Football Leaks: the story behind the data
EIC 2016 / 2016-12-02
Lead

From where did the largest dataset leak in the history of sports come? And who is the man who exposed the corruption and tax scheming – the individual who is now being hunted down by the giants of the football industry?

A feature published in Der Spiegel, part of the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network

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(Copyright: El Mundo / Alberto Di Lolli)

There he sits, the man who everyone is trying to find, police and detectives alike. He is being pursued by the largest European football clubs and the most powerful agents – and is constantly on the run because so many have so much to fear, for their money and their secrets. But there he is, sitting as a fan in the stands of Hamburg's football stadium. He calls himself John and is holding his fifth beer. On the pitch, Hamburger SV is once again losing badly. The away fans are chanting: “Second division! Hamburg is coming!”

John laughs. He is still able to, despite everything.

He can still enjoy football. He can scream and cheer – and can lose himself in the excitement inside the stadium. And yet, he is the one who has shaken up the glittering world of professional football – the one who has exposed the sport's unscrupulous, corrupt and greedy underbelly to the public.

John is Football Leaks, the online platform that has exposed a series of explosive contracts and agreements from within the football industry.

 

“Data: the equivalent of 500,000 Bibles”

The game has come to an end and the Hamburg fans rain down boos and whistles on their team. John stands up and takes one more sip of beer. That's enough fun for now. It's time to get back to work. John has come to Hamburg to support Spiegel as it evaluates his dataset.

In Spring 2016, John decided to share his secret Football Leaks treasure. He no longer wanted to merely publish a player contract here and disclose a bank account statement there. He instead wanted to show the public how everything fit together: the well-hidden power relations, the objectionable or even illegal deals between teams and sports marketing agencies, and the tax schemes used by multi-millionaires. He wanted the stories hidden in the material to be told – entire stories and not just fragments. So he handed his data over to Spiegel: eight portable hard drives containing 18.6 million documents, including original contracts complete with secret subsidiary agreements, emails, Word files, Excel charts and photos. The data reaches into 2016 and takes up a total of 1.9 terabytes of memory. That is roughly the equivalent of 500,000 Bibles. It is the largest data leak in the storyhistory of sports.

Where did the data come from? John won't say. He didn't ask Spiegel to pay him anything for the information, even though player agents recently offered him up to 650,000 Euro.

Spiegel spent weeks examining the authenticity of the documents before deciding to share the material with the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC), a consortium of 10 well-respected journalistic outlets in Europe. Sixty journalists then dove into this ocean of information, including investigative reporters, data journalists and finance experts. To enable them to share their findings, an encrypted Internet platform was built. In addition, the journalists met in Hamburg, Mechelen, Paris and Lisbon to discuss what they had found and to talk about additional sources and publication plans.

 
“Every ticket, every shirt bought feeds a corrupt system”

The journalists see it as their duty to show the public a side of the football industry that had thus far remained in the shadows. John, the whistleblower, sees himself as a kind of Robin Hood, as an avenger of normal football fans. 

“The fans have to understand that with every ticket, every shirt they buy and with every television subscription, they are feeding an extremely corrupt system that is only in it for itself,” says John.

The origins of his platform Football Leaks extend back one-and-a-half years. during the 2015 summer transfer window, several strange, in some cases inscrutable player transfers took place in the Portuguese league. 

“There are leagues in Europe that are controlled by just three or four player agents. They continually make transfers with corrupt club presidents. The football system is consuming itself from the inside out,” says John.

In response, he declared war on this football world – and has already celebrated some success. On the basis of the Football Leaks documents that have already been published, the dutch top-league team FC Twente Enschede, for example, was banned from international play due to violations. FIFA has slapped several clubs with penalties for unsavory investment deals.

Three members of European Union parliament have even cited the leaks in requesting that the European Commission launch an independent investigation into the world record transfer of Gareth Bale. In the 101 million Euro deal between Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid, several Spanish banks acted as guarantors – the same banks that were bailed out during the financial crisis with the help of around 40 billion Euro of taxpayer money.

But for John, these victories aren't enough. Born in Portugal, he is a clever young man who speaks five languages and is learning two more, including Russian. John is also a bon vivant who likes partying through the night with the help of prodigious quantities of lager, while keeping guests entertained with his boisterous laughter. He loves his freedom, travels frequently and seldom remains in one place for long. John is not actually his real name. With Football Leaks, he has created an unprecedented platform: An Internet database of secret, opaque and crooked deals made in the multi-billion euro business of football. And it's not just curious fans who have taken an interest in the revelations, but also police officers, public prosecutors and tax officials.

