Time to get to know the baby-faced “hacker” facing prison for the all-time biggest reveal in the world’s most popular sport.
Manchester City’s two-year ban is just the tip of the iceberg that is Football Leaks. Fans of affected clubs and some of football’s biggest names may despise its creator for putting their dubious financial dealings (and other transgressions) in the spotlight — but for those among us who pay our taxes, and whose loyalties lie with the sport itself rather than with any particular club or player, Rui Pinto just might be a real-life hero.
Pinto revealed a global web of tax evasion and money laundering at the top levels of European football.
Pinto is the purported brains behind Football Leaks, a thorn in the side of football’s upper crust since the nondescript blog began living up to its name in September 2015. Triggered by the FIFA corruption scandals that hit headlines that year, the self-professed football geek began collecting data on transfers.
During an interview with Der Spiegel in early 2019, Pinto described how it all began, “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.”
One of those investors, a Malta-based group known as Doyen Sports Investment Limited, was found to have paid for the transfer rights of seven players in the Dutch FC Twente. This particular exposé led to the resignation of club president Aldo van der Laan, a three-year ban for the club, a hefty fine, and an investigation into third-party ownership of player transfer rights by the Dutch Football Association (KNVB).
Pinto’s crusade against Doyen Sports eventually led to investigations into its involvement in Portuguese premier football, which dragged Portugal’s top three football clubs and its headlining players into the spotlight. This culminated in the episode for which he is currently in Portuguese prison under “preventive detention” — a feature of Portugal’s penitentiary system ostensibly designed to keep violent accused criminals off the streets while awaiting trial, but more often used to psychologically break the accused while formal charges are being drawn up.
If, as Portuguese prosecutors maintain, Pinto is indeed a hacker, then he’s football’s Snowden.
Pinto is awaiting trial for 93 charges of illegitimate or improper access, violation of correspondence, computer sabotage, and attempted extortion — charges that could get him ten years behind bars. Portuguese prosecutors claim that Pinto is a hacker who broke into people’s computers, illegally acquired access to email accounts, and attempted to blackmail Doyen Sports.
Like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Antoine Deltour, Raphaël Halet, and the still anonymous John Doe behind the Mossack Fonseca leak, Rui Pinto is almost certain to face prison time for doing what he felt was right. But unlike some of the aforementioned names, Pinto is a university dropout with no formal training in computer science.
Pinto contends that his correspondences with then Doyen CEO Nélio Lucas were part of his personal attempts to gauge the depth of corruption in association football by valuing his findings. To claims that he sought to monetise his data, Pinto responds bluntly, “That’s bullshit.”
Despite formal investigations having opened in Britain, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, based on Pinto’s findings, Portuguese authorities seek to use his data to prove that electronic crimes were committed and that the football geek is actually an evil computer genius in disguise.
Pinto has been extradited from Budapest, where he was living, and is currently in Portuguese prison on a European Arrest Warrant. He cites this turn of events as the latest efforts by Portuguese authorities, the various football associations he has embarrassed, and the Portuguese law firm PLMJ, to silence him and prevent the true extent of corruption in association football from being revealed to the public.
Football Leaks is bigger than the combined weight of every major publication of secret documents — ever.
The actual number of documents Pinto acquired and the amount of storage space they occupy have yet to be accurately determined, but current estimates range somewhere between 12 million to 88 million documents, including everything from emails to spreadsheets. Even at the low end of estimates, Football Leaks is bigger than the US Spygate, Cablegate, Offshore Leaks, LuxLeaks (1 and 2), Swiss Leaks, and the Panama Papers, combined.
Some 70 million documents have made their way to European Investigative Collaborations (EIC), a coalition of journalists from around the world who recently reported on the Panama Papers, a global financial scandal of similarly far-reaching implications. The size of Pinto’s findings is said to be in excess of four terabytes, but by his own admission, Pinto is keeping at least six additional terabytes of documents that have remained unseen by the public, stored on various devices.
The Panama Papers, which became a headline in 2016, amounted to 2.6 terabytes of data and was hailed as the world’s biggest disclosure of financial chicanery. At the same time, findings from the Football Leaks documents were being reported in crumbs by publications like Der Spiegel — thanks in part to injunctions such as the one filed by Christiano Ronaldo through the Spanish law firm Senn Ferrero.
That’s not even counting the 26 terabytes that the Parquet National Financier (PNF), the French law enforcement body that investigates financial crimes, says they acquired from Pinto during their investigations into the host bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups.
If just a slice of Pinto’s data trove has revealed some of the world’s highest-earning footballers as tax dodgers, and some of the most valuable clubs as investment holdings plied with dirty money, any significant portion of the unseen data could cause the entire football industry to implode. It’s no wonder then that Pinto is being painted as a hacker and blackmailer while awaiting trial behind bars.
In the meantime, he adamantly denies being a hacker and professes a love for the sport, “I’m a big fan of Christiano Ronaldo, he’s my favourite football player. I think he’s the most complete football player of all time. I’m also a supporter of FC Porto. But this never prevented me from sharing or publishing data that is relevant. I don’t have any hidden agenda. This shows how transparent I am.”
Before anyone even heard about him, Pinto was already responsible for the Luanda Leaks.
Through the non-profit Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), Pinto helped the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) obtain a collection of over 715,000 documents that came to be known as the Luanda Leaks.
These documents revealed how the 2 billion US Dollar business empire of Isabel Dos Santos, the wealthiest woman on the continent of Africa and the daughter of former Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, was allegedly built with questionable advances from private banks and state funds misappropriated from the former Portuguese colony in Central Africa.
Pinto’s involvement and his identity as the whistleblower in this episode was not revealed until late in January 2020. This revelation may not have been a complete surprise considering what he got up to before then. After years of effort and collaboration with authorities around the world, we are expected to believe that Pinto intended to profit from Football Leaks — despite already having met the definition of whistle-blower under the EU’s Fourth Money Laundering Directive (MLD4).
As the fire-fighting continues around him, Pinto seems resigned to his incarceration pending trial but remains positive that the world will continue his work, “I couldn’t continue this forever. I did my duty. Now that most of the public has finally understood what’s happening in football, now it’s the authorities’ work, not mine.”
Kevin Eichenberger invites you to go down the rabbit hole that is Football Leaks, begin here.