SPIEGEL meets up with one of the creators of the anonymous whistleblowing platform Football Leaks, which has shaken professional soccer with its revelations about player contracts and salaries. We visited a man forced into hiding by the powerful industry.
John is one of the Net rebels behind Football Leaks, the online platform that publishes the contracts of professional football players and has been throwing the world of football into turmoil for months now as a result. He has black hair and, despite the cold, wears only a thin leather jacket with a white t-shirt beneath it. He’s a nice, cool, jovial and self-assured guy. But the skin around his fingernails is gnawed right down to the quick in some places, provide an inkling of the kind of pressure this young man is under.
John calls Football Leaks “the project.” He and his helpers are playing at being Robin Hood, slapping the wrists of the high and mighty in the football industry, revealing the deceptions involved in carrying out transfers and showing what commercial football has become today: a crazy game of Monopoly. Football Leaks has published the contracts of Mesut Özil, Cristiano Ronaldo, Anthony Martial and Toni Kroos, and it has revealed how much Real Madrid paid for the forward Gareth Bale: €100,759,418 ($110.4 million). Accustomed to being able to conduct their business discreetly, the bosses of the big clubs, sports agents and sports marketers are outraged. They want to stop the Net rebels. Lawyers have been hired and private eyes sent out to track down John. That’s why he has withdrawn, as far as possible. He meets with SPIEGEL in a town in Eastern Europe. Just for two nights — he rarely stays anywhere for longer. For now, John has a head start over his hunters.
John shovels chocolate cake into his mouth. He barely got any sleep the previous night and he’s tired. A pling sound is made as new documents arrive in his email inbox. The contract of a professional who plays in the Premier League. Pling. A secret transfer agreement between a top European and a top Chinese club. Pling. An additional clause about the transfer bonus payable to a Dutch sports agent. The deal was conducted through front companies and dummy accounts.
Tackling Dark Forces
All the dirty truths of the professional business are stored in a compressed form on John’s hard drives. Hundreds of gigabytes of contracts, transfer deals, internal emails. And every day, a few more are added. Pling. Pling. Pling.
Recently, there has been a great deal of speculation as to whether John is a sports agent out to cause trouble for his colleagues in the industry with the leaks. Or a lawyer who has betrayed one of his clients? Perhaps a former FIFA or UEFA employee who siphoned off the details of contracts? None of these theories are entirely true.
John is a football fan, a passionate one. He knows almost all the players of the major European leagues and the current league tables. He even knows the lineups of second- and third-league teams like Germany’s Union Berlin and Hansa Rostock. He’s a football nerd. And he’s angry — angry about all the tricks and the wheeling and dealing in football, the opaqueness of transfers, the greedy sports agents and unscrupulous investors. “All the guys who are destroying football for me,” says John. He wants to fight them.
Little John against the dark forces. That’s the project.
The hours spent with John in the café race by. He is entertaining, educated, and he speaks about big and small issues alike, about backpacking in Asia and America, the refugee crisis, the euro crisis in Greece. John explains that he was born in Portugal and still has a domicile there. He speaks five languages fluently, and is currently learning two others, including Russian. He says he has a girlfriend, but it’s complicated. The secretiveness surrounding “the project” and the need to protect his cover mean that he’s had to stand her up rather often recently, and sometimes even lie to her. “No woman likes that, but I have to set priorities,” John says.
He compares the recent months with being on drugs. “I have never experienced more adrenaline,” he says.
Football Leaks is a threat to all the slippery and shady characters who do business deals in professional football. In recent decades, world football has created a sort of free-trade area for itself. The lack of transparency in transfer fees, bonuses and premiums worth billions, which are paid every year, has resulted in numerous flows of money being so cleverly channelled that they pass at least once through tax havens such as Panama, Belize or the Cayman Islands. Along the way, the gross payments become net payments. That’s the trick. These crooked dealings have only rarely actually been exposed, because the criminal investigators never have proof of the machinations. Now Football Leaks is supplying the compromising material to the investigators for free.
But where do the documents come from?
John asks for the bill. He doesn’t want to discuss this topic in the café. He flirts briefly with the blond waitress, getting a giggle out of her, and then steps out into the street. Two quick glances to the left and right. He’s constantly checking out the situation. Little John is on the run. “There are lots of people who will do a lot to make Football Leaks stop existing,” he says. John walks past old buildings and a large river. Whenever he can, he turns down side streets. He looks over his shoulder repeatedly, making sure no one is following him. He stops in front of an office building. The plaster is peeling off the walls and the large flight of stairs leading to the entrance door has deep cracks in it, but the door is protected by an electronic security system. The only way of getting in is with a safety chip.
It’s dark inside and smells of cooking fat. Five doors lead off from the corridor, all of them are locked. In a communal kitchen, a young man stands flipping sausages in the frying pan. He doesn’t respond to a greeting — and neither does another individual heading toward the toilet, head down.
Other people from Football Leaks?
John smiles crookedly.
