IT was to be a trip of a lifetime for 21 talented junior footballers and their families.
A chance to visit and train at the hallowed grounds of Real Madrid, one of the super powers of world football and home to megastar Ronaldo, and to represent their region at tournaments in Spain and Portugal in June-July this year.
But a financial dispute between the organiser of the tour, former Newcastle Jets captain Jobe Wheelhouse, and Sydney businessman Manuel Camara has turned a field of dreams into a nightmare and left Wheelhouse plus a host of Hunter families out of pocket in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Wheelhouse, who started the Jobe Wheelhouse Football Academy in 2012, alleges that Mr Camara owes him a large sum of money, understood to be more than $180,000, from a similar 2017 tour to Spain.
He says the dispute, which police are investigating, has devastated him personally and professionally. He has his house on the market and has taken out personal loans to ensure the overseas tours go ahead as promised.
He has vowed to repay the seven families, comprising 18 people, who have pulled out of the upcoming trip and lost money – $45,000 in total – as a result.
Wheelhouse had contracted MGC Match Event, of which Mr Camara is the managing director, to help conduct two tours.
He says he was shocked to learn midway through the 12-day trip in September-October 2017, that $90,000 needed to be paid for the tour to continue. Wheelhouse says he was forced to make emergency calls to family in Australia to cover the costs.
This was despite the travelling group of 53 people – comprised mainly of 12- and 13-year-old players and their parents – having paid the contracted amount of $6750 per player in full to MGC Match Event prior to leaving Australia.
Wheelhouse also alleges that another 55 people, this time made up of players aged 10 and 11 and their family members, booked on a tour to Spain and Portugal in June-July this year had paid two installments ($2500 per person), totalling $138,000, which is also owing. That money had been paid before the 2017 tour had departed.
"Once I get through this trip and give the kids what was promised … it will still take me years to recover. It’s a nightmare. I will have to start all over again. I just have to try and stay positive and make the best of a bad situation," Wheelhouse said.
"I feel for the people who thought they had no choice but to pull the pin. For that I am extremely sorry, especially for the boys, some of whom I have coached for more than five years.
“Now the priority is making sure this trip goes ahead and giving the families what we had promised them. My priority has always been and will always be the boys. Once that is done, I will look to repay the seven parents who decided not to go. They are still out of pocket. The buck stops with me. I will pay every cent back to the families. My house is on the market.”
In a statement, Mr Camara's lawyer, Marcelo Robalino, told the Newcastle Herald: “Our client, Mr Camara, vehemently denies adverse allegations made by Jobe Wheelhouse and related parties. Our client maintains the best interest of his customers and clarifies that Jobe Wheelhouse has not paid Tour's invoices as per contractual obligations. Jobe Wheelhouse had the responsibility to proceed with the Tour; any cancellations are the doing of Jobe Wheelhouse."
Wheelhouse outright rejects Mr Camara’s statement.
The Herald has seen a copy of a loan agreement signed by Mr Camara and a witness on November 9, 2017, which refers to a "misappropriation of funds", with Mr Camara agreeing to provide a “personal guarantee to repay” $182,441.19 to Wheelhouse.
In the binding agreement, Mr Camara was to have paid two installments of no less than $30,000 in December 2017 and February 2018.
An email, obtained by the Herald, from Mr Camara’s legal representative to Wheelhouse on December 15, stated: "We understand a loan agreement is in place with our client. Our client has all intentions and good-will to resolve the business transaction amicably and complete payments thereof."
Wheelhouse says Mr Camara is yet to make any repayments on the loan.
Participants on the 2017 trip, his first for the academy, had “no idea” there had been issues.
“Their trip went smoothly ... as far as they knew,” he said. “The families had a great time. They didn’t know I had paid the extra money.”
Wheelhouse informed the June-July tour group of the situation in late January.
“From the middle of October to Christmas, I was trying to organise the 2018 trip myself,” said Wheelhouse, who is captain of Lambton Jaffas.
