DFB severs long-held ties with Infront but agency fighting its corner
By Simon Ward
The DFB, the German soccer federation, has dramatically cancelled its contracts with long-time partner Infront, the international sports marketing agency, after a probe revealed “potentially damaging activities,” alleged to include the granting of gifts to employees of the governing body in return for favours.
However, the DFB is set to face a legal challenge from the agency, which denies the claims, based on the findings of an investigation conducted on behalf of the federation by the Berlin-based detective firm Esecon.
Infront, which is owned by China’s Wanda Sports Group, said on Wednesday evening it “will do everything to enforce its rights under the existing contracts with the DFB.”
The relationship between Switzerland-based Infront and the federation dates back decades and in recent years has centred on the DFB Pokal, the German cup competition, with the agency responsible for the sale of media and sponsorship rights, and latterly the securing of perimeter advertising partners for matches.
However, following an online conference of its presidium, or supervisory council, on Wednesday, the DFB said in a brief statement that it had decided to “to terminate the existing contracts” with Infront.
The federation added that it had “in May 2019 received indications of potentially damaging activities by the company Infront against the DFB” and now had the results of the Esecon investigation.
The DFB concluded: “It follows that there have been various activities over the past few years which the DFB sees as clear irregularities in connection with the creation and provision of contractual services by Infront, as well as unlawful interference with DFB representatives.”
The federation has not provided further details but a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel last Friday claimed that the Esecon probe had founded that Infront was awarded the perimeter advertising contract for Germany national team matches in 2013 (which ran to 2018) despite a competitor offering €18 million ($20.3 million) more, and that the subsequent deal for the DFB Pokal games, which came into effect in 2015, was granted to the company in questionable circumstances.
It was alleged that in the same month that Infront was granted the first contract, the son of then DFB secretary general Helmut Sandrock was given a job at Infront, and that when the cup deal was negotiated, the then DFB president Wolfgang Niersbach was invited to a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean by his friend Günter Netzer, the former German international who was at the time an executive director of Infront.
Sandrock, Niersbach and Netzer have all denied misconduct.
Der Spiegel reported last week that the Esecon report had put financial damage to the DFB from the scandal at €40 million.
The relationship between Infront and the DFB dates back to 1980, with this month marking the 40th anniversary of an agreement signed with the company’s predecessor CWL.
In a statement on Wednesday, Infront lamented the DFB’s decision “to end its very successful and lengthy partnership… and terminate or discontinue with immediate effect all existing contracts.
“Infront contests the validity of this cancellation and insists on the full completion of the current contracts with the DFB. Infront has severe doubts about the methods and motives of the investigative agency Esecon on whose interim report the DFB is basing this proposed cancellation.”
Infront said last week that an extensive investigation it had carried out with external lawyers reached “completely different conclusions.”
The DFB launched the probe last year at the same time Infront announced it had been the victim of “fraudulent activities” presumed to have been conducted by “one of its senior former employees” under criminal investigation in Switzerland and “relating to disloyal and unfaithful business management.”
The identity of the former executive has not been divulged but the case is linked to unauthorised reduction of exposure for LED perimeter board advertisers at German soccer matches, with extra slots sold to other brands, and prompted Infront to enter negotiations with the advertisers, most of which have now been compensated.
The agency maintains that while unnamed individuals may have been guilty of wrongdoing, it has not profited itself from any corruption.
Infront, which has not had access to the Esecon report, has reiterated its criticism of the reported findings, citing a lack of evidence.
It said of the probe: “This includes the reversal of the burden of proof and the use of dubious sources of information, including demonstrably falsified documents. In fact, all there is are allegations for which Esecon has so far not provided any reliable evidence.
“We have considerable doubts about the seriousness of the investigation commissioned by the DFB, which has led to a damaging prejudgement of Infront, especially in light of all the forwarding of one-sided, preliminary investigation results to the media and the resulting one-sided reporting referencing, among other things, proven forged documents.
“For Infront, it is unacceptable that the decades-long, successful and transparent business activities for the DFB have been put in a negative, at times even criminal, light by Esecon’s unsubstantiated allegations and often abstruse suspicions.”
Infront said that given the rejection of a mutual solution to the situation it had always proffered to the DFB, it was insisting on “the mutual fulfilment of the contracts” and “looks forward to any judicial assessment of the matter” confident that the allegations against it “will prove to be unfounded.”
The agency will be eager to safeguard a reputation built up over the near 20 years since it was formed in 2002 from the ashes of the collapsed Kirch media group.
Prominent clients include Italian soccer’s Serie A, the European Handball Federation, the CEV, the European volleyball confederation, and all seven of the international Winter Olympic sports federations.