The Man Behind Football Leaks: Exposure of the Beautiful Game's Biggest Secrets

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportOctober 22, 2018

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The news in late September that Kathryn Mayorga filed a lawsuit in a Nevada district court against Cristiano Ronaldo for allegedly raping her in June 2009 has the attention of the footballing world.

At the root of the case are documents that were published by Der Spiegel after being fed to the weekly German news magazine by Football Leaks—the so-called WikiLeaks of football.

However, while WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has become a household name, the mastermind behind Football Leaks remains unknown except for a few key details.

We know the invisible man is Portuguese, just like Ronaldo. He was born in Lisbon. He is a football fan. Coincidentally, he has cited Ronaldo as his favourite player in the past.

While the Ronaldo case continues to play out, huge names in football such as Jose Mourinho, Leo Messi and Luka Modric have all had to answer difficult questions as a result of documents unearthed by Football Leaks.  

The man who orchestrates Football Leaks lives life on the run. He rarely stays in the same place for more than two nights. He only liaises with one person from Der Spiegel, Rafael Buschmann, who is the co-author of Football Leaks: Uncovering the Dirty Deals Behind the Beautiful Game. Buschmann first met the whistleblower in a town in Eastern Europe in early 2016. He told Buschmann to call him "John."

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John had the appearance of a roadie with a rock 'n' roll band—thin, dark hair, wispy beard, denim jacket, T-shirt—and the lifestyle to go with it. On a typical night out with Buschmann—and they have had many in various European cities over the last two years—John would down copious amounts of beer and vodka, and at the end of the nightclubbing, the pair would part in separate taxis: Buschmann to his hotel, and John, often with a young woman, to God knows where.

John speaks at least five languages fluently. He makes coin from selling pristine antiques on the internet: stuff like swords, amulets, maps, vintage port wine and books. The Chinese are crying out for them, he tells Buschmann; as well as oligarchs and Arabs. He calls Football Leaks "the project."

No one knows his background—if he's a disgruntled football agent, or a former employee of FIFA or UEFA with access to contracts, or a lawyer betraying his clients, or maybe he's just an irate fan who's good at computer hacking. He has name-checked Assange and Edward Snowden as inspirations for Football Leaks. He is keen, however, not to end up living in an embassy like Assange.

Der Spiegel's head office in Hamburg

John uses software on his phone that scrambles the GPS coordinator so his position shows up as being somewhere near the North Pole. He has reason to be anxious. He's made enemies. His fingernails are chewed to the quick from nervous energy. During one meeting with Buschmann, he showed the reporter an exchange between unsavoury Russian and Kazakh characters in which it's suggested they should "take care" of John, with one of them listing a series of places to start the search for him.

"He's a young guy, smart, very intelligent," says Michael Wulzinger, one of the Der Spiegel journalists who is working on the Ronaldo rape allegations story and co-author of the Football Leaks book. "He's a football romantic. When Rafa [Buschmann] met him the first time, they talked about a team from the German second division and 'John' knew the team's starting XI from a certain match in the 1990s. He's a real football nerd. He knows everything about football clubs.

"As he has this deep insight—a view into the business of agents, clubs—he got very upset, angry. It seems that he wants the world to know what happens behind the curtain. What fans see are the glitter and the glam of this industry. What fans don't see is how the deals are made, how much tax is evaded, all this dirty stuff. He wants the world to know [these details]."

His motivation, and the cadre of colleagues who work underground with him on the Football Leaks platform, is to expose the trickery behind football's dealings—how money is skimmed off the top from transfer fees and bonuses and how, for example, player earnings are often channelled through tax havens in places like the South Seas and the Caribbean. According to Football Leaks data, almost every professional footballer on an above-average salary is behind one or more companies used to avoid paying taxes.

In 2008, for example, it is alleged that the game's most famous manager, Jose Mourinho, set up the Kaitaia Trust in New Zealand—about as far from Milan, where he was coaching at the time, as possible—in the name of his wife and children in order to conceal income from the coach's image rights.

