When Rocco B. Commisso completed his purchase of the Italian soccer club A.C.F. Fiorentina last summer, he described the deal as the “quickest closing in soccer history.”
Flushed with excitement about owning a top-division team in the country of his birth, Commisso, the billionaire chairman of the cable provider Mediacom, spoke passionately about his aspirations to lift the club, based in Florence, up the league standings. There would be no shortage of effort to match the ambitions, he said at the time.
But like other American owners who have invested in Italian soccer, Commisso, 70, has quickly learned that the challenge of running a team in Italy is a far more difficult undertaking than simply buying one was.
Like other American owners, for instance, he has found his grand hopes for a new stadium become tangled in red tape and nostalgia. But there have been other, thornier challenges, too. After that speedy agreement to close the deal last June, Fiorentina’s owners discovered a curious set of agreements — contracts signed by the club’s former executives just before the team changed hands.
The agreements, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times, effectively gave a soccer agent, named in February as part of a money laundering investigation in Spain, permission to find buyers for at least five members of Fiorentina’s roster. In return, the agent would be paid a commission. If Fiorentina balked at completing any deal the agent brought to the club, he would receive a penalty fee instead.
In effect, Fiorentina had agreed to offload some of its top players for a price negotiated by an outsider, for an amount it had not defined, or pay the agent a fee if it did not.
“This agreement seems to guarantee a payment to the agency no matter whether a transfer actually takes place,” said Roy Vermeer, the legal director at FIFPro, the worldwide union for professional players. “It’s hard to understand the reason why any club would agree to this.”
The accords are with companies controlled by the agent, Abdilgafar Fali Ramadani, whom the Spanish authorities have accused of being part of a multimillion-dollar money laundering and tax evasion scheme. But they offer yet another glimpse of the murky realities that underpin the global player transfer system, an industry worth more than $7 billion a year.
Fiorentina executives declined to comment on the agreements, and Commisso was not available for comment, according to a spokeswoman.
“For sure there was a strange relationship between Fiorentina and Ramadani,” said Pippo Russo, a sociologist at the University of Florence who has written books on the role of soccer agents in the transfer system.
For much of the decade before Fiorentina’s American takeover, the club’s relationship with Ramadani was as close as one between a team and an individual agent could be. A frequent visitor to the club’s offices, Ramadani, a Macedonian businessman known for his access to some of the…