Football on Trial: Pinto, Al-Khelaifi & Valcke

by | Sep 26, 2020

The two sides of football’s corruption, ahem, ‘coin’ are currently on show (trial).

On 4th September, in Portuguese capital Lisbon’s Central Criminal Court, the trial began of Rui Pinto, a 31-year-old, self-styled whistleblower and alleged computer hacker/blackmailer. Pinto is “behind” the “Football Leaks” (FL) website, a.k.a. “a whistleblower’s platform” and “the largest leak in the history of sport.”

Ten days later, in Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, the trial began of Jerome Valcke, a 59-year-old former Secretary-General of (and twice sacked by) world football governing body, Fifa, and often labelled disgraced Fifa ex-president Sepp Blatter’s, ahem, “number two.” Alongside him is Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the 46-year-old chair of Qatari media group BeIN Sports, president of French champions Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and member of European football governing body Uefa’s Executive Committee (ExCo).

The contrast is superficially obvious. Baddies accused of the sort of skullduggeries upon which whistles have been blown. But nuances abound. The Swiss trial has a complex backstory, given the involvement of Switzerland’s recently, rightly much-maligned Attorney-General’s office. The case against Pinto has more merit than many media supporters admit. And it felt appropriately confusing that Pinto was put in witness protection while awaiting his OWN trial.

If you’ve read about football finance ‘scandals’ since September 2015, FL will likely have been among the sources. Manchester City’s run-ins with Uefa’s regulatory interpretation of what constitutes ‘financial fair play” was an FL leak (and City’s appeal part-success against Uefa-imposed sanctions was not because of deficiencies in the FL data). Likewise, Cristiano Ronaldo’s run-ins with various legal authorities, despite Pinto once declaring the preening Portuguese his “favourite player” and history’s “most complete footballer.”

FL will turn five next Tuesday. There will be no birthday party as Pinto will still be in court, facing 90 criminal charges. Sixty-eight of undue access to computer files, 14 of correspondence violation, six of illegitimate access, and one each of computer sabotage and extortion/attempted extortion.

Operating under unimaginative pseudonym “John,” until ‘outed’ in September 2018, Pinto calls himself a whistleblower, serving the public interest (and salaciously interesting the public) in exposing the depth of football’s financial corruption. He claims he was inspired by the infamous May 2015 Fifa arrests and by seeing “irregularities in numerous transfers within Portugal,” although detractors note that his pre-FL accessing of computer information having more ‘personal finance’ motives.

FL has passed information onto “media partners,” the “European Investigative Collaborations” (EIC), also founded in September 2015 and including German news magazine Der Spiegel, leading Spanish newspaper El Mundo and French online investigative journal Mediapart.

Pinto’s exposees prefer the term “hacker,” for which is being prosecuted. Others label him a “computer genius,” complimentary but not necessarily helpful. Long-term Pinto legal representative, white-collar criminal and human rights French lawyer William Bourdon, likens him to US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Less wisely, Pinto considers the demonstrably weird Julian Assange an inspiration.

Pinto has allegedly gone beyond football, for reasons good-and-ill. In 2013, the Cayman Islands-based Caledonian Bank (CB) alleged that he stole $350,000 from two CB accounts. Pinto said this was to show how easily their servers could be hacked, although to whom was unclear. The bank dropped charges against Pinto, who returned the second theft, $310,000, immediately but only half of the first amount, months later, having spent the rest.

CB noted, bitterly, that “the disclosure of our client’s identity, who is not indicted, would jeopardise their privacy, something that doesn’t appear indispensable for the discovery of the truth.” And they were anxious not to publicise how easily their cybersecurity was breached. CB went into fraud-induced bankruptcy in February 2015. Pinto told EIC journalists in January 2019: “In the end I haven’t received any money from that bank. I did not steal the money, that’s not the real story.” But when asked for the ‘real story’ he cited a “non-disclosure agreement” no-one else can find.

More nobly, he reportedly sourced the “Luanda Leaks,” a potentially more significant document-drop than FL. 715,000 leaked documents implicated Isobel doe Santos, the English-educated and domiciled 47-year-old daughter of Angolan ex-president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, in exploitative corruption in the former Portuguese colony. This has made her billions of dollars…and Africa’s richest woman.

The documents underpinned a January 2020 edition of BBC documentary series Panorama, entitled “The Corrupt Billionaire” (like there’s only one), fronted by Alan Pardew stunt-double Richard Bilton. Panorama said “most were obtained” by anti-corruption charity “the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.” But a week later, it was revealed that Pinto handed the documents to the charity in 2018.

