Secrets of Success
The Uruguayan Juan Figer is one of the most powerful player brokers
in global football – and one of the most elusive. BY HAUKE GOOS
Backstage mastermind Figer: The money will be in the bank on Monday!
spiegel special international edition
F. BIZERRA JR. / EFE / PICTURE ALLIANCE / DPA
MICHAEL KUNKEL / HOCH ZWEI
NEW PRESS / GETTY IMAGES
RONALDINHO KAKÁ ROBERTO CARLOS ADRIANO
FC Barcelona AC Milan Real Madrid Inter Milan
Value*: Value: Value: Value:
¤70 million ¤30 million ¤6.5 million ¤35 million
uan Figer almost came to Leipzig last cludes Luis Figo (Inter Milan), Robinho Figer is a man of power and influence.
December. The draw for the World and Julio Baptista (both Real Madrid), and Even players contracted to other agents
Cup finals was being held at the city’s Alex (Fenerbahce), a quartet alone worth willingly heed his advice: Adriano, Inter
Trade Fair complex. Pelé had already some ¤68 million. Milan’s superstar; Roberto Carlos from
agreed to appear. Michel Platini, Franz Brazil is the world’s biggest soccer Real Madrid; Kaká from AC Milan; or
Beckenbauer and the managers of the bazaar; almost every professional there Ronaldinho of Barcelona, currently the
world’s top clubs were all scheduled to dreams of making it big in Europe. In most valuable player on the planet, have
show. And the sport’s heavy hitters would 2005 alone, 878 Brazilian players signed all sought him out.
be on hand, too. Word was that Figer for foreign clubs. Juan Figer has offices Reiner Calmund, the former commer-
would join this all-star lineup before jet- in São Paulo, Madrid and Tokyo. If he cial manager of Bayer Leverkusen, got a
ting off to Tokyo, to some undisclosed wanted, he could work around the clock. taste of Figer’s clout a few years ago
tournament. Afterward he would head He helped sell Zé Roberto to Bayer Lever- while selling midfielder Ramon Hubner
back to São Paulo. kusen and then to Bayern Munich. He set to Vasco da Gama, one of Rio de Janeiro’s
The evening of the draw arrived, and up Kleberson with Manchester United and top four teams. Vasco paid the first in-
football’s court and courtiers were assem- later with Besiktas of Istanbul. stallment and then defaulted on the rest.
bled: FIFA head Joseph Blatter, UEFA Figer is a leading light in the interna- Leverkusen turned to FIFA for help.
President Lennart Johansson and the tional game, but a luminary who prefers to World football’s governing body issued
coaches of the 32 national teams. the customary warning to its Brazilian
remain in the shadows. He is a master
But Juan Figer was nowhere to be seen. subsidiary, the CBF: If Vasco failed to
craftsman of his trade, and silence is his fa-
The world’s most influential sports cough up, it would suffer the conse-
agent didn’t grace this eastern German quences. Vasco’s president, also a vice-
His image is rarely caught on film, and
city with his presence. Nor did he fly on to president of CBF, simply tossed FIFA’s let-
then it’s in underground parking lots or
Tokyo. Something had come up, some- ter into the wastepaper basket.
the passenger seats of cars: a short, stout
thing that took precedence over Becken- Leverkusen could have forced FIFA’s
man with bushy black eyebrows, his tie
bauer, Pelé and the World Cup. An un- hand and demanded Vasco’s suspension.
askew. The king of secrecy captured in a
specified transfer. Or a million-dollar deal. But fearing negative publicity, the team’s
candid, momentarily frozen in the flash-
Some transaction. Somewhere in the main sponsor, aspirin-manufacturer
light of a disrespectful photographer.
world. That’s par for the course with this Bayer – which operates a major plant in
He drives an armored Opel Omega,
Uruguayan will-o’-the-wisp. He’s every- Brazil – got cold feet. So they decided to
probably the only one in all of São Paulo.
where and nowhere. write off the $1 million loss.
