Was it the accountant who panicked Ajax?
Was it the professional-critical attitude of the accountant that exposed a conflict of interest at Ajax? There will be no answers. However, accountants point out the special circumstances in professional football that the accountant has to take into account. Like emotions that are rampant, combined with reputational risks.
“No, the information about purchased Ajax players does not come from the accountant,” says spokesman Joost Schmets of investor association VEB. The investor association recently mentioned an even greater conflict of interest within the Ajax- management than was already known. Multiple players would have been pressured to switch to a player broker who has a business relationship with Ajax’s technical director, Sven Mislintat. The player broker in question is a shareholder of Mislintat’s data company.
Since then, unrest has reigned in Ajax’s boardrooms. Mislintat has been fired. A duped player broker demands financial compensation from Ajax. The club hired a KPMG forensic accountant to investigate a conflict of interest.
An initial analysis showed that the hassle surrounding the transfers does not affect the financial results, Ajax has now reported in the 2022/2023 annual report, as an event after the balance sheet date. The club further indicates that it is not aware of anything unlawful in the transfer of players.
Is it then the accountant who has exposed irregularities at Ajax with a professional-critical attitude? When asked, Ajax does not comment on this. Deloitte, which checks Ajax’s financial reporting, also does not answer questions about this.
The fact is that exposing irregularities with potential financial impact is an eminent task of the auditing accountant. The 38 clubs in professional football are obliged to follow the detailed control protocol of umbrella organization KNVB, which is based on regulations of UEFA, the European Football Association. An auditor issues an audit report according to Standard 700, the audit protocol prescribes. On September 30, the clubs had to submit their annual financial reports to the KNVB, including the accompanying auditor’s report.
“Exist football is a special industry, which must comply with specific financial regulations,” also says Albert Bosch, partner of V&A accountants-advisors. “There are revenues, costs and balance sheet items that you don’t have with an ordinary organization. In addition, there are specific risks, for example in the field of abuse and corruption in the purchase and sale of players.”
A complicating factor for the accountant is formed by the emotions, which can rise high in a football club, Bosch continues. “They are not directly expressed in the financial accounts, but indirectly play a role. Think of the impact of emotions on the sale of season tickets and attracting or retaining sponsors. The emotional component also has an organizational impact, for example on personnel mutations, the culture and atmosphere that prevails there and the way in which internal and external communication is made. As an accountant, you have to take this into account and continue to follow current events.”
According to Bosch, this makes professional football an environment that also has risks for the accountant. “The emotional component can result in what the AFM calls ‘situations’, which in extreme cases can grow into serious incidents with an impact on the business operations of the audit firm. The audit firm must then report it to the AFM.”
Knowledge of the industry and its specific risks is indispensable for accountants of paid football clubs, says Bas Stolwijk of Sportaccountant. “That is because of the special aspects of the industry and the specific KNVB regulations that professional football clubs must comply with. We are mainly concerned with the financial guidance of individual professional athletes, including football players. If there are developments that affect the annual accounts or compliance of a professional football club, it is mainly up to the auditing accountant to judge that.”
Conflict of interest
The role of the accountant in the troubled Ajax was first raised by Dennis Vink, professor of finance & investment at Nyenrode Business University. He stated on Radio 1 that the accountant rings the bell if there is a conflict of interest at Ajax. “Does the accountant suspect that there was an opposite interest in the purchase of players, he must insist on an independent valuation of the player,” Vink explains. “Hae Ajax against appearances, then the accountant must know everything about it, he must be on top of it.”
This is also stated in the Manual for Regulations for Accountancy (HRA), says Koen Borst, who is affiliated with the Compliance Office as a partner. In 2010, he co-wrote an article with Emile Elzinga on the value of the accountant in football and financial fair play. “Standard 550 requires the accountant to gain insight into transactions of football clubs with related parties affiliated with the club or management. The question is whether transactions between related parties are in line with the market, say fit with normal business traffic. If the answer is not clear, the accountant should ask management for additional information. If necessary, the accountant can insist on further investigation from a professional-critical attitude.”
The question is what that critical attitude can lead to at a football club. Hassle around the transfer of players is not a reason for a depreciation of players on the balance sheet unless transfers have been made unregulated. “In a normal organization, employees are not activated as an asset,” explains Albert Bosch. “Strictly speaking, the football clubs also do not activate employees, but they do activate compensation sums paid. Specific requirements apply to this, such as which costs may be activated, the method of write-off and the maximum duration of write-off.”
Still, the depreciation of players on the balance sheet in the form of activated compensation sums is possible in certain circumstances, says Roland van Hecke, partner of BDO Audit & Assurance. “In professional football organizations, the cash flow generating unit is in principle the entire group of players. However, it may happen that an individual player is no longer part of the player group. For example, if that player has been removed from the selection or in the event of a long-term illness with no prospect of recovery within the contract duration. In such cases, an individual player is no longer part of the cash flow generating unit. Often impairment then occurs.”
Even in the special situation that subsequently shows that the transfers and related fees may not have been lawful, this can have consequences for the valuation on the balance sheet, Van Hecke adds. “It is up to the auditing accountant to have an independent and independent judgment about the facts.”
Events after balance sheet date
Ajax achieved a turnover of €196.3 million and an operating result of €4.7 million in the reporting year 2022/2023. Net profit was €39.0 million. In the 2021/2022 season, Ajax recorded another loss of €24.3 million; the difference is due to a number of hefty transfers.
About the events after the balance sheet date, Ajax writes in the foreword of the management: “After the balance sheet date there was the departure of the director of professional football, the Classic was discontinued and the chairman of the supervisory board resigned. This cannot be seen separately from a disappointing season start in 2023/2024 from Ajax 1.”
Deloitte also emphatically reports events after the balance sheet date in the seven-page audit report. “Our judgment has not been adjusted as a result of this matter.”
Next annual report
But there is no accountant who thinks that the transfer problems at Ajax are now the reason for a devaluation on the balance sheet. It is also not yet clear whether there is a material interest in the matter. Let alone that it is clear whether shareholders can claim damages from Ajax, spokesman Joost Schmets of investor association VEB decides. “Then it must first be determined whether Ajax has suffered damage because rules have not been followed properly. The accountant will of course include the findings on this in the judgment on the annual report. But that could take until the next annual report, in 2024.”
Henk Vlaming is a journalist.