Jose Mourinho was ordered to pay a tax fine over almost €2 million
Jose Mourinho was ordered to pay a tax fine over almost €2 millionPaul White/Associated Press

The allegations, made by El Mundo in December 2016, were based on Football Leaks documents. During his three years as Real Madrid boss, from 2010 until 2013, Mourinho was said to have failed to declare a single euro of earnings from his image rights to the Spanish Tax Agency.

"The Spanish tax authorities admitted that they didn't know about it. They had to reopen an investigation into Mourinho's case—it had been closed—because of information we published," says Javier Sanchez, a journalist with El Mundo who worked on the story. "Finally the case was closed [in September 2018]." Mourinho received a one-year suspended jail sentence and had to pay a fine of almost €2 million.

Football Leaks is all for greater transparency in football, more akin to American sports such as professional baseball or American football, in which contracts and salaries are made public. According to the general manager of the FIFA Transfer Matching System, for instance, transfer fees in football may well be twice as high as those posted on its platform.

Without transparency, Football Leaks believes the game is prey to corruption, money laundering and tax fraud. It's like the Wild West. The money that has piled into the game from TV rights, particularly over the last decade, has made it an alluring market for all kinds of investors.

Football Leaks began publishing its leaked documents online in September 2015. Twice it had to shut down its website, according to Buschmann and Wulzinger's book, owing to external pressure its hosts were put under from people who wanted it silenced; Yandex, too, closed down the platform's cloud account after a complaint was made by Doyen Sports, which was the focus of an early Football Leaks story about third-party ownerships involving the private equity fund and Dutch club FC Twente.

In the spring of 2016, Football Leaks stopped publishing documents and instead handed over the task to Hamburg-based Der Spiegel and a total network of 12 media organisations around Europe, including El Mundo (Spain), Expresso (Portugal) and the Sunday Times (UK). Their network is called European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) and is made up of 60 journalists, among them Buschmann, Wulzinger, Sanchez and Pedro Candeias, editor of Expresso.

"We are the door opener for ['John']," says Wulzinger. "We publish his documents. We make the context understandable. We check the documents. We verify them. There are a lot of documents we would never publish."

The lengths Der Spiegel—and its 11 partner publications at EIC—goes to in vetting stories are considerable. They consult with each other. They confer with external sources, which include tax advisors, international law experts and economists. They set up whiteboards to mind-map their stories—labyrinthine structures involving dozens of names, place names, companies, funds and so on.

"The consortium has a lot of fact-checkers and lawyers who analyse the [documents]," says Candeias. "We also have fiscal experts. Everything has to be by the book. Everything has to be confirmed with our lawyers before being published." Expresso has published 29 Football Leaks-related stories. It has not been sued following any of them.

Cristiano Ronaldo's lawyers have refuted Der Spiegel's claims
Cristiano Ronaldo's lawyers have refuted Der Spiegel's claimsMIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images

Even still, reports based on Football Leaks' efforts have often been met with accusations of fabrication. Peter S. Christiansen, one of Ronaldo's lawyers, made headlines in October by calling Football Leaks documents connected to the Ronaldo rape investigation "pure inventions" and "altered and/or completely forged."

"Until now, we've checked thousands of Football Leaks documents," says Wulzinger. "None of them proved to be a fake. We can rely on the authenticity of the documents, generally speaking. If you take the Ronaldo [rape claim] documents, first we checked the logic of the documents we've reviewed. We check all the places, the persons and the content. We put it together like a puzzle.

"Then we go out and talk to people, the ground research, to get their versions, to understand more about the context. Then—the most important thing—we confront those persons we are [investigating]. We write letters, dozens of pages, to the lawyers of those people, asking them questions step by step. 'What is this about?' 'Comment on this.'