He opens a door which has multiple layers of insulation, inside and out, and is covered in white leather. Inside the approximately 15-square-meter (161 square foot) room lies a mattress on an unfolded couch, and some underpants are drying on a laundry rack. The only window is covered by opaque curtains. There’s no television, no decorations, no photographs, no plants. A white laptop is sitting on the desk. John leaves the room and comes back a few moments later with some portable hard drives that he hooks up to the computer. Documents appear on the screen, thousands of them. They are contracts signed by players. The names associated with them could be from a line-up of a world selection. Neymar. Alex Teixeira. The Spanish world champion of 2010, Fernando Torres. Real Madrid’s French national player Raphaël Varane.
A Ticking Time Bomb
Next to the computer, the Internet router blinks, with new documents arriving in the small room all the time.
Who sends all this material?
“We have very serious, secure sources. However, some of our sources do not realize that they are our source. The important thing is that all our documents are genuine,” says John. He says he’s neither a hacker nor a computer freak. Nevertheless, the computer is his sharpest weapon.
John clicks on the Football Leaks website and looks at the documents which will appear on the homepage over the coming days. “If I should be arrested, measures have been taken to ensure that the publications are not stopped.” Backups have been made of his hoard of documents, hidden in various different places around the world. If the Football Leaks site doesn’t receive a specific code on seven consecutive days, a computer will start to send all the contracts and agreements, little by little, to the anonymous post box of the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, as well as selected media.
A time bomb is ticking.
John sits in front of his laptop squinting, typing in numbers and codes. He reminds one of Leonardo Di Caprio, playing the part of a brilliant check forger in the film “Catch Me If You Can.” Outwardly, he appears very calm, but he’s simmering underneath. “With my current data alone, I could prove worldwide tax fraud to the tune of three-digit millions to the authorities,” John says. “But I hope they will give me a bit more time before they arrest me.”
Catch me if you can. He laughs.
So why is he doing all this?
‘No One Is Spared’
John’s computer screen is blinking: a message. A newspaper clipping appears concerning the transfer of Gareth Bale. Football Leaks posted the documents relating to it on the Internet a few weeks ago. Now John reads that three EU parliamentarians are calling for an independent inquiry into the €100 million transfer. The contracts posted on Football Leaks revealed that Spanish banks were assuming the risk in the deal. At the same time, these banks had themselves been rescued from financial ruin as recently as in 2012, receiving some €40 billion in public funds. The members of parliament are accusing the banks of unloading the risk of the Bale transfer on European taxpayers. It’s a dicey piece of news that is causing quite a stir internationally.
John clenches his fist, claps his hands. “This is why we are doing it! For exactly this reason! We want to open people’s eyes, show them that the entire football business has become a large criminal organization. No transfer takes place any more without illegality or at least borderline trickery,” says John.
He shuts his computer. The Champions League match between Real Madrid and AS Roma begins in a few minutes. John is an ardent fan of his fellow countryman Cristiano Ronaldo: “He is the best player in the world.” And he draws a sensational salary. Ronaldo collected €1.1 million from a Saudi Arabian mobile network operator for a photo and video shoot, five hand-signed shirts and two mentions on his Facebook and Twitter pages. This deal, too, was exposed by Football Leaks.
“Of course we also publish documents about our favorite players and clubs,” says John. Some revelations are more like peeping through keyholes, serving to satisfy the public’s thirst for sensation, but John regards himself as a righteous avenger. “No one is spared,” he says.
Shortly before the kickoff, he is sitting in a restaurant, right below the large screen. He orders a Serbian meat platter with a pile of fries and beer to go with it. Lots of beer. “It’s a funny feeling watching Real Madrid and knowing all the secrets of the players,” says John. He pulls out a smartphone and shows us some emails. “Our documents appear to be in great demand,” he says. An alleged sports agent writes that he wants to buy the entire data set. “I could imagine a total figure of up to €650,000,” the message states.
John shakes his head. “If I sell myself, I am no better than everyone else out there,” he says.
The pressure exerted on the rebels by the football industry is constantly mounting. When you surf the Football Leaks website, a window with pornographic content sometimes pops up. John claims that a sports marketer has installed malware in an attempt to discredit Football Leaks. His opponents are fighting back. He doesn’t know how long he will be able to protect his identity, says John. He orders another beer. The world’s biggest football agent, Jorge Mendes, whose business dealings Football Leaks has looked into, is also claimed to have sent private detectives to track down the whistleblowers. John believes some snoops are trying to pinpoint his location. In the meantime, he has installed software on his phone which tampers with the device’s GPS receiver. As John stuffs down the remains of the Serbian meat platter, his mobile phone displays coordinates of a location near the North Pole.
But he has a sense that the people hunting him are getting closer. A Portuguese public prosecutor is investigating, and a few days ago a request for judicial assistance was sent to an Eastern European country. John says he isn’t really afraid of the police. What worries him is the henchmen who have been sent after him by sports agents and sports marketing agencies. He pulls up some documents on his mobile phone. They mention Kazakh and Turkish names, listed as investors of a sports marketing group. If you google their names, the hits include phrases such as “mafia,” “murder” and “organized crime.”
It’s three o’clock in the morning when John considers backing out of the project. It’s costing him too much energy, and there is no money in it either. He says he needs time to think. Little John is tired.
The meeting with SPIEGEL ends the same night. John says goodbye and, at the very moment he does, his mobile phone awakens. Pling. A new data package has arrived. He immediately starts reading it.