 

“Connections to Russian mafia and African despots”

John knows full well that exposing such information has made him plenty of enemies.

He is now sitting in Spiegel headquarters in Hamburg. His jeans are full of holes and his shoes dirty, but he doesn't care. He also doesn't care that his coffee is much too hot, finishing off his cup without setting it down even once. John is sitting in front of a computer with two screens and has another laptop on the table next to him. To search through the leaked documents, he relies on a special software program used by criminal investigators and tax agents.

Currently, he is trying to figure out who is the beneficial owner of a Maltese shell company. documents fly across the screen as John's knees bounce, his pupils jump up and down, up and down. He is no longer aware of what is going on around him – all he sees are the names, numbers and addresses in the data on the screen.

The room in which John is currently chasing down corruption in international football was set up by Spiegel specifically for the Football Leaks project. It is a so-called “safe room,” designed to keep out potential hackers. There are six workspaces in the office, each outfitted with a computer that is not connected to the Internet and the servers are equipped with several safeguards. Only encrypted communication is possible. For the past several months, just eight people have had access to the room.

There is good reason for the precautions. The people John is challenging are the kind who would stop at nothing for money. In the data, one can find connections to the Kazakh, Turkish and Russian mafias as well as to African despots. Yet even as they use their wealth to get in on the business of football, they aren't often seen or heard from. They do all they can to keep their names out of the media.

 

“Football Leaks is a team effort”

The leadership of the international sports marketing firm doyen is likewise wary of publicity. The company makes millions with transfer fees and player personality rights. Based in England and Malta, the company last year became one of Football Leaks' first targets.

John's data trove also includes documents that show how some managers seek to combat intruders. Just a few days after Football Leaks published the first contracts, doyen filed a criminal complaint with the Lisbon police. But that wasn't all. Several companies were sent after John's online platform, including IT specialists, renowned law firms and detectives – all of them hard-bitten professionals when it comes to tracking down their target.

One of the crisis managers was the head of a company belonging to a dubious Russian oligarch. One of the detectives is a graduate of the Royal Military Academy in the UK and did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. They exerted substantial pressure on the web host of the Football Leaks homepage and the page was shut down several times as a result.

“But we're still here!” says John. He smiles triumphantly, his eyes open wide. John is convinced that he is doing the right thing, which doesn’t always make it easy to work with him. John can be intractable and headstrong – and more than anything, he is extremely secretive.

Although Spiegel has been in contact with him for over a year, has met him dozens of times in different cities across Europe and has spoken with him in person or on the phone for hundreds of hours, it still isn't clear whether John is supported by patrons pursuing their own interests. John merely says that Football Leaks is a team effort. He responds to follow up questions at most with a crooked smile.

Because there is also a different, darker side to Football Leaks.

 

“Seeking a deal with the contact”

It began on Oct. 3, 2015, just five days after the project went online for the first time. On that day, Nélio Lucas, the young, smart and morally flexible Portuguese head of sports for the football marketing company doyen, received an email. 

It was sent by a man calling himself Artem Lobuzov, though the name could be a pseudonym. The only thing that is clear is that had been sent via Yandex, a Russian provider that is also used by Football Leaks.

In the mail, Lobuzov described the documents that he had in his possession: some of it unsavory, including photos, chat messages and emails. 

“All this and much more may come online, and afterwards in all European press,” Lobuzov wrote. “You certainly don’t wish that to happen, do you? But we can talk …” 

Nélio Lucas immediately suspected what he and doyen were facing. In the past few years, the manager has risen to become a big deal in the world of football, making significant deals with superstars like the Brazilian Neymar, the Spanish world champion Xavi and the Colombian striker Radamel Falcao.

Power-hungry operators like Lucas aren't used to being put under pressure. They want to be in control and keep a tight hold on their secrets and privileged knowledge. So Lucas did what he is good at and tried to strike a deal with the unknown contact.

Lobuzov seemed receptive and answered on October 5. He wrote that he could imagine a deal worth between 500,000 and one million Euro “and you can be sure the info I have will be eliminated.” Lobuzov proposed: “We can solve this easily in the biggest possible secrecy, preferably between lawyers.“ 

Lobuzov's lawyer is named Aníbal Pinto and he was to continue the negotiations. Pinto is from Porto, and more of a small player – hardly a high profile lawyer. He was tasked with negotiating directly with football industry heavyweights.

