Stefan de Vrij interview: One chat with Romelu Lukaku exposed millions agents were earning off me

Romelu Menama Lukaku Bolingoli and Stefan de Vrij of FC Internazionale chat during a FC Internazionale training session at Appiano Gentile on August 22, 2019 in Como, Italy
De Vrij and Lukaku have been off-and-on team-mates at Inter since 2019 - Getty Images/Claudio Villa

The Netherlands international Stefan de Vrij can recall the moment he first had serious doubts about who had been paid what in the deal that took him to Inter Milan, and it was not an agent, lawyer, or accountant who alerted him – it was Romelu Lukaku.

The team-mates were chatting after training in September 2019 more than a year after De Vrij, now a 66-cap centre-half, had moved to Inter. It had started innocently enough, with Lukaku talking about De Vrij’s status as a free agent when he joined the summer of the previous year. Then he asked De Vrij a question about the agency that represented him.

“It was ‘Do you have a signed contract?’,” De Vrij recalls. “I said I didn’t. He [Lukaku] was like, ‘Did they represent you?’ I said, ‘Of course! They are my agents’. He said that didn’t mean they represented me. He told me to check my contract.”

That conversation almost five years ago set in train what would be one of football’s more remarkable legal cases. It encompassed two Amsterdam court hearings and two multi-million euro awards. De Vrij, who was 26 when he made that move to Inter is now 32. He sought damages against the biggest talent agency in the Netherlands for failing to disclose to him the size of the commission it was paid on the deal that took him to the club, and the consequences that fee might have for his own tax liability.

That agency was Sports Entertainment Group [SEG], led by the agent Kees Vos, who represents Erik ten Hag, Rasmus Hojlund, Cody Gakpo and Robin Van Persie among others. From De Vrij’s move to Inter, it would emerge that SEG had earned a commission of €9.5 million and was entitled to a further 7.5 per cent of any further transfer fee paid for De Vrij.

Kees Vos and Erik ten Hag pictured leaving Manchester United London office New Man Utd boss Erik ten Hag spotted leaving the club's London office, UK
Kees Vos (left) counts Man Utd manager Erik ten Hag as one of his agency's biggest clients - Shutterstock

In April 2022, De Vrij won damages of €4.75 million plus interest in a civil case against SEG. Vos took the case to Amsterdam’s court of appeal vowing to overturn the judgement. In April this year, the appeal court upheld the original verdict and De Vrij’s award for damages against SEG was raised to €5.2 million plus interest.

Now, six years since that move to Inter was agreed, De Vrij can finally tell his story. A cheerful, engaging character, he speaks on video call from his home in Milan where he is a Serie A champion with Inter for the second time. Currently he is at the Euros with Netherlands, and played in their first two games, against Poland and France. He has also fought a legal case that, he says, is prompting players across European football to take control of their own finances.

De Vrij is unusual. After five years immersed in contract law and tax liabilities he is prepared to talk about the opaque world of transfers, salaries and the fees agents earn on their clients. Since his circumstances became public knowledge, he says he has been contacted privately by many players. Those players have doubts about transfers they were involved in, and what implications those deals might have for them in the future.

De Vrij’s case is specifically about disclosure. He was awarded what is known in Dutch law as “kans schade” – “opportunity damages” – for having been denied an opportunity to negotiate a better deal. There was also a question of who might be liable to pay tax on the huge sum that SEG earned. De Vrij says, quite simply, that when he learned the full scale of SEG’s commission he was advised by his lawyers that his tax liability meant he had to take action if he wished to avoid the financial consequences.

“I did my moral part,” De Vrij says, describing the chats he has had with fellow players. “I told my story and what they do with it is their thing. What I always advise is … whoever represents you, of course that matters. But make sure you have an independent party checking all the documents. I think that’s the best advice I can give. A lawyer. Of course, it costs money but good advisors are worth it. That’s the most important thing. To make sure everything on paper is the right way.”

Fifa reported that last year, clubs spent $888 million [£710 million] on agents’ fees, a 43 per cent increase on the previous year, of which more than $280 million [£224 million] was paid by English clubs. The Fifa president Gianni Infantino has faltered in his battle to cap fees. Not least in England where the Football Association, as a proxy for Fifa and its new rules, were defeated by a coalition of leading agencies in an arbitration tribunal in November.

There is no suggestion on De Vrij’s side that agents are bad – indeed he is now represented by a well-known Italian agent. Neither does he claim to have been left bereft by football. He is a wealthy young man. The intriguing question the court was asked to decide whether SEG breached its duty of care and, if so, how much De Vrij was financially damaged as a consequence.

‘How is this possible?’

