Interview with Football Leaks 'Football Is a Paradise for Corruption'

For months now, the whistleblower platform Football Leaks has been posting player contracts and other official documents from the world of international soccer on its website. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, "John" explains their motivations.
Allianz Arena in Munich: "This non-transparent football industry needs help."

Allianz Arena in Munich: "This non-transparent football industry needs help."

Foto: Peter Kneffel/ dpa

The man whose identity is a mystery to the entire football industry calls himself "John." He's the spokesperson for the whistleblower platform Football Leaks, which has been posting professional soccer contracts on the web for months now. The platform most recently made global headlines by publishing details of the transfer agreement for Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, exposing the fact the Welsh national team member is now the world's most expensive footballer. In an email interview with SPIEGEL, John explains the whistleblowers' aims and motivations, the number of documents in their possession that are still under review and the pressure exerted on them by player agents and investigative authorities.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where is Football Leaks operated?

Football Leaks: We live in Portugal. We are all Portuguese citizens.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you employed by anyone?

Football Leaks: We are totally independent and none of us is paid for working here. The fact that we have stirred football up so much with the publication of the documents has made us realize that we have turned a few powerful enemies against us. That's why we are unable to say anything further about our identities. We have to protect ourselves.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did you create Football Leaks?

Football Leaks: We had been thinking about this project for a long time. At some point, we began collecting documents from the football business and waited for the right moment to publish them. Last summer it was time. There were numerous dodgy player transfers on the Portuguese transfer market and we wanted to untangle the lies and inconsistencies. The more documents we obtained and analyzed, the clearer it became to us that this non-transparent football industry needs help.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How many contracts and documents do you possess?

Football Leaks: We have more than 500 gigabytes of documents and are constantly receiving new ones.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You publish player contracts like those of Mesut Özil, Hulk or Gareth Bale as well as legally explosive documents that shed light on illegal scheming of clubs, player agents and investment funds. What criteria and principles do you apply in your selection of documents for publication?

Football Leaks: Generally, we publish the documents at random. We try to post two documents online each day. Sometimes they spark discussions on social media channels that we seek to stimulate further with our publishing efforts.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who is the target audience for the documents you are publishing?

Football Leaks: We are big football fans ourselves and our first priority is to help other football fans to better understand this secretive football business. Clauses, contracts, consultant fees -- all of these have become taboo subjects in football. There needs to be a public debate about the sport in order to clear it of this secretiveness. A business that lacks transparency the way football does is a paradise for corruption, money laundering and tax fraud.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some critics also accuse you of publishing the contracts of players like Gareth Bale, Mesut Özil or Hulk merely to service the public's sense of voyeurism.

Football Leaks: Each of these contracts tells its own story. They show everything from the endless amount of clauses to astronomical fees and the possibility of hidden signing fees. These documents are very important for understanding today's football business.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Another allegation is that you have obtained the documents illegally by hacking a sporting rights agency.

Football Leaks: We haven't hacked anyone. The accusation is ridiculous. We have a variety of sources who supply us with the contracts and agreements. Our network is very stable.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are taking on the world's largest football teams and are also getting under the skin of superstars and their influential agents. Are you not afraid at all?

Football Leaks: We are very aware of the risks involved, especially the legal ones. The football lobbyists also have a great deal of influence over the investigative authorities; we would never be given a fair trial.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you draw that conclusion?

Football Leaks: Our disclosures have created many problems for a sporting rights agency. The company uses a tax avoidance system and has broken several FIFA rules. Our revelations made things uncomfortable for them. We are very certain that they are also putting pressure on the investigative authorities in an effort to silence us. And that's not all: They have also hired private detectives to blow our cover.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How is this pressure manifested?

Football Leaks: Our homepage has already been attacked, a sporting rights agency sent abusive DMCA takedowns and pressured the host providers. Our Russian provider closed our cloud and then showed us documents from this company, which had massively pressured them to do it. We're now victims of censorship.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is your ultimate goal with Football Leaks?

Football Leaks: We want to make the transfer system more transparent and we want to reduce the influence of player agents and investment funds that have a growing hold on football. We would also like to see the creation of a publicly accessible database that would include all the details about transfers and breakdowns of transfer fees, signing fees, clauses and third-party ownership of players.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Those are very ambitious goals.

Football Leaks: We are driven by our desire to put a stop to those who are unfairly enriching themselves through football. We also want to ring in a new era in football: The age of transparency.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you consider yourselves to be in the same vein as portals like WikiLeaks?

Football Leaks: People like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden or Antoine Deltour are a big inspiration for us. They sacrificed everything for their convictions and dreams. Now we are trying to make our contribution to a more transparent world.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How long do you plan to go on publishing explosive documents on the Web?

Football Leaks: Until we no longer have any documents.

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