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Soccer Transfer Rights of African Teens Sold to U.K. Company

Portugal’s Benfica sold the transfer rights of two soccer players from one of Africa’s poorest countries to a London-based investment company for a total of 500,000 euros ($650,000) amid a debate on whether such arrangements should be allowed.

Benfica sold all of the transfer-market value of striker Joao Mario Fernandes and midfielder Luciano Teixeira, both 19, to bearer-share company Robi Plus Ltd. in December, according to an earnings statement released late yesterday by the Lisbon-based team. A bearer-share company is a way of shielding the ownership structure, according to Richard Murphy, director of Tax Research LLP.

Soccer ruling body FIFA is studying whether to change rules that allow clubs to sell transfer rights to investors who are betting players will be traded to another team at a higher price. The practice, banned in the English Premier League and France’s Ligue 1, is allowed in most other national leagues as long as investors don’t influence trades. Many of the deals are opaque and investors could seek to move around younger players against their will, according to Gregor Reiter, chief executive officer of the German association of soccer player agents.

“We have to draw the line at players becoming a commodity,” Reiter said by phone last week. Athletes from Africa and South America are particularly vulnerable to pressure, Reiter said.

Fernandes and Teixeira are from the western African country of Guinea-Bissau, which is one of the world’s poorest nations with an annual per capita gross national income of $600 and more than half the country living in poverty, according to the World Bank. Both teenagers play for Benfica’s ‘B’ team after joining the club in the last 18 months.

Transfer Market

Benfica spokesman Ricardo Maia didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment about its agreement with Robi Plus, and calls to his mobile phone and the team press office went unanswered.

Benfica, which gets 49 percent of its revenue from the transfer market according to yesterday’s filing, is among southern European clubs increasingly turning to deals with investors amid sluggish ticket and sponsorship sales and difficulty in getting credit from banks. They say investors can’t force player trades, and are only acting as a credit facility for teams.

Robi Plus’s director is Maurizio Delmenico, a 58-year-old Swiss, according to filings at U.K. register Companies House. The holder of the share certificate of a bearer-share company is the recognized owner. Delmenico, a player agent and tax adviser, said by phone from his office in Lugano, Switzerland, last year that the company is his own and he set it up in the U.K. because some of its affairs, including brokering player trades, are based there.

Delmenico said today he was unable to make an immediate comment today about the acquisition of the transfer rights of the two African players.

In December 2011, Robi Plus acquired 10 percent of the transfer rights of Porto players Eliaquim Mangala of France and Belgium’s Steven Defour according to a Porto filing.

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