Interview with Football Leaks Whistleblower Pinto 'This Football Mafia Is Everywhere'

Maria Feck

Part 2: 'I Am Afraid that If I Set Foot in a Portuguese Prison, I Will not Leave It Alive'

DER SPIEGEL: Little has been known about you publicly until now. Where in Portugal did you grow up?

Pinto: I come from Vila Nova de Gaia, a town on the Atlantic, not far from Porto.

DER SPIEGEL: What do your parents do for a living?

Pinto: My father is a pensioner. He was a shoe designer for over 30 years and traveled around Europe a great deal. My mother stayed at home. She died of cancer when I was 11. That was a tough time for me.

DER SPIEGEL: Were you a good student?

Pinto: To begin with, I had a head start over the other children because I could already read and write at the age of four.

DER SPIEGEL: Who taught you?

Pinto: I taught myself. While watching football. I watched lots of games, and I always drew the shirts and scenes from the matches. At some point I started writing down individual words which the commentator had said.Who scored, the final score and the course of play.

DER SPIEGEL: How did your parents react?

Pinto: Everyone was surprised. My father was not particularly pleased. He told me I should not watch football so fanatically, otherwise the game would eventually destroy my life.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you like your time at school?

Pinto: It was OK. I was very good at history. Mathematics, chemistry and physics, on the other hand, were a disaster. I played a great deal of football and was also on my school's futsal team. In addition, I was quite popular because I was kind of a rebel. I often got into lengthy discussions with the teachers when I realized that they were uncertain about something. Sometimes, these debates got out of hand, because I never know when enough is enough. To this day.

DER SPIEGEL: You later went on to study history at university. Where does this interest come from?

Pinto: If you want to understand yourself, the world and your own country, you need to look at history. Because human beings are always making the same mistakes. Always.

DER SPIEGEL: You never finished your history degree. Why?

Pinto: While I was at university, my relationship with Portugal changed.Many of my friends left the country because they no longer saw a perspective for themselves in view of the economic crisis. Politicians and greedy entrepreneurs ruined a once successful country.

SPIEGEL: How did you cope with the situation?

Pinto: First of all, I chose to do an Erasmus term inBudapest.I had never been abroad before, always living with my parents. I came home again after half a year, but I knew that I wanted to return to Hungary quickly. A year later, I emigrated to Budapest.

SPIEGEL: Why Budapest?

Pinto: I love this city.The light, the Danube, the castles and bridges. I would like to stay here forever. I have many friends, and my girlfriend lives here. Also, I have discovered that there is a line of business here for me. My father was very interested in the antiques trade, and I developed quite an understanding of it too. There are lots of treasures in Eastern Europe which no one is paying any attention to.

DER SPIEGEL: You mean old books?

Pinto: And posters. Both can be bought here for very little money, one or two euros, and in some cases sold again for 150 euros or more.

DER SPIEGEL: What gave you the idea in the autumn of 2015 to launch your website Football Leaks?

Pinto: I have been a football fan ever since I was a child, and I already realized around the time of the Bosman ruling that football was developing in the completely wrong direction. The best young players were simply moving to the top teams; the entire competition was shifting to the advantage of the top clubs. The main trigger was the FIFA scandal in 2015. Alongside all the arrests at the international federation, I saw that there were irregularities in numerous transfers within Portugal. That more and more investors were thronging into the market. I started to collect data.

DER SPIEGEL: How did you develop your technical know-how? Did you ever study computer sciences?

Pinto: Never.

DER SPIEGEL: How did you verify the data?

Pinto: I read.I read a great deal.Every day, I spent hours sitting in front of the documents and analyzed them. The more I read, the more shocked I was.

DER SPIEGEL: About what?

Pinto: A great many documents showed how offshore companies were set up, how sports agents hid behind front men, how tax evasion was carried out on a large scale.

DER SPIEGEL: When did you realize that you were making enemies?

Pinto: The company Doyen sent private investigators after me. So, did a powerful club association. Once, a young woman approached me at a party. She flirted with me, but I noticed that something was wrong. She asked me for my number, and I gave it to her. I wanted to see what she was up to.