The first meeting between Lucas, his lawyer and Pinto apparently took place at the end of October in Lisbon. According to an email written by a doyen manager, Lucas made a proposal during the meeting: Lobuzov would apparently receive 300,000 Euro in exchange for a cessation of the leaks.

doyen reacted angrily to a request from Spiegel for a comment about the account and the accusations. A spokesman said that “the information is completely false and manipulated” and that the agency would take legal action against any publication of the information. However, the spokesman didn't give any details about which documents were supposed to be manipulated

Aníbal Pinto claims he did not help Lobuzov to blackmail Lucas. He says he was only engaged as an intermediary to complete a deal with another lawyer. However, when he noticed during the meeting that blackmail might be involved in the deal, he stopped the negotiations. Pinto claims that he then informed his client of the potential legal consequences of what he was doing and advised him to voluntarily cease with the blackmail attempt. Lobuzov didn't respond to requests for comment.

Some of the people and companies mentioned in the Football Leaks documents that were contacted by Spiegel claimed in their statements that the data had been hacked. Just as doyen did, a Spanish legal practice filed a criminal complaint against the online whistleblowers.

 

“No proof of manipulation or forgery”

Thus far, though, none of the Football Leaks documents has been proven to be manipulated or faked. Also in the case of Twente Enschede, none of the authorities that examined the documents involved questioned their authenticity.

The story of the meeting between Lucas, his lawyer and Pinto can be reconstructed with the help of emails found in the data trove: The three men adjourned after their meeting, and two more weeks passed before Lucas would learn what Lobuzov thought of his proposal.

But who is Lobuzov? does he work together with John? Or might they be the same person? Is John a hacker? John clears his throat. He has been sitting in the Spiegel safe room for almost five hours. His cheeks are red, he keeps rubbing his eyes and he has taken off his shoes, revealing a large hole in the heel of one of his socks. It is not difficult to tell that this otherwise cool online whistleblower is not completely comfortable addressing such questions. Before answering, he stares at the screen in front of him for several minutes. “We never hacked anyone, and like we always stated, we are not hackers. All we have is a good network of sources. All those ridiculous allegations are coming only from a criminal organization. That is what doyen is for us, a mafia organization.” 

John has nothing more to say on the subject. His world is now only made up of friends and opponents.

 

“Whistleblowers: heroes - not saints”

For journalists, cooperating with whistleblowers almost always goes hand in hand with difficult questions. does the material have sufficient relevance that the personal motives, the backgrounds and possibly even the criminal pasts of sources can be overlooked? do the documents expose problems that would otherwise remain hidden? These are not easy questions.

Famous whistleblowers in recent years have almost all been controversial personalities, with both Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning being denounced by the US as traitors. But their revelations about the US military, the intelligence agencies and their systematic spying triggered a discussion on the treatment of data and the protection of the private sphere.

Two other examples are Hervé Falciani and Bradley Birkenfeld. They contributed to the end of Swiss bank secrecy with their data leaks. The documents they made public revealed how two globally active financial institutions, UBS and HSBC, helped their clients evade billions in taxes.

But these two whistleblowers don't have spotless pasts either. Falciani, who stole the documents from the bank, allegedly first tried to sell the data to other banks. Birkenfeld himself helped a real estate agent hide around 200 million USd from the tax office. Both of them have since been convicted.

Whistleblowers become whistleblowers because they are prepared to transgress boundaries: sometimes they are the boundaries of decency and morals and sometimes they are legal boundaries. But they are always boundaries that others stay away from out of fear. That is what often makes whistleblowers into heroes, though it seldom makes them into saints.

Spiegel and its partners have decided to publish certain parts of and stories from the Football Leaks material even though we have been unable to definitively determine who exactly is behind the project. 

The data is extremely relevant and helps shed light on a football industry that operates independently of moral and, often, legal imperatives. It has become a parallel society where money is at least as important as the ball in the game.

A further reason we are moving ahead with the publication of the material is that the attempt by Artem Lobuzov – this huge unknown with the unsavory documents – to reach a deal with the doyen representative Lucas was unsuccessful. No money exchanged hands. Lobuzov rejected the proposal.

Why that is the case isn't entirely clear. Perhaps Lobuzov got cold feet or had a falling out with his lawyer. The most likely explanation, though, is the one that can also be found in an email exchange included in the Football Leaks documents: The meeting between Pinto, Nélio Lucas and his lawyer was under surveillance. The Lisbon police listened in on and recorded it.de

Perhaps Lobuzov caught wind of it. Either way, he backed out of the deal. “Keep your money. You are going to need it,” he wrote – and likely meant: for lawyers. 

Lucas reacted in a manner typical of a cinematic mafia don. 

“I'm not threatening you with a beating, which is what you deserve, but we are not bandits. We are people of character and principles. Your lesson will be another one that will hurt more!!!!”

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