Whether known as football or soccer or calcio, the game is among the most widely played and watched sports on earth. Fans and casual onlookers alike, however, have noticed the pace of player transfers grow faster in recent years, under the crafty mediation of agencies that represent football stars. Now, one of the leading agencies in the business has emerged as just one of a Kazakh family’s many ventures, in addition to activity in chemicals and real estate projects from the Caspian Sea to the United States.
In 2015, Football Leaks, an anonymous group, unveiled hundreds of contracts and the secret documents that went alongside the deals. The group then gave its terabytes of data to EIC (European Investigative Collaborations), a consortium of investigative journalists from European media outlets, to help connect the dots of the whole story, not just the few shady deals that the original group had traced.
Unsurprisingly, the leaks unveiled the names of famous and well-connected intermediaries, mostly linked to the Doyen Group, based in Turkey since 2011 and managed by the Arif family. The brothers Tevfik and Refik Arif hail from Kazakhstan. They grew up as Soviet bureaucrats and reached success during the first years of independence after gaining ownership of a chromium plant in Aktobe, ACCP, in northwest Kazakhstan. Now Chinese-owned, ACCP used to be headquartered in the British Virgin Islands, a notorious tax-haven, the Arifs’ favorite destination to relocate profits.
The Arifs became close with the so-called Kazakh Trio, Alexander Mashkevich, Alijan Ibragimov, and Patokh Chodiev, who operated large-scale mining projects in Kazakhstan and enjoyed privileged access to the court of the country’s long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Later, the Arifs set up profitable real estate companies offshore that funded some of the luxurious developments in the post-Soviet region, chiefly in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. Tevfik Arif, who moved part of his business to the United States in 2001 and entered into real estate deals with President-elect Donald Trump, was arrested in 2010 in Turkey on suspicion of running a prostitution ring from a luxury yacht. He was later acquitted of all charges. The episode, however, brought to light the family’s high-level connections. The Arifs decided to place their next bets in the football world.
Tevfik’s sons and his brother Refik became involved in Doyen, making it almost a family business. Tevfik’s son Arif manages the Doyen Capital company in London. Doyen acquired transfer rights of players, who were inevitably traded during the first available transfer window. Football clubs, like Spain’s Atletico Madrid and Sevilla and Portugal’s Porto, used the cash to balance their budget.
The practice became so widespread that FIFA, the game’s international association, decided to act to ban third-party ownership (TPO), which was causing the carousel of transfers that only benefited intermediaries and was conspicuously used to balance the books. Former UEFA President Michel Platini defined TPOs as “a type of slavery that belongs to the past.”
From bankers like Margulan Seisembayev, in the Swiss Leaks, to the president’s grandson Nurali Aliyev in the Panama Papers, high-profile figures from Kazakhstan have frequently popped up after major international leaks of secretive information. In the Football Leaks, however, the Arif family seems to be a core protagonist, highlighting just how central a role Kazakh intermediaries have played in major sports deals in the past decade.
Doyen continues its business today, through third-party investments, which are still allowed by FIFA. According to Football Leaks documents, in November 2015, Doyen offered a 1.5 million euro loan to Spain’s Cadiz football club for a 20 percent stake in each contract of the team’s players. Acting through FIFA’s loopholes, Doyen and other agencies have shaped the movements of hundreds of players, from emerging stars to seasoned veterans, because they could earn hefty commissions at each transaction.
In the next weeks and months, the EIC consortium will continue publishing more news stories about the shady schemes that swayed the transfers over the past seven years, possibly extending the web of connections further across the globe. For now, the take-home is that this worldwide secretive network of football machinations had a Kazakh family at the center.