The car has bulletproof windows, reinforced
Juan Figer, the phantom. His career is a Then Figer got wind. He swung into ac-
doors, an armored fuel tank and custom
thirty-year mystery. He rarely gives inter- tion, convening a meeting at 11 o’clock
tires. It’s the perfect disguise. What self-re-
views and shies away from public appear- one Saturday morning. A few words were
specting gangster would hold up an Opel?
ances. He trades in player transfer rights exchanged, and Figer passed judgment:
Juan Figer races through life at such a
and purchase options, supplying the soc- Leverkusen’s money would be in their
relentless pace that he sometimes seems to
cer world with talent, mainly gifted Brazil- bank account the following Monday!
be in several places at once. It’s almost as
ians – and nails down lucrative advertising Figer receives managers and presi-
if the endless globetrotting, the meetings,
contracts for his stars. He advises man- dents in much the same fashion as Mar-
the tortuous negotiations, the sparking
agers and club presidents. His clientele in- lon Brando’s Don Corleone receives pe-
and dousing of rumors, the business
lunches, the intercontinental and red-eye titioners at the start of The Godfather:
flights and catnaps during talks are just He listens, says little and is always will-
* All player values are based on assessments by the web-
one big attempt to escape. ing to assist. But what would have hap-
spiegel special international edition
pened had the Brazilian club not parted
with its cash?
“Don’t ask me,” says Calmund. “All I
know is that I was in Figer’s São Paulo of-
fice one morning recently, and Zé Rober-
to, Julio Baptista and Pelé all dropped
in. Even the president of Porto Alegre
stopped by. Everybody comes to see him.
And they sit down and wait their turn.”
There seems to be no end to the prob-
lems he’s required to solve. “I prefer my
horses to players,” Figer has said. “They
don’t sign contracts. And they don’t talk
Juan Figer was born in Uruguay. He is
ALFAQUI SL / ACTION PRESS
71, or 76, depending on where you look:
On his tax returns, he lists his birthday as
PACO SERINELLI / AFP
IPA PHOTO / IMAGO
October 4, 1934, and occasionally as Jan-
uary 1, 1930.
He started out selling shirts and hoped
to make his fortune in the import-export
trade. He has a head for figures, Calmund ROBINHO ALEX LUIS FIGO
notes, and can effortlessly reel off all man-
Real Madrid Fenerbahce Inter Milan
ner of numbers and interest rates. He still
Value: Value: Value:
has a passion for chess; in his youth, he
¤25 million ¤9.9 million ¤13 million
was the South American champion.
In the early 1960s Figer was hired by
Uruguayan First Division club Penarol as
Japan and Korea. He chaperones the stars between sports and money, about the
the head of youth development, and later
became the club’s commercial manager. from their youth team days until the end leverage of sponsors, the contours of
Penarol captured the league championship of their careers – all around the world. corruption.
several times during his tenure. The club Football agents have much in common Having failed to incriminate Nike, the
also won the Copa Libertadores, South with chess players: success depends on committee took aim at the cartolas – the
America’s version of the Champions watching your adversary, recognizing his functionaries, financial wizards and
League, and the FIFA World Club Cham- weaknesses and thinking ahead. It’s about wheeler-dealers behind the scenes.
pionship. identifying simple solutions. And making Figer was called to the stand and grilled
In 1968 Figer moved to São Paulo. In the crucial move at the right time. like a criminal. All of a sudden he, too,
March of 1970 he promoted his first game: But in 2001, Figer was dragged out of was suspected of being part of the con-
Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro versus Pe- soccer’s shadows and thrust into the lime- spiracy destroying the national game.
narol, his former employer. Figer tried to light for the first time. The Senate, the Hours of his testimony were broadcast live
entice the teams with shares of the gate. upper house of the Brazilian parliament, on television. The chess whiz had been
But both were leery and demanded cash was demanding answers to a question that summoned to explain the rules of his
up front. Figer took out a loan. Fortu- had been festering since 1998, when Brazil game, to describe each of his moves in
nately for him, 100,000 fans poured into lost the World Cup Final to France. Why, detail. Figer seemed nervous.