After their conversation in 2019, De Vrij followed Lukaku’s advice. “So, I got my contract,” De Vrij recalls, “and I see ‘Inter’ and in the box after that ‘represented by SEG’. Then the player: ‘Stefan De Vrij doesn’t use representation’”.

He was shocked, he says. De Vrij went back to Lukaku and told him. “And he [Lukaku] says, ‘You don’t know what they made?’ I did not understand the story back then. He [Lukaku] said, ‘You are at risk to pay taxes on their commission’. I thought: how is this possible?”

Stefan de Vrij of FC Internazionale Milano, Romelu Lukaku of FC Internazionale Milano during the Italian Serie A match between Internazionale v AC Milan at the San Siro on February 9, 2020 in Milan Italy
An unprompted conversation with Romelu Lukaku first alteretd Stefan de Vrif to a potential issue with his contract - Getty Images/Mattia Ozbot

Since he was a teenager at Feyenoord’s academy, and was first approached by SEG for representation, De Vrij and SEG had agreed that they did not need a written contract formalising the arrangement. It was done on a handshake. SEG earned five per cent and then six per cent on his contracts with the Dutch club. They negotiated his deal in 2014 when he moved to the Serie A club Lazio. As the court would later hear, on SEG’s website, its social media accounts and also in internal emails, De Vrij was referred to as a client.

The practice of the agent representing the club in negotiation was the case, Vos told Telegraph Sport in October, ahead of the appeal, in, “95 per cent of transactions” in Italy. It was done that way so that the tax burden for the commission – a benefit in kind – did not fall upon the player. “To say that it is strange that we operated on behalf of the club,” Vos said then, “is not true.”

Lukaku had identified the problem with that argument. De Vrij says, “He [Lukaku] was like, ‘Ok, that is true [there is no signed contract] but in [terms of] the behaviour of you and SEG they are representing you - and working for you. So, the tax authorities could say, “Hey, listen, you said you didn’t use an agent but we can see on Instagram or the company website that they are working for you. So you should have declare the taxes [taxable benefit] and you should have paid [the tax authorities]”.’”

The next thing Lukaku did was pass on the number of his lawyer, Sébastien Ledure, a partner in the Brussels firm Cresta. Then De Vrij called his brother Niels, who works in finance, and the pair resolved to find out exactly how much SEG had made out of the deal to take him to Inter.

De Vrij admits that, even before the conversation with Lukaku, he had harboured some suspicions. As his contract ran down at Lazio, the relationship with the club had become difficult. Lazio did not want to lose him on a free transfer and both sides blamed one another. De Vrij says SEG did not want him to re-sign with Lazio although the two parties did discuss that option, with a buy-out clause included.

Lazios Stefan de Vrij celebrates his scoring during UEFA Europa League round 16 second-leg football match FC Dynamo Kiev vs SS Lazio Rome at the Olympiyski Stadium in Kiev on March 15, 2018
Stefan de Vrij's relationship with Lazio had started to break down before his move to Inter - Getty Images/Sergei Supinsky

“After I signed the Inter deal, they [SEG] were so happy,” De Vrij says. “They would have made maybe a tenth [of the commission with Lazio] so it was really important for them I signed with Inter.”

It was, De Vrij says, a struggle to persuade SEG to disclose the full extent of their commission. He and Niels were asked by SEG to meet them without Ledure. The De Vrij brothers refused. Instead they said they would go directly to the tax authorities to force disclosure. Eventually, over a video call with SEG, Stefan was told the full details of SEG’s commission. It was as follows:

  • Total of €7.5 million paid in three instalments over 12 months

  • Further €2 million paid in instalments of €200,000 every six months for as long as De Vrij stayed at Inter

  • 7.5 per cent of any future transfer fee for De Vrij

“There was this silence,” De Vrij recalls, “and then a wait to see how we responded. It was awkward.”

SEG and Vos chose not to comment on the issues raised in this interview.

De Vrij says that SEG and Vos were keen to meet informally after that. When Inter played in Barcelona he was invited to meet Vos for a coffee at the team hotel but declined. “Then I was in the squad for the national team and the evening before they called my brother multiple times,” De Vrij says. “They said we could see each other in the lounge. Niels said he was not coming because I was not starting. I was not responding any more [to the requests for a meeting].”

“I was on the bench and at half-time I was [warming-up] on the pitch. I saw them in the stand, which was empty because everyone had gone to the lounge. Kees and Jeroen [Hoogewerf, a director at SEG] were there. I don’t know if they wanted to make a point but I saw them standing there almost like, ‘Oh we are here and we want to speak with you’. I didn’t go to the [players’] lounge afterwards and I heard he [Vos] was looking for me.”

