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Offline mayya

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Mysterious Website Aims to Shed Light on Soccer Dealings
« on: December 16, 2015, 17:25:45 PM »
Mysterious Website Aims to Shed Light on Soccer Dealings

After hiring the former England national team coach Steve McClaren, left, pictured with the press officer Richard Peters, F.C. Twente won its first league title in 2010, gaining access to the financial rewards of the Champions League. CreditVI Images, via Getty Images
The press officer for F.C. Twente, a professional soccer club in the Netherlands, received a telephone call one morning last month while driving to work. A colleague had just seen a strange post on Twitter.
But this was no ordinary social media crisis for a sports team. Rather, Twente, based in Enschede, had become the latest target of a group that has suddenly disrupted professional soccer around the world with tactics that are reminiscent of WikiLeaks. The group has published private documents related to soccer clubs in Portugal, England, Spain, France, Luxembourg and Monaco, among others.
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In the case of Twente, the website known as Football Leaks had published documents showing financial agreements between the team and an agency with a variety of soccer interests, including a controversial player-investment business. The documents, which were never meant to be released publicly, appeared to portray a relationship that was at best unsavory and at worst in violation of national and international soccer regulations.

The home of F.C. Twente a professional soccer club based in Enschede, the Netherlands, whose financial dealings recently became a target of Football Leaks.CreditAnoek de Groot/EuroFootball, via Getty Images“My first thought was a four-letter word,” Richard Peters, the press officer, said. “We, both board members as well as staff, were unpleasantly surprised.

“Until that very moment, we were unaware of this website even existing.”
Twente is hardly alone. Football Leaks did not exist until September, but it has made an undeniable impact in its nascent stage, publishing numerous documents intended to be kept secret, all with the intent of exposing the often murky world of soccer finances.

One European club official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not want to provoke the group, said, “No one knows exactly what is happening, but everyone knows that they don’t want to be next.”
Football Leaks is shrouded in mystery, and no one involved with it has offered any significant details about the identities of the organizers. Over the course of a lengthy email exchange with The New York Times, however, someone who identified himself as a leader of Football Leaks discussed the site’s background, its motivations and its intentions.
The organizers of the site are based in Portugal, according to the person, who asked to be referred to only as John. But, he said, they have used Russian servers and domains to store information “because it’s publicly known Russian authorities rarely cooperate with Western authorities.” The initial goal for the site, John said, was to highlight improprieties among Portuguese clubs, for whom the practice of third-party ownership, or T.P.O., has long been a common way for teams to purchase high-priced players without actually having all of the necessary funds themselves.

T.P.O., in which investors buy pieces of a player’s future value in the hopes of profiting when he is sold to a new team, was a common practice that was only recently prohibited by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.
Critics believe that T.P.O. also allowed investment firms like Doyen, the agency linked to Twente, to prey on teams in financial trouble — like Twente.

The club had achieved little success in its 50-year history. But investment from a wealthy fan, Joop Munsterman, transformed Twente into a champion. After hiring the former England national team coach Steve McClaren, Twente won its first league title in 2010, gaining access to the financial rewards of the Champions League.

But Twente overreached financially. When it lost the Dutch championship to Ajax on the final day of the next season, debts began to pile up.
“To meet these high standards, you had to pay higher wages,” Youri Mulder, a former Dutch international player who was a coach at Twente until last season, said in an interview. “They couldn’t keep up these appearances for very long.”

In the case of Twente and Doyen, one Football Leaks document appears to show an agreement in which Doyen lent $5.5 million to the club in return for a percentage of the economic rights for five players, including midfielder Dusan Tadic. Tadic was later sold to Southampton of thePremier League for a reported $16.5 million.
At the time the agreements were made, T.P.O. was not illegal. (“It was in the press that we had sold parts of players, and the players were informed,” Mulder said.) But another document revealed that Twente was required to compensate Doyen, the outside investor, even if the club rejected an offer for one of the five players.

In other words, the arrangement put Twente in a position in which it had an incentive, other than what was in the best interest of the club, to sell key players so outsiders could profit.