the Maracana Stadium. despite suffering a seizure on the morning As everybody in Brazil knew, Figer con-
That same year he conducted his first of the game, had Ronaldo been selected to ducted much of his business via Uruguay,
transfer, when the Uruguayan Pablo For- play against the host nation and eventual usually through the clubs Central Español
lán of Penarol signed for São Paulo. Soon winners? Two years earlier Nike had and Rentistas. Uruguay did not levy
afterward, he arranged three more Uru- signed a 10-year contract worth more than taxes on player transfers. This loophole
guayans’ moves to Brazilian clubs. $160 million with the CBF: the biggest provided Figer with two ways of circum-
Football is a business, and Figer will sponsorship deal ever for a national team. venting Brazilian tax inspectors.
happily lock horns with anybody who As part of the package, Nike had secured Plan A: Figer tipped off Uruguayan
thinks otherwise: with people who are Ronaldo’s services. The footwear brand clubs about budding Brazilian stars. The
clueless about the incredible financial was suspected of having forced Ronaldo to teams could then buy out their contracts
lace up his boots and take his place on
possibilities offered by the sport, or with – either completely or in part – and then
football’s greatest stage. loan the players back to their previous
those who believe that profit is immoral –
A parliamentary committee investigat- owners. When the time was right, the star-
and are incapable of appreciating
ed the allegations. Its members pored lets were sold to Europe for huge fees.
the beauty of a perfectly-designed com-
over bank accounts, tax returns and The Brazilian clubs served as the shop
pensation package, or of a resolved trans-
telephone records. It also called 125 wit- windows, while their Uruguayan partners
fer complication that makes everyone
nesses, including Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos raked in tax-free profits.
and former national team coach Mario Plan B: The Uruguayan clubs signed
Thanks to his worldwide contacts, Juan
Zagallo during its 59 sessions. Soon, the Brazilian players already on Figer’s books
Figer has come to personify the global-
ization of the people’s game. He’s a fixture committee had an even hotter topic on and then sold them to European teams
on the German transfer scene and has re- its hands. The issue was no longer the for a large profit – at up to twice the orig-
cently branched out to England as well. World Cup that got away: Brazilian foot- inal fee. This maneuver gained notoriety
He shepherds young Brazilians into the ball itself was now on trial. The country’s as the triangulaçao uruguaia, the Uru-
European leagues and the old guard into fans learned a lot about the relationship guayan triangle.
spiegel special international edition
In December the Brazilian parliamen-
tary committee presented its findings – a
full 1,129 pages worth. The report de-
scribed the Brazilian football federation
as “a forum for crooks where disorgani-
zation, anarchy, incompetence and hypo-
crisy rule.” The lawmakers called on the
police to launch 17 criminal investigations.
The report concluded that Figer per-
formed “transactions that border on ille-
gality,” describing the transfers via
Uruguay as “extremely suspect.” The par-
liamentarians urged the public prosecu-
N. HAUPT/WEREK/PICTURE ALLIANCE/DPA
tor, financial authorities and Brazil’s cen-
MARKUS ULMER / ACTION PRESS
tral bank to look into Figer’s dealings.
And there the matter ended. Because
Figer has friends in high places. He is prac-
COVERSPOT / IMAGO
tically a son to João Havelange, Brazil’s
long-serving past FIFA president, and on
good terms with Ricardo Teixeira, presi-
dent of the CBF.
The extent of Figer’s influence became
EDU JULIO BAPTISTA ZE ROBERTO
apparent at the 2002 Champions League
Valencia Real Madrid Bayern Munich Final in Glasgow, which Leverkusen lost
Value: Value: Value: to Real Madrid. Before the game, a ban-
¤7 million ¤20 million ¤8.5 million quet was held for representatives of
the tournament’s 32 participants, UEFA
and the national football associations.