"[Normally] they don't answer our questions. They try to prevent us from publishing. They threaten to sue us. In the end we can rely on the authenticity of the documents. It takes a lot of time, but everything that has come out of these [Football Leaks] has proved to be true until now. It's another reason to call this database a gold mine."

Football Leaks handed over 18.6 million documents to the EIC in 2016, enough information to match the size of "500,000 bibles." The EIC's staff navigate the database using a customised search engine—called "Snoop" by The Black Sea, an EIC partner based in Romania. The tool is similar to those used by tax agents and online criminal investigators.

The EIC began publishing their stories in December 2016 on the day of the Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Sergio Ramos scored in the 90th minute of the match at the Camp Nou to tie the game, 1-1.

Cristiano Ronaldo in action during the December 2016 Clasico
Cristiano Ronaldo in action during the December 2016 ClasicoAlex Caparros/Getty Images

One of the stories El Mundo published alleged that Ronaldo used "ghost companies" to shelter income from his image rights, amounting to some €150 million. The tax evasion led to a criminal investigation. In June 2018, Ronaldo agreed to pay an €18.9 million fine and accepted a two-year suspended jail sentence.

At the time the story was leaked in December 2016, Real Madrid fans were incensed. They believed the timing of its publication was a conspiracy to unsettle their player (who now plays for Juventus) before a match against the club's ancient rivals, Barcelona.

"The first reaction of a lot of readers of El Mundo—and I'm not talking about [trolls] online—was: 'Why do you publish this on the day of a match between Barcelona and Real Madrid? Do you want to influence the match—to make Real Madrid lose?' It was only when the case got to court that people started to give us credit for bringing it to attention," says Sanchez.

The stories the EIC have published are sensational—from Der Spiegel's insight into why Barcelona are paying Lionel Messi over €100 million a year to Luka Modric's tax fraud case. One scoop alleged that Gareth Bale's agent and a business partner earned €16.3 million for brokering the Welshman's transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid in 2013, which shined a light on the vast sums agents can make in the game.  

"The biggest surprise for me [from Football Leaks] is how lawyers and agents can bend the rules to get more money," says Candeias. "There is a lot of under-the-table money. They hide a lot of money. [But] it's not only about tax evasion. It's also about the fees agents get for transfers. Mino Raiola, the agent for Paul Pogba, got huge compensation fees for transferring Pogba between Juventus and Manchester United. It was about €49 million."

Mino Raiola was well-compensated for brokering Paul Pogba's return to Manchester United
Mino Raiola was well-compensated for brokering Paul Pogba's return to Manchester UnitedVALERY HACHE/Getty Images

What Raiola and Bale's agent, Jonathan Barnett, are doing is not illegal, but football fans being priced out of going to see live matches will wonder whether exorbitant agent fees factor into the inflation of ticket costs.

After the EIC dropped its avalanche of Football Leaks-related stories in a coordinated strike on December 3, 2016, eight national tax authorities in Europe got in touch, looking for help in pursuing tax evaders.

The rape allegations against Ronaldo have had the biggest reverberations of any Football Leaks story. Nike, which has a lifetime sponsorship deal with Ronaldo reported to be worth $1 billion by Business Insider, said it was "deeply concerned" in a statement. The story is only going to grow as the recently reopened Las Vegas police investigation develops.

According to legal expert Michael McCann for Sports Illustrated, the question of whether Football Leaks documents are admissible in court could become a battlefield between both sides' legal teams.

Meanwhile, there are other articles afoot. Candeias says he is unable to comment on the Football Leaks stories his publication is working on. "This is what I can promise," says Wulzinger. "Der Spiegel will publish a new wave of revelations. It's in the near future."

Football Leaks' founder says he has data that could prove tax fraud of "three-digit millions" to the authorities. He says his comrades will be "keeping a close eye on Qatar and Paris," in reference to the venue for the 2022 FIFA World Cup finals and the club that sensationally signed Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in the summer of 2017. He has turned on a tap that has yet to stop leaking, and it could have yet more profound implications for the game and its stars.  


Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz