At the Congress in Bahrain he was appointed as new member of FIFA’s Ethics Committee. Meet Aivar Pohlak.
By Lars Johnsen, Håvard Melnæs and Pål Ødegård
Back in 2012, in front of investigators from the Norwegian police, Aivar Pohlak, long-time President of FC Flora Tallinn and President of the Estonian FA since 2007, described Estonian football and his business empire.
“Football is a young sport in Estonia. I have throughout my whole life actively contributed to building a football culture in Estonia. For this I have been commemorated by FIFA”, Pohlak is recorded saying in the official interrogation file.
Pohlak sat across the police as a suspect in a tax evasion case. The scheme involved the Estonian player Raio Piiroja, who had been sold to Fredrikstad FK from FC Flora Tallinn in 2004. At Fredrikstad, Piiroja was a key player, however he received a meagre salary compared to his teammates. At the same time, Fredrikstad FK had transferred millions of Norwegian kroners to Estonian bank accounts. The invoices said “scouting fees”. But nobody could account for the scouting. And whilst he was full-time professional player with a club in Norway, Flora Tallinn continued to pay Piiroja.
This arrangement aroused interest from the Norwegian tax authorities.
Fredrikstad FK had made the scouting agreement with two companies, a players’ agent company called Sport & Net Grupp, chaired by Aivar Pohlak, and a company called Artnet Grupp, Aivar Pohlaks non-football related personal company.
“Sport & Net Grupp is owned 100 per cent by Flora. It was founded to maximise income from football-related activities like agent representation and scouting,” Pohlak explained to the Norwegian police.
According to the international company registry Orbis, Sport & Net Grupp OÜ is a subsidiary company of FC Flora Tallinn. Flora, like all football clubs in Estonia is listed as an MTÜ, the Estonian classification of non-profit organisations.
Josimar are in possession of bank transaction records obtained by the Norwegian tax authorities. They show the following pattern: Payments were made by FFK Sport AS, the commercial entity of Fredrikstad FK, to Artnet Grupp and Sport & Net Grupp. Within a few days, Flora would transfer this amount minus 20-25 per cent to Raio Piiroja’s Estonia-registered bank account. The size of the payments varied between 330 000 Norwegian kroners (approximately 30 000 pounds) to 1 000 000 Norwegian kroners.
“The agreement between FC Flora and Raio Piiroja is a deal given to loyal players who have spent years at the club, players the club like to keep. It’s part of a long-term strategy. The agreement states that Raio is entitled to a stipend from FC Flora if FC Flora makes money off him”, Pohlak claimed, according to the police file.
“Of course I am aware of this agreement, I have seen the money in our account”, Pohlak told the police.
Aivar the almighty
Aivar Pohlak is the founder of FC Flora Tallinn, Estonia’s biggest football club, and served as President of the club until 2016 when he passed on the club’s official leadership to one of his sons. He is a board member of several other football clubs, chairman of Sport & Net Grupp and dealer in TV rights. He doesn’t think his multiple roles could lead to conflicts of interest.
“The source for the conflict of interests is mostly coming from the wrong way thinking inside of personality, not from the positions somebody has. I have always being working for the interest of football and never been in conflict with that principle. Which means also that in case there has been a theoretical possibility to have such a conflict I have been asking to take important decisions by the General Assembly of Estonian FA and not by the Board. The best confirmation for my words is the fact that I was re-elected as the President of Estonian FA at the end of March 2017 unanimously”, Pohlak answers via email.
There were no other candidates in the 2017 presidential election.
In the early days of Estonian independence Flora Tallinn doubled up as Estonia’s national team. They often travelled with two sets of tracksuits – the green of Flora would be used one day, the blue bearing the word “Eesti” (“Estonia” in Estonian) the next.
As President of Flora Tallinn, Aivar Pohlak was notorious for not paying players, and those who voiced dissent would be transferred to one of the other clubs he controlled. Journalists writing unfavourable articles could find themselves on the receiving end of verbal abuse and even threats of physical violence.