DER SPIEGEL: Was she a private investigator too?

Pinto: No, she was a tabloid reporter and worked for an English mass-circulation paper.But I only found that out several weeks later. Only when I received an SMS text message: "Hey, we know you are the guy from Football Leaks. I work for a law firm. We are interested in getting documents from you." She wanted to trick me.

DER SPIEGEL: Why did it take the police so long to find you?

Pinto: Good question. I had an apartment here in Budapest all the time. I lived a completely normal life here.

DER SPIEGEL: At our meetings, you told us that you changed your location every two days.

Pinto: I did travel a lot, yes.But on my normal ID card. I did not hide myself.

DER SPIEGEL: You have a Hungarian girlfriend. What did you tell her when you went away?

Pinto: Keeping all this hidden is very tiring. My girlfriend realized that something was fishy, but I never talked to her about the details. I wanted to protect her. When I was arrested, she almost went berserk.

Just a few weeks after the internet platform Football Leaks went online in the autumn of 2015, DER SPIEGEL got in touch with the people behind the site. First by email, and later Pinto also allowed DER SPIEGEL to visit him. Numerous meetings followed in different locations. But Pinto imposed certain rules: He didn't want to be photographed, and his pseudonym was to be "John."

Pinto opted for a life in anonymity. He wanted the public focus to be on the revelations from his data and not him as a person. For investigative journalists, protecting a source is one of the key duties, if not the most important. That's the reason DER SPIEGEL accepted Pinto's rules. And this despite the fact that, to this day, he has never wanted to talk about the details of his work -- neither about how he obtained the data, nor about how many fellow campaigners helped him.

DER SPIEGEL and the EIC investigative reporting network nevertheless decided to work with the whistleblower's documents. Three aspects were decisive: Pinto's data is authentic; it is of strong public interest; and, on top of this, Pinto never interfered with the verification of the documents. He allowed the journalists to carry out their research on the material independently. Journalists, after all, need to be able to independently review which content is in the public interest. Football Leaks included numerous leads concerning very private matters: the sexual orientation of professional football players, adultery, relationships that had gone to pieces. DER SPIEGEL never pursued such leads. They are none of the business of the general public.

In the interaction between DER SPIEGEL and Pinto, the whistleblower, there is a red line that has never been crossed: DER SPIEGEL has never asked Pinto to obtain any documents -- neither by legal nor by illegal means.

DER SPIEGEL: How and where in Budapest were you arrested?

Pinto: It was in the early evening on Jan. 16. My father, who was visiting me together with my stepmother, and I came back from shopping at a supermarket. When we turned down the street in which my apartment lies, two plain-clothes officers approached me. They checked my ID and I had to empty out my pockets and the backpack. Then they showed me the European arrest warrant, everything in Hungarian, and handcuffed me.

DER SPIEGEL: Did the officers also search your apartment?

Pinto: They didn't have a search warrant on them. Nevertheless, they used my key to access the apartment. My stepmother was shocked when all of a sudden nine police officers stood facing her in the kitchen. They told me to pack my things. One of them said: You are never coming back here again.

DER SPIEGEL: Were you able to contact a lawyer during your arrest?

Pinto: They prohibited me from doing so. I said goodbye to my parents and told them everything was going to be fine. Then I was taken to a police station. I was locked into a cell for two. The other guy was OK. But at night, a guard came around every half-hour and switched the light above my bunk on and off. That only happened to me.

DER SPIEGEL: How long did you remain in the cell?

Pinto: Two nights. Then I was taken to the hearing at which the judge ordered me to be held under house arrest.

DER SPIEGEL: Did the Hungarian police confiscate any objects in your apartment?

Pinto: My computer, about 10 hard drives, three mobile phones and a couple of other electronic devices too.

DER SPIEGEL: Is this data relevant to the general public, because it might describe criminal offenses?

Pinto: Yes, definitely.

DER SPIEGEL: What volume of data are we talking about?