“It got to the point where I had no money, my cards were done. I had to tell the parents. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I got the parents together towards the end of the January school holidays and told them what had happened. I regret not telling them earlier. I was trying to salvage the trip.”
David Minehan, whose son Lachlan is a member of the academy, “went numb” when told that $12,500 he had paid towards the tour to Spain and Portugal was “missing” and the trip was in danger of collapse.
They were treating the tour as a family holiday, with Mr Minehan, his wife and two other sons also in the 55-member group set to depart on June 30.
“We were in Coffs Harbour for the Australia Day weekend when I was informed about the situation,” he said. “I didn’t tell my wife until we got home, so as not to spoil the holiday. She was devastated. There was the money issue but also the anticipation and the build-up to the tour. The boys were so excited and would have been absolutely gutted.”
A few days later, Mr Wheelhouse organised a meeting of the tour group at Hamilton North Bowling Club.
“I was expecting the meeting to confirm that it was all off,” Mr Minehan said.
“Jobe looked a mess. [Travel agent] Kerry Phillips and a few others did a presentation and said ‘we think we can resurrect the tour’. Kerry, through his company Great Events and Hello World Travel, had agreed to do the flights at cost. We were going to have to absorb some costs but Jobe was going to make up the shortfall. I suggested doing some fundraising. I sent emails to everyone saying we can keep the trip alive. Some people pulled out of the tour. They couldn’t deal with it any more. But a lot of people jumped on board.”
Mr Wheelhouse, who did not set up a trust fund as he discovered later is normal practice for a tour, admits to being “a little naive” and perhaps “too trustworthy”.
The MGC Match Event website says Mr Camara is a licensed FIFA match agent with “over 13 years of experience in football camps, tournaments and tours internationally”. The website also says Mr Camara is qualified in sports management and events, has a diploma in tourism and has worked with “many hotel chains”.
The website says the business has offices in Australia and Brazil and representation in Portugal and China.
Ian Jeffress, of Hello World Travel, and Kerry Phillips, of Great Events, have taken over travel arrangements for the June-July tour.
“They have agreed to do the trip at cost price and help us out where they can,” Wheelhouse said. “What was agreed upon in the original itinerary is what we are trying to deliver on.”
The price of the tour, $7250 for players and $6200 for non-players, has increased by $330 to cover higher airfares. But players and families will not have to come up with another $2500 to cover the first two installments which are now missing.
That money, as much as $70,000, will be absorbed by Wheelhouse. He has forfeited any profits from the tour. A trivia night and auction will be held at Charlestown Bowling Club on April 7 to raise funds. Any shortfall will also be met by Wheelhouse, who estimates he will be in the hole for $250,000.
“I have agreed to cop the difference,” he said. “That will be sorted by another personal loan.”
Friends, including many high-profile players, have donated items to be auctioned at the fundraiser.
“[Australian representative] Trent Sainsbury is sending a signed Inter Milan strip, and [Socceroo] Danny Vukovic is doing likewise from Belgium. The Jets have committed merchandise and a couple of other unique ideas … there will be 12 major items. We are hoping to get 250 people there,” he said.
The vacated places on the June-July tour have been filled.
“We told the new players’ parents the situation,” Wheelhouse said. “I told them up front why the positions were available at short notice.”
Mr Minehan said, although unwanted, the situation had brought the group “closer together”.
“You speak to families at training and they are excited that the trip is going ahead,” he said. “Once I found out we were going, I sat my boys down and told them what had happened. Their jaws dropped, and I had to explain to them a couple of times that we were still on.”
Mr Wheelhouse has organised another tour to Spain in September 2018, which has a similar itinerary as the first trip in 2017, albeit through a different tour operator.
“I emailed all the people booked for that trip and explained what had happened,” Wheelhouse said. “I said I understood if they want more information or if they want to pull the pin on the trip. That money is all going into a trust account. It’s secure. That is the security I have to give them. It should have been done before but I was naive.”