De Vrij said that he was willing to meet SEG, but not without his lawyer. Attempts at a settlement failed. SEG’s legal position was that it did not formally represent De Vrij in the Inter deal. “That was where the case started,” De Vrij says. “One of the big reasons I went ahead was that I had a big risk. I was at risk to pay taxes on their commission and also a penalty [on top of that]. So I had to make sure I was covered by this and if they were not willing to give that, I was going to court. That was the main reason to go forward with this.”

‘The judges said I was right’

De Vrij says: “I knew I had a strong case and had nothing to hide. I had the truth on my side. They [SEG] had to explain they were not representing me. All they could say was that I did not pay them directly, I was not a client and I didn’t have a signed contract. But in Dutch law a verbal agreement is binding. It was about justice, so I was also not scared to do it.”

How does the emotion of winning on court compare with the equivalent on the pitch? “It was really euphoric, the first time and the second,” De Vrij says, “because let’s say it was years into which I put a lot of effort. This was an important thing for me. It was very satisfying that the hearing went very well but you never know what the judge will say. I was very happy. The judges said I was right.”

It was revealed in court that the SEG’s commission was conditional on De Vrij’s total five-year contract, including bonuses, costing Inter less than €50 million gross. SEG claimed the €50 million figure was set that high – not because it was unattainable but because it was not, even allowing for possible changes to the rate of income tax. De Vrij saw it otherwise and the €50 million figure formed the basis of his claim. He originally claimed damages of €12.5 million which was €50 million less the €37.5 million contract he signed with Inter.

During the years leading up to the hearings, De Vrij was contacted by the Italian tax authorities and ordered to pay tax on SEG’s commission on his 2014 deal to Lazio as well as a penalty payment. It emerged that in that deal SEG had also formally represented the club and not De Vrij. “You get this tax letter seven years later and of course, it was serious money,” De Vrij says, “but the amounts they [SEG] made back then with Lazio was nothing like they made with inter. But it does show you that this [tax liability] risk is real.”

Ledure continues to be retained by De Vrij along with his new agent, Federico Pastorello. The player-agent relationship, however, is very different to that which he had previously with SEG. Any commission is decided by De Vrij and not between club and agent. Last year De Vrij signed a new two-year deal with Inter up to the end of the 2025-2026 season with an option for the club to extend for a further year. Having first been offered that deal directly from club to player, De Vrij asked his new agent to explore the market for alternatives.

“He [Pastorello] did find alternatives but none I was interested in,” De Vrij says, “it is very hard indeed to find an upgrade on Inter. Commission was available and I said, with all due respect, I think it is right that this commission gets added to my salary. I said: ‘You [Pastorello] put in a lot of effort but you did not get me a better deal or an alternative I want, so I pay you for the effort.’ He really made the minimum. He was fine with that.”

De Vrij is happy at Inter and satisfied that the regime in 2018 simply did what it took to sign him, as per the conditions laid out by SEG. Yet he also wonders who else might have been interested in him then but were discouraged by the scale of the commission set by Vos and SEG.

Stefan De Vrij of FC Internazionale arrives at the stadium prior to the Coppa Italia Semi Final match between FC Internazionale and Juventus FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on April 26, 2023 in Milan, Italy.
Stefan de Vrij is very happy in northern Italy - Getty Images/Mattia Ozbot

What bothers De Vrij above all is a view, perpetuated, he says, in some quarters of the Dutch media, that he pursued the case simply to earn himself more on top of the lucrative deal he already had. He says that money is just not that important. For instance, he says, he agreed his deal with Lazio in the months before the 2014 World Cup finals, in which he would be named by Fifa in its prestigious team of the tournament. Yet he honoured that deal. When a fellow Dutchman joined Lazio a year later the pair laughed about the fact that the newcomer appeared to be on double De Vrij’s wages. “I was not upset,” De Vrij says. “I signed what I signed at Lazio, and it was fine by me. I just told SEG at the time that maybe we had not handled those negotiations as well as we could.”

It was not the salary that concerned him. Instead it was a fear of what he did not know and the tax liability that might come his way that forced him on this legal path. Two defeats in court later, SEG says it is still considering its options. De Vrij feels that the matter has been resolved beyond dispute. SEG has a reputation to protect and some big names associated with it. Pep Guardiola, whose brother and agent Pere has been a shareholder at SEG since 2021, is featured on the SEG website. Neither were involved in the De Vrij matter.

“They [SEG] were the ones who always told me, ‘You are too nice. You should be more of an arse sometimes in this hard football world’” De Vrij recalls with a smile. He says he is telling his story now because he feels others have already had their say. “I was always the nice guy. So when this [dispute] happened, everyone was like, ‘If you left them something must have happened’. They [SEG] have a lot of players in the national team and I had been with them since I was 16. I’m a loyal guy. So there were a lot of questions.”