The huge case against him was huger. Pinto had lived in Hungarian capital Budapest since leaving his native Portugal in 2015. He was arrested there in January 2019 and when extradited to Portugal in March, he faced 147 charges. His alleged ‘hacks’ focused on Lisbon’s Sporting Club de Portugal and private equity firm Doyen Sports Investments (DSI) and he also allegedly attempted to extort money from DSI’s then-CEO Nelio Lucas.

FL had by then spilled beans all over European football business. And Portuguese investigators also allegedly discovered that he had hacked…them. In June 2019, Pinto’s public prosecutor Patricia Barão declared his actions “not confined to Sporting and Doyen, nor to sport entities,” with possibly “several dozen ‘victims’.” But Lucas and DSI were the focus of massive hacks.

These were collated in an extensive 4,200-word article in December 2016, written by Mediapart’s Yann Phillipin as part of the EIC. “The Dirty Tricks of Doyen Sports,” outlined the “dark side” of DSI: “vast secret commissions to assist with player transfers, false billing and backdated contracts signed by frontmen.” And the now-illegal “third-party ownership” of footballers. Nonetheless, Pinto’s alleged extortion attempts ran counter to the public interest in which he claimed to be acting.

Pinto’s lawyers claimed, credibly, that his prosecution stemmed from “the mobilisation of all those worried about their judicial responsibility for the financial crimes in the football business, revealed by (FL).” But Pinto’s pleas that he “just wanted to see how important the documents were to Doyen…by learning how much Doyen was prepared to pay for my silence” (and that he soon regretted his naivete) rang less true. Especially with judge Calheiros da Gama, who wrote in July 2019 that “the way in which (Pinto) approached (Lucas) takes away any credibility of this version.”

Pinto ‘negotiated’ with Lucas under an alias, Artem Lobuzov, to whom he gave a Kazakhstan email address (Doyen has Kazakh ownership history). And da Gama thought his emails to Lucas “perfectly fitted” the “standard of normality in the accomplishment of this type of crime.” Pinto told Lucas what he had on DSI. He requested €500k-€1m to keep it quiet. And he ‘warned’ Lucas that “all this and more can appear online, and through the European press; certain French, Italian and Spanish papers have already requested a partnership to disclose information.” (the EIC). “Surely you do not want that, do you? But we can talk…”

Pinto claimed he deliberately demanded unrealistic money and noted that when Lucas responded with lawyers instead of realistic money, he gave up. Da Gama, making a case to keep Pinto in custody, claimed Pinto knew, having hacked DSI, that a mere million was very mere to them. And that Pinto only ‘gave up’ because he knew Portugal’s authorities were onto him (he had, after all, hacked them). Pinto made the Doyen docs among the first FL leaks anyway. But da Gama still had “no doubts that there was an extortion attempt.”

As if the waters of Pinto’s reputation weren’t muddied enough by all this, Andreas Selliaas of the excellent Danish sports transparency campaigning organisation “Play the Game,” did a curious, if exceptionally well-written hatchet-job on him this February, suggesting via headline, that FL “raises many questions, also for the media.”

Selliaas noted that “the charges against him as a blackmailer contrast sharply” with how “partners in the FL network have portrayed him for years.” But, even if that were entirely true (it isn’t), they would, wouldn’t they? And, disturbingly treating allegation as undisputed fact, Selliaas reported: “Many whistleblowers who have put their lives on the line are not particularly keen on being lumped into the same category as a person who has hacked data for personal gain.”

Of course, PTG is outside the “FL network,” which IS an oversight, given its sports transparency focus. And Selliaas is strong on other curious network absentees, noting, with appropriate alarm, that “even within Der Spiegel, the most hard-core investigative journalists seem left out, also some of those who exposed that Germany bought the hosting rights for the 2006 World Cup.” But PTG’s absence from the network could also explain, at least in part, Selliaas’s bitterness.

He also accused “the media” of being “fairly biased,” with “few journalistic investigations of who Pinto is, few updates on arrests and court hearings,” and news about case developments “mainly come from news agencies. Why?” The correct question here is “eh?” Even I, a journalistic nobody, could add lots more on “who Pinto is” and on the case against him AND the Caledonian Bank farrago as his backstory, good and bad, has been meticulously documented across continents.*

In April, Pinto was moved from prison to house arrest, having agreed to “decrypt” the previously encrypted material on the hard drives seized upon his arrest, in return for it not being used against him. And on 7th August, he was released, on bail, into a witness protection programme, a move “made possible,” according to his lively lawyers “because he has cooperated with justice,” and seemingly made necessary by the decrypted information his co-operation has provided.

Pinto and his case continue to contradict. After years of wrongdoing denials, he has admitted in interviews that “from the standpoint of Portuguese law, some of my acts may be considered illegal,” while maintaining “that many things were not illegally done.” And the first days of his trial contained lively refutations along the same lines, based on documents his lawyers, Francisco and Luisa Teixeira da Mota, presented on Trial Eve.

