Unchained The Man Behind Football Leaks

Where did the largest leak in the history of sports come from? An encounter with the man who exposed the tax tricks and murky business practices inside the business of football. By SPIEGEL Staff
Foto: Hendrik Schmidt/ dpa

There he sits, the man everyone is trying to find, police and detectives alike. He's being hunted by the largest European football clubs and the most powerful agents -- 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 cup of beer in his right hand. 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 he 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 the football industry.

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.

This spring, 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 tricks used by the multimillionaires. 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 documents, including original contracts complete with secret subsidiary agreements, emails, Word files, Excel charts and photos. The data reaches into 2016 and takes up 1.9 terabytes of memory. That is roughly the equivalent of 500,000 Bibles.

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 euros.

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. To enable them to share their findings, an encrypted internet platform was built and the journalists met in Hamburg, Mechelen, Paris and Lisbon to discuss what they had found and talk about additional sources and publication plans.

'An Extremely 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 jersey they buy and with every television subscription, they are feeding an extremely corrupt system that is only in it for itself," says John.

What is the EIC?

Finding stories and reporting them together, exchanging information and publishing texts simultaneously: That's the concept behind the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network. Since December 2015, 10 European media outlets have collaborated on investigative projects. In addition to DER SPIEGEL, this network includes: El Mundo (Spain), Falter (Austria), L'Espresso (Italy), Le Soir (Belgium), Mediapart (France), NRC Handelsblad (Netherlands), Newsweek Srbija (Serbia), Politiken (Denmark) and the platform RCIJ/The Black Sea (Romania). The network's first article, about the international trade in illegal weapons, appeared on March 19. For the research into Football Leaks, the network was joined by Expresso (Portugal) and The Sunday Times (UK). About 60 journalists were involved in the evaluation of the data, including editors, data and research experts, graphic designers, lawyers, IT specialists and translators.

The origins of his platform Football Leaks go 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 has declared war on this football world -- and has already met some success.

On the basis of previously published Football Leaks documents, the Dutch top-league team FC Twente Enschede, for example, was banned from international play due to a variety of violations. FIFA has slapped several clubs with penalties for unsavory investment deals. Three members of the European Parliament have even cited the leaks when 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 euros 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 to party through the night with the help of prodigious quantities of beer while keeping guests entertained with his stories. He loves his freedom, travels frequently and seldom remains in one place for long.

Secret, Opaque and Crooked Deals

John is not his real name. With Football Leaks, he has created an unprecedented platform: An internet database of secret, opaque and crooked deals made in the multibillion 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.

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

He is now sitting inside 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 similar to the ones used by criminal investigators and tax agents. Currently, he is trying to figure out 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 article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 49/2016 (December 3, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

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, only nine 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.

Hard-Bitten Professionals

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 showing 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 to go 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 whistleblowing 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 working with him an easy task. 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.

A Darker Side

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

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 email 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 major deals with superstars like the Brazilian Neymar, the Spanish world champion Xavi and the Colombian striker Radamel Falcao.

Efforts To Cut a Deal

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, 2015. He wrote that he could imagine a deal worth between 500,000 and a million euros, "and 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. This nobody was now 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 euros 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. When asked which of the SPIEGEL questions referred to manipulated documents, the spokesman didn't respond.

Aníbal Pinto claims he did not help Lobuzov blackmail Lucas. He says he was only hired as an intermediary to complete a deal with another lawyer. However, when he noticed during the first 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. Like Doyen, a Spanish law firm filed a criminal complaint against the online whistleblowers.

Thus far, though, none of the Football Leaks documents have been proven to be manipulated or faked, and in the Twente Enschede case, 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.

Difficult Questions

But who is Lobuzov? Does he work 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.

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.

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. That is what often turns whistleblowers into heroes, though it seldom makes them saints.

Crucial Revelations

SPIEGEL and its partners have decided to publish certain parts 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 with which the game is played.

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. It's conceivable. The most likely explanation, though, is the one that can also be found in an email exchange included in the Football Leaks documents: The police didn't just listen in on the meeting between Pinto, Nélio Lucas and his lawyer, they also recorded it.

Perhaps Lobuzov later 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 mafia films. "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!!!!"

By Rafael Buschmann, Jürgen Dahlkamp, Stephan Heffner, Christoph Henrichs, Andreas Meyhoff, Nicola Naber, Jörg Schmitt, Alfred Weinzierl and Michael Wulzinger

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