By David Conn
At Portsmouth, crumpled into administration again, the fans are in a kind of post-traumatic aftershock, picking at how seven years in the Premier League and an FA Cup victory in 2008 can have left such a legacy of ruin.
Mulling over the five owners in three years and the parade of players and agents who earned prodigiously and moved on, some at battered Fratton Park see the fabled agent Pini Zahavi as emblematic.
He was involved in the buying and selling of Portsmouth, earned money in deals to sign and sell several players, acted on the recruitment of Avram Grant as the manager and had a scouting agreement with the club worth £800,000.
“Pini Zahavi is described as a super agent,” says Ashley Brown, chairman of the Pompey Supporters Trust, “but like many others, he made his money and is gone. We’re left with a club in the Championship and very little infrastructure, struggling to survive. Zahavi’s lasting legacy is Tal Ben Haim.”
The Israeli defender, signed by an already financially imploding Portsmouth in August 2009, is still on that same four-year contract, paid £36,000 a week, highlighted by the administrator, Trevor Birch of PKF, as grimly excessive.
Zahavi, speaking from his Tel Aviv office where, he said, he is very busy doing football deals around the world, clarified his involvement at Portsmouth.
He pointed out that like all creditors besides players and other clubs, he has not been paid “one penny” of the £2.074m he was owed when the club collapsed into administration for the first time, in February 2010. “I was a victim at Portsmouth,” he said.
“Yes, I worked to bring Avram Grant and Tal Ben Haim, I had the scouting agreement and agents fees, but I was kept waiting for money because of my friendship with the club. I never thought they would go into bankruptcy.”
Zahavi confirmed he introduced the young French-Israeli Sacha Gaydamak to buy Portsmouth from the previous owner, Milan Mandaric, in 2006.
The former chief executive Peter Storrie recalled the first meeting, attended by him, Gaydamak and Zahavi, because Mandaric had not wanted to waste his time if the deal was not real. “Of course I got a commission for bringing in Sacha Gaydamak,” Zahavi said.
However, he said he was not involved or paid on the subsequent takeovers, after Gaydamak withdrew his funding in 2008 with Portsmouth haemorrhaging losses.
Zahavi said he did not work on the takeovers by Sulaiman al-Fahim, from Dubai, in August 2009, and denied a previous report that he then brokered the takeover by the Saudi Arabian Ali al-Faraj, five weeks later, saying only that he is friendly with a lawyer who worked on that deal, Yoram Yusepov.
Neither, he said, did he know Balram Chainrai, the Hong Kong-based lender who ended up owning Portsmouth and putting it into administration and still has a £17m secured loan over the club.
“I know him now, since he took over,” Zahavi said, “and he is a top man. But I did not know him before.”
When Gaydamak was lending millions and guaranteeing bank borrowings to sanction expensive signings of top players under managers including Harry Redknapp, Zahavi did work on some of the deals.
He had already been involved during Mandaric’s time, in the signing of the Zambian striker Collins Mbesuma in August 2005, and Storrie recalled Zahavi working on the signings of the Israeli midfielder Eyal Berkovic and Yakubu Ayegbeni, from Maccabi Haifa, in April 2003.
Famously Zahavi had a £3m agent’s fee agreed with Middlesbrough when Yakubu moved from Portsmouth in July 2005, payable if the striker stayed at Middlesbrough for five years – he moved to Everton after two.
Portsmouth sources recall Zahavi worked on the signing of Glen Johnson from Chelsea in August 2007, although Zahavi said he did not, and to sign Younès Kaboul from Tottenham Hotspur the following summer.
Zahavi did not say if he worked on that deal.
“I mostly sold the players,” Zahavi said. “I saved the club from bankruptcy because I managed to sell the best players.” Sulley Muntari’s departure to Internazionale, for £12.7m in July 2008, was one of those sales, he said.
Storrie explained why Portsmouth agreed for Zahavi to work as a scouting consultant, a two-year contract worth £400,000 a year. “He has a lot of contacts in Argentina, Brazil and Chile and we thought we could tap into that knowledge,” Storrie said. “It could have been a hell of a good deal for the club but it wasn’t long before administration happened.”
Zahavi said he presented Portsmouth with possible players to buy from all over the world but the club did not conclude any deals. “I got them amazing opportunities for players but they never bought them because they did not have any money,” he said.
He was paid the commission from Gaydamak and fees for the deals in the times of plenty but, when Portsmouth fell into administration, his £2.074m outstanding was included on a list of 24 agents to whom Portsmouth owed almost £9m in total.
The debt to Zahavi included his scouting agreement and the fees from several player transfers. “Because of my friendship with them, I agreed to wait,” he said.
“Most agents got more than me. This money was the scouting and agents’ fees from four to five years of hard work and I didn’t get a penny.”
Ben Haim was signed in a deal brokered by Zahavi on the final day of the 2009 summer transfer window, days after Fahim’s ill-fated takeover. Storrie defends it, saying they had to sign players quickly. “He was a Premier League player and £35,000 a week wasn’t an outrageous sum of money. There was nothing untoward about it.”
With a contract for image rights, payable to a company registered in the tax haven of Guernsey, Ben Haim’s pay totalled around £50,000 a week, £2.5m a year, for four years, a £10m commitment.
Two administrations on, bottom of the Championship after a 10-point deduction, Portsmouth must still pay Ben Haim’s wages.
In England, unlike Scotland where Rangers players agreed a significant pay cut, footballers’ wages are protected in administration by agreement with the Professional Footballers’ Association and by the “football creditors rule” that requires players and clubs to be paid in full, while other creditors must accept a fraction of what they are owed.
At Portsmouth Birch laid off 33 staff while Ben Haim’s and the other players’ wages cannot be cut at all.
Pompey’s second administration, after the most recent owner, Vladimir Antonov, was arrested for alleged bank fraud in Lithuania, which he denies, means those owed money from the first, who were due 20p in the pound, including Zahavi, will not see that.
Birch is talking up the club’s “special” qualities, its loyal support, hoping to attract a buyer with the promise of selling some high-earning players in the summer, reducing the ongoing commitments.
Zahavi said that he thinks in the summer Ben Haim will move on. As for him, the “super agent”, he said: “I am doing a lot of business. Football in the world has become very big and I am doing very well.”
Zahavi worked as an agent on several players joining and being sold by Portsmouth including Yakubu Ayegbeni, Sulley Muntari and Tal Ben Haim.
Zahavi confirmed that he introduced Sacha Gaydamak to buy the club from Milan Mandaric in January 2006 and was paid a commission for brokering the takeover.
Zahavi was involved in bringing the Israeli Avram Grant to Portsmouth; Grant joined as technical director in June 2006 before leaving to manage Chelsea. He returned to Portsmouth as director of football in October 2009, replacing Paul Hart as the manager a month later.
Zahavi signed a two-year deal worth £800,000 to scout for players. He says he presented Portsmouth with a list of promising players, but the club fell into administration soon afterwards, did not sign any of the players, and did not pay Zahavi.