How bribes and secret bank accounts led to a bomb in the directors’ box

Author: Steve Boggan

Mr Edwards took these words from Russian football agent Grigori Yesaulenko to be a threat on his life. Until then, the United heirarchy had been bemused and occasionally intimidated by the eccentricities of the former Soviets. Now they were frightened.

It was July 1995. Mr Yesaulenko had been involved in 1991 when United bought the winger Andrei Kanchelskis from the Ukrainian club Shakhtyor Donetsk. Now, he was anxious to sell the player on again so he could land a cut of the fee. But there was a problem. In the 1991 contract with Shakhtyor, a copy of which has been obtained by The Independent, Clause 4 stipulated that the Ukrainian club should be given 30 per cent of any profit made from any future sale. Everton had offered pounds 5m, United had paid pounds 650,000 so Shakhtyor wanted about pounds 1.3m

Kanchelskis is also thought to have had a clause in his contract guaranteeing him one-third of the sale fee. But, at board level, the directors wanted to net pounds 5m for the club. That meant the sale was not worth the club’s while. The deal was shelved, and Grigori Yesaulenko was furious.

“After threatening Mr Edwards, Mr Yesaulenko said he would sort out the Shakhtyor problem,” said a Ukrainian source close to the negotiations. “He did, and Kanchelskis was sold to Everton a month later. But the way he did it opened a can of worms which may have led to the death of Aleksandr Bragin, Shakhtyor’s president.”

Mr Bragin, a bachelor businessman in his 40s, headed a company called Luxe, which police had investigated for fraud. He had survived two attempts on his life. Three months after the Kanchelskis sale, Mr Bragin and five bodyguards were blown up at Shakhtyor’s ground four minutes into a match against Crimean team Tavria.

Behind every Ukrainian football team there are shadowy figures with mafia links. Locally, it is believed those figures had realised Mr Bragin had been holding out on them.

The events which led to his death began after Mr Yesaulenko threatened Mr Edwards and said he would “sort out” the Ukrainians. While the Kanchelskis talks were stalled Mr Yesaulenko sent a fax in English to Shakhtyor.

He asked one of the club’s vice-presidents, named Kolotsei, to forward it on Shakhtyor notepaper to Manchester United. Much to United’s delight, the fax, dated 13 July 1995, waived the Ukrainian club’s right to the 30 per cent profits from the player’s transfer fee and he was sold to Everton.

But Mr Bragin and his deputy, Ravil Safioullin, claimed Mr Kolotsei – who did not speak English – did not know what he was sending. In a letter to United, dated 19 September 1995 and re-affirming the club’s claim on the money, they wrote: “Mr Kolotsei signed … text in the English language prepared by Mr Yesaulenko … only because Mr Yesaulenko requested and explained that this fax was necessary exclusively for helping Andrei Kanchelskis to solve private problems …” The new interest in Kanchelskis, stimulated by Mr Yesaulenko, caused the Shakhtyor heirarchy to re-examine the original March 1991 contract. Clause 3 stipulated they were entitled to even more money, pounds 150,000 after Kanchelskis had played 40 games for United, pounds 250,000 after 80 games, and a further pounds 150,000 should he renew his contract. But a check on their accounts showed the money had not come in.

“At first, they thought Manchester United had been in league with Mr Bragin to ensure the money was not sent to the usual bank accounts, but United satisfied them they had paid the money and suspicion fell on Mr Bragin,” said a source close to the deal.

Shakhtyor’s accounts were at the Bank of New York in New York under the auspices of the Donetskprominvestbank and at the Prominvestbank of Ukraine in Kiev. But Mr Bragin had sent a fax to United asking for the 30 per cent of profits to be deposited in an account in the name of Euro Football Ltd at Coutts & Co in Zurich.

Yesterday, the club said Euro Football was in no way connected to Shakhtyor. It appears that Mr Bragin attempted to divert the money – more than pounds 1m – into that account without the club’s knowledge. Mysteriously, the fax was sent not from his own office but from a machine at rivals Dynamo Kiev.

He failed to get his hands on that share of the deal but others suspect that he may have been involved in the disappearance of the other payments amounting to pounds 550,000 later.

After Mr Bragin’s death, United and Shakhtyor continued arguing over the Kanchelskis profits. The Ukrainians also needed reassurance that the English club had made the pounds 550,000 payments relating to the player’s appearances.

In Munich on 23 and 24 January 1996, Maurice Watkins, United’s solicitor, proved to Ravil Safioullin, Mr Bragin’s successor, that United had been asked to pay the money into a numbered Swiss bank account. Manchester United will not say if this was Mr Bragin’s Euro Football Ltd account.

“Bragin was already dead by then,” said the source. “It simply reinforced the view that something had gone wrong. None of this was United’s fault – but someone appears to have misled them. We believe Bragin took the money and spent it on property in Switzerland and restaurants in Russia.”

Yesterday, Sergei Burlaka, a Shakhtyor spokesman, said he doubted the president’s death was linked to the Kanchelskis deal. Though Mr Bragin appears to have tried to divert more than pounds 1m to Switzerland and is suspected of siphoning off a further pounds 550,000, Mr Burlaka said: “That is not enough money to cause what happened. It is only a small amount of money.” He said no-one has been caught for the murders.

Organised crime is deeply involved in football and other sports in the Ukraine. Many sportsmen, including Kanchelskis, who now plays for Glasgow Rangers, have reported having to pay mobsters protection money and entire clubs are controlled and run by the Ukrainian mafia.

When Mr Bragin was killed Mykola Chernysh, head of the Ukrainian Soccer Federation said: “Ukrainian soccer is in a dreadful financial state because the government has no funds to spare for sport. The vacuum has been filled by commercial firms and the Ukrainian mafia has moved in. Their dirty money is flowing in, aimed perhaps at making profits through television advertising and the transfer of valuable players.”

The argument over Kanchelskis’s transfer raged until March 1996, when United settled with a pounds 770,000 payment. Maurice Watkins, the United solicitor, began the negotiations with Mr Bragin and ended them with Mr Safioullin. After the murder he never went back to the Ukraine.

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