Game Over A Guide to the New Football Leaks Revelations

The world of football has reached a crossroads. Self-important functionaries and authoritarian countries are marring the sport with backroom deals and covert plans for a new league. Today, DER SPIEGEL is launching a multi-week series disclosing their secrets.
Foto: Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL

Can you imagine Bayern Munich withdrawing from the Bundesliga, Germany's national football league, and only playing away games in places like Barcelona and Madrid from now on? Can you picture a battle for the German league championship without the best players and best teams? Is it conceivable that the country's most successful team is involved in the planning of a European "Super League," and perhaps even exploring whether it can withhold its players from the German national team? Completely implausible, right?

Wrong. In 2016, FC Bayern spent months forging its plan for a Super League with the most powerful and the richest football clubs in Europe. They managed to keep under wraps just how meticulously they were pursuing an elite league for quite some time, but now the secret's out. Confidential documents show that many top clubs are still pursuing plans for a Super League.

Starting today, DER SPIEGEL, in cooperation with 14 other European news organizations, will publish a series of disclosures about the "dirty deals" of the football world. Dozens of articles will dive deep into the business of European football -- a billion-euro industry. German public broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) also participated in the project and will air a 60-minute (German language) documentary on Sunday, Nov. 4 at 21:45 p.m.

The revelations are based on data from the Football Leaks platform, which made the information available exclusively to DER SPIEGEL for evaluation. The newsmagazine then shared it with the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network and with NDR. It is the biggest leak ever reported on by investigative journalists, and the results of that work lay bare the inner-workings of a corrupt industry.

Foto: REUTERS/ DPA/ Getty Images/ Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL

Representatives of the football sector reject the charge they are doing football fans a disservice. Indeed, they continue to speak publicly about transparency, fairness and common values. But in the end, their values seem to be more focused on money than morals.

What does FC Bayern Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge have to say about those much-described values? The same Rummenigge who, in a memorable press conference on Oct. 19, invoked the first article of the German constitution to demand "respect" for veteran football players. Rummenigge, the Football Leaks documents show, was instrumental in the preparation of a revolution against UEFA by the largest European clubs. And he did so while keeping it secret from the European Club Association (ECA), which represents the interests of more than 200 European clubs, despite being chairman of that organization. This week, the investigative series reveals:

  • that FC Bayern Munich checked whether and how it could leave the Bundesliga to join a European "Super League;"
  • that FC Bayern explored its legal options for withdrawing its players from the German national team;
  • that Rummenigge's closest confidante negotiated a reform with the football association UEFA, which has made rich clubs even richer and competition in Europe even more unfair;
  • that at the same time, the Bavarians made plans to reverse this very reform;
  • that Bayern Munich, together with 15 other leading European clubs, appears on a draft of a "binding term sheet," which foresees the creation of a European Super League;
  • and that this term sheet, according to a draft, is intended to be signed in November 2018.

The investigative reports are protected under Article 5 of the German constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press. Here you can read the full story about Rummenigge's surreptitious efforts.

The around 80 journalists who sifted through and evaluated the Football Leaks trove describe a football industry at a crossroads. After years of corruption scandals and power struggles, the sport's functionaries have weakened themselves to such a degree they must now fear being swept away entirely. The top clubs are in the midst of a major power grab. If they succeed, it will be the end of the football world as we know it. A private league geared toward the rich would ultimately siphon money away from national competitions and the best players would switch to the Super League. Clubs around Europe with lower profiles, such as Mainz 05, FC Valencia or Benfica Lissabon would fade into insignificance.

And what about the football associations? For years, they have posed as responsible guardians of the rules and transparent governments of the sport. UEFA has imposed strict rules on clubs to restore financial competitiveness between smaller and larger clubs. And FIFA, the global football organization? It has promised a fresh start following the scandals surrounding its former president, Sepp Blatter. It insisted it would reform itself and move past the days of corruption and cronyism once and for all.

But that was all a false front. The investigation shows how the most powerful man in football, FIFA President Gianni Infantino, secretly obstructed and torpedoed the work of his own regulators.

The Football Leaks documents reveal how he:

  • did favors for a friend, a senior public prosecutor, who returned the favor;
  • interfered with the drafting of a new code of ethics and watered it down;
  • championed a $25 million project, known as "Trophy," even though as president he wasn't supposed to be involved in the operational business;
  • exerted pressure internally so that money was paid in advance to associations in violation of rules;
  • and protected submissive subordinates and fired critics.

Here is the full story about Infantino's "work" at FIFA.

DER SPIEGEL and the EIC describe in meticulous detail how Infantino, as then-secretary general of UEFA, thwarted his own organization's investigators in order to take the side of the clubs Manchester City (ManCity) and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), both owned by emirates in the Gulf.

Both clubs are blatantly controlled by authoritarian governments of super-rich Gulf states. Thousands of pages of Football Leaks documents prove:

  • ManCity and PSG systematically violated FIFA's financial fair play rules for years;
  • Infantino, as UEFA general secretary, buckled under pressure from Abu Dhabi and Qatar and allowed the clubs from Manchester and Paris to operate with virtual impunity;
  • UEFA meted out only mild punishments to the two clubs and did not expel either of them from the Champions League as it did with smaller clubs;
  • Infantino -- despite an obligation to strict neutrality -- secretly met for negotiations with club bosses from Paris and Manchester;
  • he fed internal association info to the clubs and cleared the way for "settlements," although he was not authorized to do so;
  • that he thus systematically undermined UEFA's own oversight procedures and bodies.

In other words: Infantino trampled the values of the sport. Here is the in-depth feature on his activities.

The revelations that DER SPIEGEL and the European Investigative Collaborations network are now publishing affect anyone who provides the football industry with money, whether it 5 euros a month for Eurosport broadcasts, 10 euros for Dazn, 30 euros for Sky, 50 euros for a seat in a stadium or 90 euros for their favorite team's jersey. The money from marketing deals and TV broadcasts -- not to mention injections of state money -- have attracted shady characters who negotiate horrendous commissions for themselves while being shrouded by confidential contracts. Football Leaks will pull back the curtain on many of them.

The revelations of the coming weeks will also show the unvarnished face of "football capitalism," which in many ways is not unlike a debt-financed speculative bubble. It spreads all the way to developing countries to secure underage talent and bet on their careers like one would bet on the stock market.

Buschmann, Rafael, Wulzinger, Michael

Buschmann, R: Football Leaks: Uncovering the Dirty Deals Behind the Beautiful Game

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The reports of the coming weeks will also reveal the positive doping tests of a multiple Champions League winner as well as the tax avoidance models of some Premier League titans.

The research partners DER SPIEGEL and the EIC already tackled tax evasion in their first Football Leaks series in December 2016. Since then, many of the greatest football stars in history have admitted their guilt. Cristiano Ronaldo alone had to reimburse the Spanish state 19 million euros and accept two years of probation after those revelations. They also triggered police raids across Europe and made the unscrupulous work of many agents significantly more difficult.

At the time, the European investigative journalists pored over 1.9 terabytes of data and 18.6 million documents. Meanwhile, the trove has grown to 3.4 terabytes of data and more than 70 million documents. For months, researchers combed through the material, searching for topics, collecting clues and connecting the dots. They communicated over an encrypted online platform and at conferences in Hamburg, Brussels and Mechelen. The results of their searches were supplemented with information from confidential sources and verified by trips to Ghana, Qatar and Switzerland. We journalists interviewed experts and those directly involved to produce our stories and films.

We will now pull back the curtain on the football industry. So when you head to the football stadium this weekend or watch a Bundesliga game on TV, maybe you'll do so with a different perspective.