A Football Leaks document shed light on an arrangement that put Twente in a position in which it had an incentive, other than what was in the best interest of the club, to sell a key player like Dusan Tadic so outsiders could profit. CreditDean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty ImagesMulder denied that he or anyone else on Twente’s staff was aware of the contract with Doyen, but John, the Football Leaks member, wrote that these situations were precisely what the website is seeking to expose.

“This kind of secrecy about contracts and secret clauses is killing this sport,” John said.
The organizers of Football Leaks contend that they are only concerned soccer fans playing the role of watchdog, and thus object to being called hackers. For example, they do not appear to have the same concerns about protecting their online assets as similar Internet groups, using basic blogging platforms to post their documents — many of which have since been taken down by the providers — instead of more encrypted locations. While “people may think we are hackers, we are only regular computer users,” John wrote in an email to The Times.

The group declined to explain how documents are obtained, but said it has at least 300 gigabytes of information and is continuously receiving more. Simply reviewing all the material, John said, is a laborious and time-consuming process.
Doyen, in a public response after the release of the Twente contracts, did not dispute the authenticity of the documents, though it did say some were manipulated. It also accused Football Leaks of acquiring the documents through a “cyberattack” on the company’s servers, and of subsequently attempting to blackmail Doyen executives.

A spokesman for Doyen, Francisco Empis, said in an interview Tuesday that the company considered Football Leaks an illegal scam. “It is now a police matter,” he said.
Football Leaks rejected Doyen’s accusations, and countered that Doyen — whose T.P.O. deals have been the subject of several Football Leaks posts — was pressuring the Portuguese authorities to shut it down. In two months, according to the Football Leaks authors, two sites on the LiveJournal platform were forced offline, and even the site’s Russian hosting provider, Yandex, closed the site’s cloud account after sharing Doyen’s complaints with the authors.

The site is currently looking for a new, secure platform from which to publish. It has maintained a Facebook page, on which the authors occasionally banter with commenters. “The fight has been hard,” they said in one email to The Times. “But we won’t stop.”

Last week, the Spanish newspaper AS quoted a Portuguese police source describing Football Leaks as an “international criminal organization” — a description the Football Leaks authors mocked. Pedro do Carmo, an official from the Portuguese police, said in an email that he could not release any information about continuing investigations.

One prominent Portuguese club, Sporting Lisbon, reportedly filed a police complaint shortly after Football Leaks published incriminating documents about its payments in late September, but the club has not provided any details about its legal action. In October, Bruno de Carvalho, the president of Sporting, denounced Football Leaks in an interview with Expresso, a Portuguese publication, saying that “the police need to check” the sources and veracity of the website’s content. He also suggested Football Leaks was acting on behalf of Sporting’s archrival, Benfica, describing it as “a tremendous coincidence” that the website had published only what he considered to be irrelevant information about Benfica’s business dealings.

The authors of Football Leaks dismissed charges of bias or any agenda beyond addressing the fallacy, they said, that “football is the No. 1 sport in the world, but at the same time is also the most opaque.”
So far, at least, their work is making an impact, and, in the case of Twente, the unexpected exposure has come with significant fallout. Already near the bottom of the standings in Holland’s first division, the club was shaken further when Aldo van der Laan, the team chairman, quit after the Football Leaks post went online. Van der Laan declined to comment.
An independent legal commission was convened by the Dutch soccer federation to decide whether Doyen exerted any undue influence on Twente. The group ruled on Tuesday that the club had “deliberately misled” the commission over its relationship with Doyen. The club was banned from European competition for three seasons and fined $49,405. The commission also threatened to remove Twente’s license to play next year unless it fully complied with an independent investigation into the way the club has been run.
Twente continued its fight against relegation last weekend with only its third win of the season, a 2-1 victory against last-place De Graafschap. It remains third from bottom in the league.

“I fear for the future of the club,” said Mulder, who made his name playing as a striker for Twente in the early 1990s. “It is a tragic thing,” he added. “I hope they can survive.”

Raphael Minder contributed reporting from Madrid, and Mitra Nazar from Utrecht, the Netherlands.

A version of this article appears in print on December 16, 2015, on page B11 of the New York edition with the headline: Exposing Soccer’s Murkier Dealings .