An article by Norwegian website Josimar, headlined, “Man of many faces,” quoted extensively from the missive. The lawyers “admitted he illegally hacked dozens of email accounts and explain how ‘easily’ he did it with the help of the email account owners.” But “he did it with a noble intention: to reveal serious crimes. A reason why, they believe, he should be considered a whistleblower and his actions viewed as such.”

Pinto claimed that a “substantial portion of the published documents were sent by anonymous sources to FL,” having told Der Spiegel in February 2016 that “some of our sources do not realise they are our sources.” Now, to protect his sources, unknown or unknowing, he would take responsibility for “information he didn’t personally access and posts he didn’t publish.”

Pinto’s lawyers claimed he didn’t hack DSI, as Doyen Capital was “the true victim of illegal access.” But he admitted suggesting that DSI employ him “as a technician for €25,000-a-year” before he “voluntarily and sincerely gave up the extortion attempt,” a reason why, under Portuguese law, he wasn’t guilty of extortion. This part of Pinto’s defence is the hardest to define as nobly-intended or reconcile with his claim that “I never did anything for money.”

However, he would “continue collaborating with the authorities,” as his information had kick-started “important inquiries” (France’s financial crimes prosecution unit have expressed in-trial interest in it). And he pleaded: “I’m in a strange situation. I’m a defendant and a protected witness. I’ve been the target of a slander and libel campaign. I’ve been in prison for a year-and-a-half, with seven months of total isolation. It was very difficult.”

The case continues…probably for some months.

Valcke is “old school” Fifa corruption. The allegations against him were typical Fifa, involving awarding media rights, for the World and Confederation Cups.

The OAG’s February 2020 indictment said he “unlawfully enriched himself” while trying to buy a luxury Sardinian villa. He “was refunded” a €500,000, downpayment “after Al-Khelaifi purchased the villa instead.” Al-Khelaifi then gave Valcke “the exclusive right” to use it “for 18 months,” free of an estimated €900,000-€1.8m rent. Valcke should have reported this to Fifa…but didn’t. He was charged with “accepting bribes, aggravated criminal mismanagement and falsification of documents,” all linked to the villa.

Al-Khelaifi is new school (alleged) corruption, and new school money. He was highly visible at last month’s Uefa Champions League final, as PSG president, another reason to dislike PSG, like we needed one beyond Neymar. And he has been on Uefa’s ExCo since February 2019, despite being under investigation in Switzerland since March 2017 and the OAG opening criminal proceedings against him that October, accusing him of “bribery of private individuals.”

Valcke remains accused of “exploiting” his Fifa position “to influence the award of media rights for Italy and Greece” for World and Confederations Cups “from 2018 to 2030,” to “favour preferred media partners,” for which he received “€1.25m.” But “the suspicion” that he” accepted a luxury watch” from Al-Khelaifi was “not found to be substantiated.” And Al-Khelaifi remains accused of not much.

In January 2020, a month after “the OAG gave the parties written notice that it would be filing an indictment, Fifa informed them that it had reached an ‘unspecified amicable agreement (“accord amiable”) with Al-Khelaifi’ and that it was thus ‘withdrawing its criminal complaint against Al-Khelaifi and partially against Valcke.’”

This complaint had again involved “the award of media rights,” this time “for the 2026 and 2030 World Cups (and) other Fifa events in the Middle East and North Africa.” But as “the basis for these criminal proceedings” included this criminal complaint “which Fifa filed against the accused in December 2016,” and as the alleged offences were being “prosecuted only on complaint,” the OAG had to “abandon proceedings.”

Worse, on 30th March, Switzerland’s Federal Court damned the OAG’s allegation of criminal mismanagement collusion between Valcke and Al-Khelaifi. The ruling noted: “These conditions of mismanagement are absent from the OAG’s accusation (which) does not set out the specific management obligations Valcke allegedly breached in return for economic advantages. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that (they) are the result of an agreement between them in a private capacity, without any connection with the function of general secretary that (Valcke) exercised.” But apart from that…

Al-Khelaifi considered boringly predictable counter-attack the best form of defence: “As I have said vehemently and repeatedly for three years, the charges have not, and have never had, any basis whatsoever, either in fact or law,” There was, he claimed, a “seemingly relentless agenda to smear my reputation in the media. For that reason, I have requested the relevant Swiss authorities to open a criminal enquiry into the conduct of the investigation.”

However, his and Valcke’s trial was set for September, despite his lawyers’ inevitable claims that even the diminished case against him was “completely unfounded” and “manifestly artificial.” They also asked, twice and unsuccessfully, that the case’s prosecutors be recused (withdrawn) and this time made a criminal “compliant” reportedly “related to leaks” (while Pinto was under house arrest, BTW).

