Football Leaks: Whistleblowing or something far more sinister?

Arrest in Budapest of secretive hacker Rui Pinto has thrown up an interesting case

Fifa President Gianni Infantino has been the target of recent disclosures from Football Leaks. Photo: Getty Images

Over the past four years, some of the most damning secrets of the professional football industry have been exposed by a deluge of leaks that have shined an unflattering light on some of the sport’s most popular clubs, players and coaches.

Last week the man behind the leaks, a 30-year-old Portuguese citizen named Rui Pinto, was arrested in Budapest, Hungary. He faces extradition to his home country on the charges, which include an extortion attempt in 2015 on a secretive investment fund that had bet millions of dollars in the player transfer market.

For the moment, though, Pinto’s fate depends on a far narrower matter: whether his team of lawyers can successfully argue that he is a whistle-blower under Hungarian law — a defendant whose actions to expose malpractice and, potentially, a raft of financial and other crimes in soccer outweigh any offences he might have committed.

In the view of the Portuguese authorities, Pinto is guilty of extortion and violation of secrecy in relation to his contact with the investment fund, Doyen Sports. They and Doyen have accused him of threatening to publish internal company documents — revealing transfer fees and secret payments — unless the fund paid him to keep the documents private.


Those documents, which offered a window into both Doyen’s business model and its bank accounts, were later published on the website known as Football Leaks. The revelations, along with a number of player contracts posted on the site, exposed a murky world of soccer finance that was at best unsavory and at worst in violation of national and international soccer regulations.

Ultimately, Pinto turned over about 70 million documents and 3.4 terabytes of information to a German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, which shared documents with a select group of news media outlets who published reports on their contents.

Now that Pinto has been arrested on a Portuguese warrant, though, his case represents a high-profile test of a Hungarian law passed in 2014 that affords special protection to whistle-blowers. His lawyers plan to argue that the leads his leaked documents provided to a variety of European law enforcement organisations outweigh Pinto’s actions.

“Based on the leaks, there have been some extremely important criminal investigations opened with prosecutions in various countries,” said William Bourdon, Pinto’s lawyer, who previously has represented the national-security whistle-blower Edward Snowden. “Without Pinto, this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Those investigations include several tax cases in Spain, where top soccer stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo, have been prosecuted for tax evasion after Football Leaks revealed details of the complicated structures through which they received millions of dollars in salaries and image rights. (Pinto’s lawyers said that he also has been in contact with French financial crimes prosecutors since late 2016.)

More recently, Football Leaks disclosures have targeted the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, and the ways some top clubs might have circumvented the sport’s financial regulations. The revelations also led to the reopening of a sexual assault case against Ronaldo.

The investigations include Spanish authorities’ seeking to prosecute soccer stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: Oscar Del Pozo/Getty Images

Unlike in most whistle-blower cases, however, Pinto has no official connection with the soccer industry — no access to clubs’ books or a players’ contracts — beyond being a fan of the game.

“For me, it doesn’t make a difference considering what is the basis of whistle-blower protection: the intensity of the contribution to the public interest,” Bourdon said. “This is the key point.”

Bourdon said Pinto already had agreed to assist the authorities in Switzerland, and that Germany’s tax agency was seeking access to his information, too. But it is the decision of a Hungarian judge that matters most to him at the moment, since that will determine whether or not he avoids extradition to Portugal.

“We expect the Hungarian judge to be sensitive to the paradoxical situation,” Bourdon said, “that on one hand he’s being prosecuted in Portugal, while on the other he has been providing assistance to prosecutors in other countries.”

Bourdon said that he sees little difference between Pinto and one of his former clients, Hervé Falciani, who leaked account details of clients of the British bank HSBC while he worked in Geneva. Falciani’s disclosures, which shook the secretive world of Swiss banking, revealed accounts containing more than $100 billion, and led to the bank’s agreeing to pay €300 million to French authorities to settle a tax-evasion investigation.

Spain’s high court last September rejected an extradition request for Falciani — once labeled the Edward Snowden of banking — from Switzerland.

In addition to Pinto’s extradition, the Portuguese police have demanded the entirety of the computer equipment seized from him in Hungary. Bourdon called that an overreach because their case is limited to the suspected 2015 extortion attempt.

Bourdon acknowledged that Pinto had attempted to make contact with Doyen once he had the company’s documents, but he said the extortion charges were not valid because Pinto ultimately “didn’t follow through” with an operation to secure a payment.

Bourdon described the charges as “a tool to criminalise him, to target him as an offender and not a whistle-blower.”

Little is known about Pinto. A Der Spiegel reporter, Rafael Buschman, is the only journalist known to have contact with an individual connected with Football Leaks. Buschman has written a series of breathless accounts and a book detailing his relationship with a man he referred to as "John." Der Spiegel has not confirmed Pinto is its source.

But a September report by the Portuguese magazine Sabado reported Pinto was the "computer genius" behind Football Leaks. Shortly after its article was published, a message was posted on Football Leaks' Facebook page that appeared to taunt Portuguese authorities, signing off with "#catchmeifyoucan."

In a video posted to websites including YouTube after a court appearance in Budapest last week, Pinto, dressed in a brown leather jacket and jeans, appeared relaxed as he sat on a wooden bench outside the courtroom with his hands cuffed in front of him. Pinto’s lawyers managed to secure house arrest for him until the judge delivers a verdict.

“Jurisprudence and regulations say there is a question of proportionality between the seriousness of the offense and the importance to public interest,” Bourdon said. “You could violate the law, could be hacking, or stealing, and if the contribution is tremendous then it’s not a crime.

“It will be a historic decision for a Hungarian judge to make.” – New York Times service