Aivar Pohlak had been quick to understand football’s pull as a sport and business as Estonia became an independent country in 1991. Fluent in Russian and English, he made money in the nineties as a middleman in transfers of players from former Soviet republics to the West, like Giorgi Kinkladze’s move from Dinamo Tbilisi to Manchester City in 1995, and as an intermediary who secured TV rights deals in those same former Soviet republics.
The same skills would later be put to use to gather support for Michel Platini and Aleksander Čeferin in the UEFA presidential elections.
Sources in Estonia, describe Aivar Pohlak as a Godfather-like figure in Estonian football. Nothing happens in Estonian football without his blessing.
“At least that’s the way it was. He’s older now and has more people around, but Estonian football was basically built by one man. He’s a football fanatic,” Raio Piiroja tells Josimar.
According to the Estonian news website Delfi, Aivar Pohlak announced during the 2017 General Assembly of the Estonian FA that he had been approached by UEFA to sit on the European governing body’s Executive Committee. He turned the offer down, he said, to focus on matters at home.
Pohlak is a well connected man in the football world. A look through Estonia’s opponents in friendly matches lends testimony to that, with world powerhouses like Uruguay and Brazil visiting Flora’s stadium in Tallinn. And the Estonian national team, who has averaged 92nd since the birth of the FIFA ranking system, has been invited to play attractive fixtures away to France and Portugal. The Estonian team has also made several long-distance travels to play friendlies; to the Americas, China and the Middle East.
Preferred method of payment
Raio Piiroja had arrived in Norway in 2003 in a loan deal between Flora and the Oslo club Vålerenga. Vålerenga’s managing director at the time was Kjetil Siem. He would later be appointed CEO of South Africa’s Premier Soccer League and was the Secretary General of the Norwegian FA (NFF) from 2012 to 2016 when he resigned to become FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s strategic adviser. In the article “The President’s Man” published in September 2016, Josimar outlined the role Siem played in getting Aleksander Čeferin elected as UEFA President. A task he had started when he was Secretary General of the Norwegian FA – a clear breach of NFF regulations.
Under Kjetil Siem’s tenure as director of Vålerenga, several players were transferred or loaned to and from Flora Tallinn. As was the case with between Flora Tallinn and other Norwegian clubs.
Since 1992, Flora have won 10 league titles and finished outside the top three only five times.
Piiroja would get a permanent transfer to Norway the year after his loan period at Vålerenga, to Fredrikstad FK.
Documents in Josimar’s possession reveal that the practice of paying a low salary and transferring money to a company in the Baltic state, was the preferred method of payment to players who had signed with the the Pohlak-controlled Sport & Net Grupp agency.
Negotiations on behalf of Sport & Net Grupp was conducted by the company’s licenced agent and Aivar Pohlak’s right-hand man, Tarmo Lehiste.
“The agent (Lehiste) claims this type deal is standard for all Estonian players in Norway”, a sporting director with a club in Northern Norway wrote in an email to the club’s board.
Under article 6 of the FIFA players agent regulations of the time, any officer or employee of a club, federation or confederation was ineligible for a players’ agent licence. Therefore the negotiations on behalf of Sport & Net Grupp was officially handled by Lehiste.
“When it comes to transfers of Flora players, I have to confer with Aivar,” Lehiste admitted when interrogated by the Norwegian police in the Piiroja tax case.
Not being allowed to act as agent did not stop Aivar Pohlak from meddling in potential transfers of Estonian players. A recent case is Igor Subbotin, who in 2014 was eyed by the German club Jahn Regensburg.
“A trial was scheduled […] But then the Estonian FA interfered. Their president (Aivar Pohlak) wanted to make some money for himself. For this reason, we distanced ourselves from Subbotin”, Jahn Regensburg sporting director Christian Keller told the local newspaper Blizz.
