Journalist who has worked with Football Leaks to expose wrongdoing doubts justice awaits for the website’s founder
“He’s more afraid about what will happen on the political stage because football is completely involved in the mechanisms of the Portuguese state,” says Rafael Buschmann. “When he first told me that I wasn’t sure but when I saw the link with Antonio Cluny, I was like: ‘Holy shit, this guy is right.’”
It has now been more than three weeks since Rui Pinto was extradited from Hungary to his native Portugal accused of attempted extortion and cyber criminality – charges that could result in a 10-year prison sentence if proven. The former student behind the Football Leaks website, which has already exposed numerous examples of corruption at the highest level of the sport, has since been remanded in custody as he awaits trial, despite protestations from his lawyers that Pinto should be allowed out on bail.
Last week, they and the Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes appeared at a press conference alongside LuxLeaks whistleblower Antoine Deltour in Lisbon to reiterate Pinto’s determination to share his information with prosecutors from France, Belgium and Switzerland via Eurojust, the European Union’s judicial cooperation unit, with Gomes stating the 31-year-old could “provide valuable help in recovering money stolen through tax evasion”.
Yet while the man described as football’s Edward Snowden awaits his fate with trepidation having claimed on numerous occasions that he fears for his life now he is at the mercy of the Portuguese authorities, Buschmann – a reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel who first met Pinto nearly four years ago – admits he remains doubtful that justice will be done. “Rui is very optimistic because he is confident he has not done anything wrong,” he says. “But you can see in Portugal it’s a very big political scandal and that makes it very hard to say which way this will go.”
Since December 2016 and on behalf of Der Speigel and other partners in the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network, Buschmann and his team have used documents obtained via Football Leaks to expose wrongdoing in the sport, including tax avoidance by Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho – both managed by the super-agent Jorge Mendes – and Manchester City’s alleged violation of Uefa’s financial fair play regulations, as well as publishing Kathryn Mayorga’s renewed accusations of rape against the Juventus forward last September. Ronaldo has denied the allegations.
A two-year injunction against Der Spiegel’s reporting of the tax evasion case was lifted last week after lawyers working on behalf of the Spanish firm Senn Ferrero – whose previous clients have included Ronaldo and Arsenal’s Mesut Özil – withdrew the application.
A few days before Pinto’s extradition was approved, Buschmann was invited to the Hague at the end of February to attend a press conference in which Eurojust confirmed its interest in accessing some of the information provided by the whistleblower but was surprised to learn that the organisation’s Portuguese representative was a certain Antonio Cluny.
“When I saw him on the list I said to my colleague: I know this name,” he recalls. “When I checked it on the Football Leaks database later there were so many connections between his son and the players of Mendes that I couldn’t imagine how someone could have more conflict of interest for this case.
“This was such an important press conference where they were explaining to the world for the first time that the authorities were interested in this case and were thinking about bringing Rui Pinto into a witness protection programme. When I called Rui and asked if he knew about this, he said: ‘Of course. This is Portugal.’”
It transpired that Cluny’s son João Lima is a lawyer working for Morais Leitão, the firm that has represented Ronaldo, Mourinho and several other clients of Mendes and his Gestifute agency for well over a decade. “In his private messages, Ronaldo affectionately calls one of the firm’s partners, Carlos Osório de Castro, ‘father’,” wrote Buschmann in Der Spiegel in February. “Osório de Castro has served as Ronaldo’s legal adviser since the beginning of the football player’s career and the Porto-based lawyer has also coordinated Ronaldo’s defence strategy for the rape allegations that have been levelled against him.”
Yet despite concerns over a potential conflict of interest in Cluny’s involvement being raised by his fellow members of Eurojust and Der Spiegel,the accusation was rejected a week later after the intervention of Portugal’s prosecutor general, who ruled: “There is no conflict of interest in line with article 54 of the Portuguese Criminal Code.”
Buschmann says: “It’s business as usual for them. Cluny said to us that he was never directly involved in this investigation but a few days after our story about Cristiano Ronaldo was published, this three‑year-old arrest warrant for Rui Pinto was speeded up. Maybe it’s just a coincidence but we were obviously a little bit like: ‘Hmm.’”
In the meantime, French prosecutors are negotiating with their Portuguese counterparts over whether Pinto can be afforded immunity from prosecution over the alleged extortion of the agents Doyen Sports in 2015 in order to help them with continuing investigations into football corruption. It is now estimated that the Parquet National Financier (PNF) – which investigated allegations of corruption over the votes for 2018 and 2022 World Cups and is responsible for law enforcement against serious financial crime in France – has acquired 26 terabytes of data from Pinto. That is a significant increase on the 70m documents that came from 3.4 terabytes of information previously supplied to the EIC group, which included personal emails from some of football’s most influential figures.
On 12 March – exactly a week after Pinto’s extradition was confirmed in Budapest – the European parliament announced a preliminary agreement to introduce groundbreaking legislation that will help protect whistleblowers under EU law. But while that has yet to be ratified, Buschmann is hoping it will be in time to help Pinto and others who wish to lift the lid on alleged corruption.
“Up until now, a lot of European Union laws over whistleblowing have only protected people who are on the inside of a company or organisation, but I think in the future there may be a lot who are acting like Rui or like John Doe from the Panama Papers, who are both outsiders who brought this data to the public,” he says. “When the law can’t give them any kind of protection they will have a hard life and it is necessary to help them if we can.”
Buschmann adds: “Rui was inspired by the idea of trying to clean up a business. I’ve talked to him many times about this situation and everything he is sacrificing. For him it is a very serious matter – the football business is not just a game these days. It has grown into a big money-laundering machine for the super-rich. The result of these revelations is that some fans are thinking a little differently about some of these issues and the clubs they support.”