Little surprise, then, that the trial was paused almost immediately, on a “procedural point.” But Al-Khelaifi’s lawyers suggested, correctly, that “the vast majority of this case does not relate to our client in any way.” And the procedural points belonged to lawyers for previously unnamed third accused party and “sports rights sector” businessman, Dinos Deris, who allegedly paid Valcke his €1.25m.

In Deris’s illness-enforced court absence, his lawyer Alec Reymons, argued unsuccessfully that the trial was flawed (Valcke’s lawyers said “muddied” and “contaminated”) by recently-revealed clandestine meetings between Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Swiss Attorney General Michael Lauber, held and covered-up for still unclear purposes and currently the subject of separate Swiss criminal proceedings. Lauber resigned his attorney-generalship in July.

Valcke pleaded poverty. His bank, Credit Suisse, “wouldn’t give him a cent more” because of multi-million debts he racked up buying two houses and a yacht. And without “a lot of people I can ask for money from, I had to find someone to lend me money” (not bribes, though). “Without work, with a family, money burns very quickly,” he advised. And while he hoped that “an agriculture project” would “provide income in the coming months,” he said his circumstances had forced to him to sell the yacht and items of jewellery. Any red in court was surely embarrassment rather than hearts bleeding.

Prosecutors want Valcke banged up for three years, and Al-Khelaifi for 28 months. Federal Prosecutor Joel Pahud highlighted Al-Khelaifi’s “contempt for justice” in not co-operating with investigators and lying about buying THE Sardinian villa. Valcke sought Al-Khelaifi’s help with the villa, JUST as beIN Sports won a World Cup media rights contract extension. The men called this a “private arrangement,” unconnected to the contract talks. And the $480m beIN paid for the two World Cups was 60% more than 2018 and 2022 cost them. Which makes Fifa’s original criminal complaint ‘interesting.’

The case continues. And Al-Khelaifi may miss Uefa’s next ExCo meeting, in Budapest, the long-time home town of…Rui Pinto. Verdicts, guessable already, are expected next month.

The wheels of football justice tend to turn at whatever speed the game’s money and power dictate. Pinto has upset monied and powerful people. And even his briefly-dipped toe into extortion waters has given the monied and powerful a big enough hook on which to hang him. He is, as cockney telly cops are wont to say, “going down.”

Al-Khelaifi IS monied and powerful…even more so while under investigation, (and little sums up modern club football better than appointing a wealthy, former tennis player and potentially corrupt man to represent the European Clubs Association on European football’s governing ExCo). Suspension has been common for football administrators under investigation. Even Blatter. And Valcke. But Al-Khelaifi is no commoner. He could afford to “amicably agree” things with a Fifa happy to amicably agree things with he and his and his country’s money. And he’s staying up.

Valcke, meanwhile, is impossibly damaged and consequentially powerless goods. And, apparently, not monied. Fifa part-exonerated Valcke only so they could accord amiably with Al-Khelaifi. While the Swiss OAG’s incompetent record on Fifa prosecutions has allegedly been strongly influenced by Infantino. And with Infantino currently insisting that Fifa fell “victim to corrupt officials” pre-2015 and that this “will not come back,” Valcke looks like legal toast.

But nobody’s legal fate affects the veracity of Pinto’s leaks. As ever in such cases, the disputes are about context not content (although, asked for context, Manchester City chose regulation-breaching silence). And his case concerns improper information-gathering, a crime which legally neuters even the most damning evidence obtained by it.

The comparative legal fates of the Football and Luanda Leaks, and those of alleged co-conspirators Al-Khelaifi and Valcke, could be revealing. But Pinto’s information HAS exposed football skullduggeries and corruptions, of which Valcke and Al-Khelaifi were/are embodiments.

Pinto declared in court that his “work as a whistleblower is finished.” But as he told Der Spiegel in 2016, when explaining his less orthodox methods, “the important thing is that all our documents are genuine.” Which is these tales’ fundamental truth.

*The Pinto parts of this article have been constructed from extensively and exceptionally well-researched work by the journalists (and others) below, in the media outlets further below:

Yann Phillipin, Michael Bird, Zeynep Sentek, Craig Shaw, Rafael Buschmann, Michael Wulzinger, Hendrik Maassen, Nino Seidel, Nuno Tiago Pinto (no relation), Christoph Winterbach, Andreas Selliaas, Sam Cunningham, Ed Aarons, Sam Knight, Jon Allsopp.

Black Sea, Josimar, Play the Game, Der Spiegel, Sports Business, “i” , Guardian, New Yorker, Sabada, Colombia Journalism Review, Portugal News.