“The mother of children”
Sitting in front of the Norwegian investigators in 2012, was not the first time Aivar Pohlak found himself face to face with law enforcement. In 2004, his then-wife accused him of 20 years of physical abuse.
Pohlak is the best-known figure of the sports administrators in the Baltic state, and his former wife’s allegations were relayed to the population. “It was nasty and very public”, a source who followed the case closely tells Josimar.
His former wife, and mother of four of Pohlak’s children, told of a 20 year long marriage where she was repeatedly beaten. “She was not even allowed to laugh,” the Delfi newssite reported. “According to Pohlak laughing was a sign of idiocy.”
According to the Delfi article, Pohlak avoided the term “wife” outright.
“First of all, I never use the word ‘wife’, as this is a dirty word in my opinion. I always say ‘the mother of children’.”
In the Estonian media, Pohlak counter-attacked and claimed his former wife had assaulted him.
Two specific instances of physical abuse were investigated, but Pohlak could not be convicted. The statute of limitations had expired.
“My former wife with whom I was married from 1984 until 2002 has never given any interviews to the media. Based on the stories in the media the official investigation was opened and closed quickly after hearing of me and my former wife because the accusations did not have the basement,” Pohlak answered Josimar in an email.
In the Piiroja case, the player pleaded guilty to tax evasion of 800 000 Norwegian kroners and had his income reviewed and retaxed.
A full-scale trial mapping out the scope of the business practices of the current Estonian FA President and member of the FIFA Ethics Committee was thus avoided. With a guilty plea, did Piiroja take the blame for the scheme?
“That’s a good question. I did something wrong and was penalised. End of story,” Piiroja says. Today he works as a fisherman and lives in Pärnu, 118 kilometres from Tallinn.
As Michel Platini sought to become UEFA President in 2007, the support from Pohlak and the connections he made in the 1990s in Eastern Europe were vital. Platini visited Pohlak at his home on the island Saaremaa in the Baltic sea, roughly four hours drive from Tallinn. The former Soviet states decided to vote for Platini, thanks to Pohlak.
“Why I chose to support Platini is a long story. But it’s true that this support determined the outcome of the election”, Pohlak told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten in December 2011.
Platini won the election, 27 votes to 23. The Swede Lennart Johansson’s 17 year long reign as UEFA President was over.
Aivar Pohlak and Estonia were, like the Nordic countries, quick off the mark to endorse Aleksander Čeferin’s candidacy for the UEFA Presidency.
Was a seat on FIFA’s Ethics Committee Pohlak’s pay off?
Normally, according to UEFA sources, it is the President or his Vice Presidents who decides who will be nominated for positions like these. UEFA’s media departement says the Executive Committee makes the decision based on proposals from member associations.
So who proposed Aivar Pohlak?
“There are minutes produced for UEFA Executive Committee meetings, but such minutes are of confidential nature and thus not made public”, UEFA’s media departement says.
At the FIFA Congress in Bahrain, both the chairmen of the Ethics Committees, Hans-Joachim Eckert and Cornel Borbely, were removed by President Gianni Infantino. Josimar revealed that they lost their positions because they investigated the FIFA President for interfering in the CAF election in March where the unknown Ahmad Ahmad of Madagascar ousted the veteran Issa Hayatou.
A FIFA source tells Josimar they wanted more time to do eligibility checks.
“We had preferred more time to check all the candidates, but Aivar Pohlak in particular”, the source says.
“Pohlak is an honest man. If you are good to him, he is good to you”, Raio Piiroja says.
Asked if he sees any reasons why you would be ineligible to hold such a position, Aivar Pohlak replied:
“I see this appointment as a responsibility in front of the football and I did not see any reason not to accept that.”
Who nominated you?
“Current proposal was made to me by the UEFA administration. As you were asking on the phone about Alexander Čeferin, I have to add that I have never spoken with UEFA president about this.”