Pinto: Ten terabytes, about six of which I have not yet passed on.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you or your fellow campaigners have copies of this data?

Pinto: I cannot answer that either.

DER SPIEGEL: The Portuguese authorities are seeking your extradition. What do you think will happen to the confiscated data if the Portuguese judiciary get ahold of it?

Pinto: The Hungarians ought not to hand over these hard drives to them at all, because the arrest warrant only lists allegations dating back to 2015. I think the Portuguese first want to get their hands on everything that was found on me, in order to prepare further lawsuits against me.

DER SPIEGEL: What are you hoping for?

Pinto: I expect public prosecutor's offices throughout Europe to get together and demonstrate to the Hungarian and Portuguese authorities that my information is of great public interest. That they need these documents for their investigations, so as to pursue crimes, crimes that are considerably more serious than whistleblowing.

DER SPIEGEL: Which European investigating authorities are you already in touch with?

Pinto: With several.I know that my French lawyer, William Bourdon, is in contact with the Swiss and the Belgian prosecutors. But so far, I have only met with the French investigators.

DER SPIEGEL: When did the first meeting take place?

Pinto: At the end of 2018, in Paris.

DER SPIEGEL: At the time, was it only about your assistance as an anonymous witness, or had you already considered revealing your identity?

Pinto: We talked about all the possible options.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you reveal your identity to the French authorities last year?

Pinto: Yes. I told them that I was John.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you already handed over documents to the French authorities, or are the relevant documents among the material that has now been confiscated?

Pinto: The only thing I can say, is that we are cooperating.

DER SPIEGEL: What about the investigations against Cristiano Ronaldo, who is accused of rape by an American woman, which Ronaldo denies?

Pinto: I know very well that there is an investigation, but I don't wish to comment on that.

DER SPIEGEL: Were you approached by the U.S. authorities?

Pinto: Correct.

DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean precisely?

Pinto: It's an ongoing investigation and I really prefer not to comment on that.

DER SPIEGEL: Did investigating authorities already get in touch with you after the first major Football Leaks revelations in 2016?

Pinto: I received a few emails from tax authorities, including one from Germany, from Munich.

DER SPIEGEL: How did you behave at the time?

Pinto: Some of the inquiries were quite brash. The financial investigators from England first wanted to know my name and where I lived. That is crazy for a whistleblower who wishes to remain anonymous; naturally I did not reply. At that time, I had no lawyers. I needed time and a strategy that would guarantee my personal protection. Even at that time, the most credible inquiry came from France.


Pinto: They seemed very determined and professional. They made it clear that they seriously wanted to pursue cases of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion in football. I had the feeling I could trust them, and I needed a strong partner. The French officials are able to launch investigations through Eurojust. I can share my data with them, and they can then pass it on. One contact is enough. I understand that Eurojust is a very useful tool for the authorities from various countries to coordinate their cooperation. If other countries seriously want to carry out investigations, they will have France. And they will have me.

DER SPIEGEL: After the Football Leaks revelations, did any association ever try to get in touch with you?

Pinto: Neither FIFA nor UEFA contacted Football Leaks. This is frustrating. In my interviews using the pseudonym "John," I repeatedly made it clear that I would pass on documents in the interest of shedding light on the facts, if I was given a sign. I never received a single one.

DER SPIEGEL: Why are you resisting your extradition to your home country?

Pinto: I am fairly certain that I will not be given a fair trial in Portugal. The Portuguese judiciary is not entirely independent; you run up against a lot of hidden, covert interests. Of course, there are public prosecutors and judges who take their job seriously. But this football mafia is everywhere. They want to send the message that no one should pick a fight with them.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of a potential prison sentence in Portugal?

Pinto: I am nervous because I am a target for attacks, especially by fans of Benfica Lisbon. Ever since last autumn, I have been receiving massive death threats on Facebook. When I met with French investigators, I showed them these. They said the threats should be taken very seriously. I am afraid that if I set foot in a Portuguese prison, especially one in Lisbon, I will not leave it alive.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Pinto, we thank you for this interview.


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