Football Leaks

Football Leaks

Organisation: DER SPIEGEL / European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) (Germany)

Publication Date: 03/23/2017

Size of team/newsroom:large


What if people found out how much football teams really pay their professional players, if they knew the size of the commissions earned by intermediaries? If people were to start to question whether their football heroes are as clean as their marketers like to make them out to be? If you could peer behind the glossy facade of global football and take a closer look at the contracts, bank accounts and the exchange of letters between pro players and their advisers? The whistleblowing platform Football Leaks makes all this possible. For several months, a reporter of Germany's DER SPIEGEL communicated with the platform’s creators via encrypted chats and phone calls. He finally persuaded one of them, “John”, to meet him. After numerous meetings, John decided to share information with DER SPIEGEL. He provided us with access to around 1.9 Terabyte of data, 18.6 million documents - the biggest leak in the history of professional sports. Together with the investigative network EIC and additional partners, we have explored the inner workings of the multi-billion-euro football business. We were able to give an insight view into tax evasion schemes, shady business relationships and immoral contract clauses. Our protagonists are the most famous football players in the world as well as dodgy undercover agents who pull the strings in the background. We portray the greedy side of the football world and its patrons: Corrupt coaches, crafty investors and minions of autocratic regimes who all have a stake in the entertainment business surrounding “the beautiful game”. It starts with underage talents who are treated like bondmen, it spreads through professional leagues all around Europe and it ends on the very top of the football food chain.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

The football industry is rotten. And we’re the first ones who have systematic evidence for that - in a business that usually operates in strict confidentiality. When it all started, we faced a steep mountain to climb, in a vast dataset that contained contracts, side letters, e-mail correspondence, spreadsheets, photos and bank statements. But how can you find anything, when you don't even know what to look for? Our material was multilingual and concerned journalists all over Europe, so DER SPIEGEL decided to share the dataset with our partner newsrooms from the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC). The cross-border-research was the first of its kind in Europe and involved more than 60 journalists, programmers and IT experts from France, Italy, England, Romania, Serbia, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Turkey, Austria and Belgium. All partners collaborated to create an internal wiki about corruption in football, collecting and concentrating all relevant information in more than 500 encyclopaedic articles that later on became the knowledge basis for more than 350 articles that have been published about Football Leaks all throughout Europe. A few days after publication, tax authorities from Spain and France announced investigations, especially regarding the offshore schemes of some of the best football players in the world. Since December, the German, Dutch, Portuguese, Belgian and English authorities have commenced investigations as well. In cases of money laundering, corruption and tax fraud, the probes even span to Argentina. FIFA's president Gianni Infantino reacted in an interview with some of our editors and announced that FIFA would use Football Leaks as motive to impose stricter control mechanisms on players agents. He promised to also put the international transfer system to test.

Technologies used for this project:

DER SPIEGEL created a completely new infrastructure for Football Leaks and future leak evaluations. We used the data forensic search tool Intella to analyze the findings. A shielded network within the room warrants that no outside intruder can have access to our data. For the EIC-investigation, cross-border checks and collective research, a team of open source developers and IT experts built new tools from scratch. An open source search engine ( was part of that, with the files stored in a PostgreSQL database after made readable using OCR tools. The engine was further developed and optimized as we went along. On a self-hosted Sandstorm server, all colleagues were able to communicate in RocketChat, share and discuss findings in EtherPad, Davros sharing and Wekan project management. Based on a secure website, all partners could only login using two-factor authentication by privacyIDEA (for example with Yubikeys) using the TOTP protocol, time-limited login sessions, rate limiting and traffic logging. In DokuWiki, we put together all the pieces to complete a huge puzzle about Europe's favorite sport. Communication outside of Sandstorm was conducted via PGP-encrypted mails. For conference calls, we used
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