth writes in English, while Villagran replies in Spanish.

FIFA estimates that as few as 25-30% of international transfers are concluded using licensed agents.

In the January 2013 transfer window $417 million was spent on 1,748 transfers, involving 145 countries -- a 3% increase from 2012.

"I am sorry, I don't speak Spanish and I tried to call back," writes Ashworth in the email to Villagran.

"I think all the contract has been explained, it is a three-year deal with a further option of one year which is very common in England.

"I promise to look after Claudio if he does well, it is a fantastic chance for him to play in the Premier League and fulfill his dream."

Based on the email thread provided to CNN by Villagran, that email appears to have been forwarded by Villagran to Yacob.

Two days later on July 20 -- as part of the same email thread -- Yacob asks Villagran or Bianco to call him urgently at the Radisson Blu hotel in Birmingham.

Visa application

At the beginning of July, West Brom had written a letter in support of visa applications -- again the club acknowledges this document to be authentic -- for Yacob and his brother Diego, as well as Villagran and Bianco to assist them in their travel arrangements to the UK.

"The above individuals are traveling to England to meet with representatives of West Bromwich Albion to discuss Claudio Yacob signing a professional football contract with the club," reads the West Brom letter in support of the visa applications of the traveling party to England --Yacob, his brother and the two unlicensed agents.

"Mr. Villagran and Mr. Bianco are Mr Yacob's advisers and are traveling with him to negotiate on his behalf with West Bromwich Football Club.

"Once those contract negotiations are completed Mr. Villagran and Mr. Bianco will be returning to Argentina."

According to a British Airways email (from account BA.e-ticket@email.ba.com), addressed "Dear Mr. Humphrey" -- an email given to CNN by Villagran -- four flights costing nearly $11,000 were arranged for Yacob, his brother Diego as well as Villagran and Bianco to travel from Argentina to Britain.

The Mastercard credit card of a "Mr. Xabier Humphrey" is detailed on that email as having paid that sum of money.

Between October 1, 2011 and September 30, 2012, English Premier League clubs spent over $123 million on fees to agents, who fill a dual role -- sometimes working for clubs, while also representing players.

During that period, West Brom paid out $2 million to agents. Premier League champions Manchester City were the biggest spenders, splashing out nearly $17 million.

Humphrey and Wallace declined the opportunity to confirm or deny the authenticity of the email from British Airways.

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Villagran has provided CNN with a series of photos of what he says is of the party's trip to London and West Bromwich.

One picture shows Humphrey smiling with Villagran and Yacob outside a London hotel in Swiss Cottage.

Another picture taken at West Brom's home ground -- The Hawthorns -- shows Yacob and Villagran holding their thumbs up, with Ashworth, Wallace and Humphrey in the background.

West Brom and the two lawyers -- Humphrey and Wallace -- declined to confirm or deny the authenticity of the photographs.

Stumbling block

During negotiations on July 11, according to Villagran, Yacob's relationship with Simonian presented a potential stumbling block to the deal's successful progression -- specifically that the player's contract was still in force with the Argentine agent until July 14.

Villagran says that it was decided to sign the contract on July 11, but to date it as having been signed on July 20.

With so few international transfers being concluded using licensed agents, FIFA has looked at the idea of ditching the system for regulating them.

"A possible new approach could be to regulate the conduct of clubs and players, and extend the scope of the regulations to include all kinds of intermediaries," FIFA has said.

"In other words, the regulations would stop attempting to regulate access to the activity, and instead control the activity itself.

"Players and clubs could choose any parties as intermediaries, but would have to meet certain criteria and respect certain principles. This approach would also result in the annulment of the current licensing system."

Simonian's lawyer declined to specify the details of the agent's contract with Yacob contract. West Brom also declined to say when the transfer contract -- dated July 20 -- was actually signed.

"If the parties intended to sign the contract one day but for it to be binding subsequently, then that is completely lawful," commented sports law specialist and partner at Olswang LLP David Roberts.

"However, best practice would be to document that intention clearly in the contract."

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Villagran further alleges that a second snag to the transfer's successful conclusion was that Yacob needed an EU passport and that he accompanied the player to Naples to get one.

Which leaves the FA having to determine, if it has decided to investigate the transfer, the alleged role of unlicensed agents in this deal and just what was the exact nature of the relationships -- if any -- between Bianco and Villagran and Yacob and Humphrey?

West Brom, as well as Wallace and Humphrey, all declined to answer questions relating to when the contract was signed and whether they had knowledge of Villagran's alleged involvement in the trip to Naples.

Despite Brazilian club Botafogo's reported late interest in signing Yacob, West Brom officially announced his transfer on July 24.

The deal was done. The dream was reality. But what kind of reality did Yacob's transfer really involve?

Additional reporting by Patrick Sung

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