Investors Use Uruguayan Team to Seek Soccer Riches in Europe

As Gareth Bale sprinted towards goal with the ball last month, goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli came off his line to block the Real Madrid winger’s shot.

The save by the Real Sociedad player is good news for Deportivo Maldonado, the second-tier Uruguayan soccer club that owns Rulli’s transfer rights even though he’s never played for the team.

The club, acquired by investors including U.K. racehorse owner Malcolm Caine in 2010, earned more than 10 million euros ($11.3 million) by trading players without them appearing in a match. Rulli -- who’s on loan at Sociedad -- could give Maldonado its next payday.

Investors oversaw tax-avoiding transfers of first-division Brazilian and Argentine players through Uruguayan clubs since the 1990s, exploiting a loophole in soccer ruling body FIFA’s regulations, according to Ariel Reck, a lawyer in Buenos Aires who works for teams. FIFA is looking to stop the so-called “bridge” trades, Reck said.

FIFA may change its rules “to say clubs must have a sporting interest” for a transfer, Reck said.

Caine, who co-owns horses with Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett, said in an e-mail last year that Deportivo Maldonado operates “in exactly the same way as any professionally run football club” and its trades are approved by FIFA and Uruguay’s soccer federation.

He said he invested in Uruguay because it’s the “undervalued gem” of world soccer that produced players including Barcelona’s Luis Suarez.

Player Loans

Caine didn’t respond to e-mails and calls seeking comment about Rulli, who is from Argentina. FIFA, in an e-mail, declined to comment on Deportivo Maldonado’s transfers.

Deportivo Maldonado signed Rulli from hometown team Estudiantes de la Plata, where he played his last league game in May last year. Maldonado subsequently loaned him to Real Sociedad on July 24.

“It was all legal,” Rulli, 22, said by phone last week.

Rulli’s value more than tripled to 3 million euros in the last six months, according to an estimate by transfermarkt.com, which tracks player trades.

The 6-foot-2 (1.89-meter) goalie shut out Barcelona players including four-time world player of the year Lionel Messi and Suarez in a 1-0 win by Sociedad in the Spanish league on Jan. 4. His Jan. 31 save from Bale irked Real Madrid fans although the European champion went on to win 4-1.

Sociedad, 12th in the league, plays at Almeria Friday. In the league so far this year, the team has won twice, drawn twice and lost twice.

More Talks

Rulli said his agent Facundo Fraga will travel to Spain later this month to hold talks with Real Sociedad -- which is coached by former Manchester United manager David Moyes -- about making his transfer permanent. An agreement would need the assent of Maldonado’s investors, Rulli added.

FIFA is trying to stop players being traded for non-sporting reasons, and in March last year fined four Argentine teams for trading six players through Uruguay’s Atletica Sud America without them playing there.

Soccer’s existing transfer rules are “at this stage” sufficient to sanction clubs involved in so-called bridge trades, FIFA said in an e-mail.

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