Juan Figer was seated with the Lever-
In reality, the triangle is a labyrinth by giving the Brazilian Rodrigo – who was
kusen delegation at Reiner Calmund’s in-
complex enough to confuse anyone. Even on loan at Portuguesa – a free transfer to
the Brazilian parliamentary committee Flamengo. This in turn induced Flamengo
At the beginning of the evening Sepp
was flummoxed. Its members also ques- to release Zé Roberto to Leverkusen for
Blatter, the powerful FIFA president,
tioned Figer about his role in the transfer just over half the amount.
stood up to say a few words. When he’d
of Brazilian international Zé Roberto to It was the beginning of a beautiful rela-
finished, he breezed past the tables with
Real Madrid in 1997. Zé Roberto’s path tionship. Leverkusen’s Calmund and Figer
the teams and the officials. And stopped
was equally circuitous. quickly became friends, and the Brazil-
to greet one person only. Juan Figer –
First he was dispatched to Central Es- ians Paulo Rink and Robson Ponté soon
with a warm embrace. Figer holds stakes
pañol by Portuguesa São Paulo for a fee of found themselves new homes on the
in teams and TV stations, plus a few race-
$4.6 million. Then, on the very same day, he Rhine. They were joined by França and
horses. His house in Campinas, an hour’s
was sold on to Real Madrid for $9.98 million. Juan shortly afterward.
drive from São Paulo, has two swimming
Even at the time, Brazilian newspapers Rumors began to circulate in April of
pools, and a floor area half the size of a
speculated that Figer was not acting solely this year. It emerged that Leverkusen had
on behalf of Real Madrid and Zé Roberto. been paying Figer regularly between 1997
Juan Figer no longer scours Brazil’s
It was insinuated that he actually controlled and 2003 – for services that nobody in the
pitches in hopes of persuading young
Central Español and used it as a front to club could trace, “notwithstanding a com-
prospects to sell their souls for a pittance.
avoid stepping into the spotlight himself. prehensive investigation.” In total, the
Today, if a team has a promising youngster
The Brazilian government lost out on club had transferred no less than $11.85
on its books, Figer proposes a deal that
taxes on both Zé Roberto’s 15 percent million to Figer’s account.
benefits all the parties: he buys a 50 per-
signing fee and the $800,000 commission Most suspiciously, the Uruguayan had
cent stake of the player’s future transfer
pocketed by Figer. The Uruguayan found granted Calmund a low-interest ¤200,000
rights for $1-2 million. This allows the
himself accused of tax evasion. loan at the end of 2002, via a letter-box
perennially cash-strapped Brazilian clubs
So nobody would have been more re- company in Panama. It appeared that Figer
to bolster their coffers – and Figer to claim
lieved than Figer when Uruguay imposed was using such favors to boost his business.
half of any future profits.
a small levy on transfers a few years ago. Figer soon realized that the soccer mar-
As part of its investigation, the com-
Five percent is better than no tax at all: it ket was like a perpetuum mobile, the
mittee published a register of phone calls
nips any hint of impropriety in the bud. popular desktop toy for business execu-
made from Figer’s office. Thirty-nine
When Zé Roberto found the going tives. Like the stainless steel balls that re-
countries were listed for the previous five
tough in Madrid, he headed back to peatedly ricochet off one another, players
years, including Cameroon, Israel, Japan,
Brazil, this time to Flamengo – where he bounce from club to club. Teams buy and
Luxembourg, Norway, and the states of
caught the attention of Bayer Leverkusen’s sell players all the time – because they
the former Soviet Union. A total of 1,168
coaching staff. Zé Roberto was too ex- want to improve, because somebody is in-
calls were made to Germany alone, 528 to
pensive for the Germans but Figer had an jured, because a new star has emerged,
Italy and 17 to the Dutch Antilles.
or because a team is in dire straits. And
elegant solution up his sleeve. He was ne-
Six months ago Figer was asked to de-
with every transfer, Figer cashes in.
gotiating another transfer at the time be-
scribe the players’ market of the future.
Figer is the guy who sets the first ball in
tween Real Madrid and Flamengo for the
Noting that he was currently finalizing his
motion. He’s also a beneficiary of every
left-sided Brazilian midfielder Savio. So
move into China, he said. “I expect the
subsequent contact; each one earns him a
he engineered the following deal: Real
Chinese game to explode in two years.”™
paid part of Zé Roberto’s $14 million fee
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