Will Football Leaks Finally Blow Up the Premier League?

In the spring of 2019, I was in Lisbon, reporting on the case of Rui Pinto, a young Portuguese computer hacker and antiques dealer, who had set up Football Leaks, a one-man WikiLeaks-style operation that published millions of pages of secret documents from Europe’s largest soccer clubs, exposing tax fraud, corruption, and numerous other horrors. In Portugal, Pinto was best known for his work targeting Benfica, the country’s most successful and influential club. (An executive at the time compared the scale and suddenness of the leaks to a terrorist attack.) One evening while I was in town, Benfica played Sporting Lisbon, one of its historic rivals, in the semifinals of the Portuguese Cup, and I went to a sports bar in the center of Lisbon hoping to interview fans about O Mercado do Benfica (the Benfica Market), a salacious Web site, mainly comprising leaked e-mails, that Pinto was also accused of running. (He has always denied this.)

Somewhat to my surprise, the Benfica fans whom I spoke to that night were pretty reasonable—gracious, even—when talking about Pinto. At the time, he was thirty years old and in jail. Pinto was arrested in Hungary, in January, 2019, on charges of blackmail and computer fraud, and was extradited to Lisbon, where he was being held separately from other prisoners, for his own protection. Then, as now, Pinto was something of a Robin Hood figure in Portugal—a stubbornly anarchic member of the geração à rasca (generation in trouble), whose futures were choked by the eurozone’s economic crisis. While I was chatting to the equanimous Benfica fans, I happened to mention Football Leaks’ disclosures about the wild spending of Manchester City, the champion of the English Premier League. At that point, a middle-aged Englishman—a Manchester City fan—confronted me. What documents? Who was I? What was I talking about? A journalist? Making shit up as usual. He didn’t look like he was going to hit me. But he wasn’t going to let it go, either. I made my excuses and left.

As an institution, Manchester City, the winner of the E.P.L. in 2012, 2014, 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022, has always been highly defensive about the obvious fact that it has paid its way to success. Since the team was acquired, in 2008, by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, Manchester City has spent nearly two and a half billion dollars on player transfers, a total only recently eclipsed by Chelsea, which was formerly owned by Roman Abramovich, the Putin-adjacent oligarch.

Part of City’s defensiveness comes from having very expensive lawyers, who dispute any assertion that the club has enjoyed an unfair advantage. The rest comes from its supporters, who identify strongly with the team’s wilderness years, when City was the constantly troubled weaker sibling of Manchester United, traditionally the richest and most successful sporting franchise in English soccer. Before 2012, the year that City won the E.P.L. for the first time under Mansour’s ownership, the club had been league champions twice in the course of a hundred and twenty years. For soccer fans, like me, who remember the before times, Manchester City was always an easy team to love: sometimes brilliant, more often chaotic and awful. They had a great terrace anthem, “Blue Moon,” and were no real threat to the established order. During the club’s yo-yo years, in the late nineties, City dropped down to the third tier of English soccer—two divisions below the E.P.L.—and the team’s iconic players were Georgi Kinkladze, a Georgian playmaker blessed with sashaying hips, who scored sublime, individualist goals, and Shaun Goater, an ungainly but effective striker from Bermuda, who was serenaded by fans to the tune of “Cwm Rhondda”: “Feed the Goat and He Will Score.”

That version of City has been shed, like an earlier life stage. The club has metamorphosed, inside and out. It has a new stadium, new players, and new meaning. City Football Group, its parent company, fields soccer clubs on five continents, from New York to Melbourne, which play in matching sky-blue uniforms. Since 2008, the team has won seventeen major trophies—most of them in the hands of Pep Guardiola, arguably the most successful club coach in world soccer. Guardiola’s teams tend to suffocate the opposition by monopolizing the ball, and in recent years English soccer has sometimes felt suffocated, too. In 2018, City became the first team in the E.P.L. history to score a hundred points in a season. The next year, it scored ninety-eight. The team roster is like a global investment portfolio of élite players: at least two, preferably three, at each position. The last remaining flicker of City’s long-held fragility, its previous id, and the most interesting thing about the team, is its continuing inability to dominate European soccer competitions as well—but that day will surely come. It is a titan now.

On February 6th, the E.P.L. announced that the titan will go on trial for cheating. The charge sheet, published in full on the league’s Web site, is an incomprehensible salad of alleged rule-breaking: “Season 2013/14, Premier League Rules B.15, E.3, E.4, E.11, E.12 and E.49.” But the over-all effects—and potential consequences—are breathtaking. Manchester City is accused of breaking the league’s rules some hundred and fifteen times since 2009, mainly in ways related to financial honesty. The E.P.L. will appoint an independent commission of three senior lawyers to consider the charges in private. The club could be thrown out of the league.

The charges against City were compiled during a four-year investigation by Bird & Bird, a law firm retained by the E.P.L. The inquiry began in the spring of 2019, a few weeks before I visited Lisbon, and four months after Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, published a detailed description of City’s alleged financial chicanery; the report was based on Football Leaks’ disclosures, which the club dismissed as an “organized and clear” attempt to damage its reputation. In total, Pinto passed Der Spiegel four terabytes of data, harvested from all corners of the sport—almost ninety million documents, which the magazine housed on a set of secure servers on the tenth floor of its offices, in Hamburg.

The reporting team at Der Spiegel found payment records that suggested the existence of secret bank accounts, meant to pay coaching staff, and internal e-mails between City executives that indicated the terms of sponsorship deals were being manipulated in order to satisfy the spending rules laid down by the E.P.L. and UEFA (the administrators of European soccer) to make sure that clubs balanced their revenues with their expenditures. (Exhibit A: In 2013, Manchester City’s chief financial officer at the time, Jorge Chumillas, e-mailed one of the club’s directors, Simon Pearce, to check that it was O.K. to alter a series of contracts. “Of course,” Pearce replied. “We can do what we want.”) Earlier this week, I texted Rafael Buschmann, a reporter on Der Spiegel’s team, and asked him if his magazine had given Pinto’s data to Bird & Bird for the E.P.L. investigation. He said no. But he pointed out that many Manchester City documents had been available to download from Der Spiegel’s Web site for almost a year, which might have helped the investigators. The most damaging documents are unlikely to have come from the club itself. Thirty of the E.P.L. charges against the club relate to its failure “to cooperate with, and assist, the Premier League in its investigations.” Manchester City denies all wrongdoing.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. “Alarmist or not, the sheer extent of the PL charges are at a level that IF found proven, must lead to relegation,” Stefan Borson, a former financial adviser to Manchester City, tweeted on Monday. In recent years, plenty of English soccer clubs, mostly in the lower leagues, have been fined or docked points for breaching spending rules. But there has never been a case of this magnitude in the E.P.L.—a league packed with irresponsible investors—or a club for which a financial penalty would matter less. In 2012, Rangers Football Club, one of Scotland’s most storied teams, was demoted to the fourth division, the lowest level of the professional game, for years of questionable accounting. In 2006, Juventus, the serial champions of Italy’s Serie A, was demoted and stripped of two of its titles for match fixing. (Last month, Juventus was punished by the authorities again, losing fifteen points for false accounting. The best never learn.)

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