It has been a while since football heard from Nélio Lucas. As the public face of Doyen Sports – an investment fund based in Malta – the suave Portuguese businessman was briefly one of the game’s most recognised agents, negotiating Marcos Rojo’s transfer to Manchester United and Manchester City’s £42m signing of Eliaquim Mangala, among many others.
But that all changed in September 2015 when a hacker calling himself “John” published details of third-party ownership agreements between Doyen and FC Twente on the Football Leaks website – leading to the Dutch club being banned from European competition for three seasons. “When I gave that click, I opened the door; he just took everything he wanted,” reflects Lucas in a new documentary, A Game of Secrets.
More than seven years on from that click the trial of Rui Pinto – who used the pseudonym John – is finally reaching its conclusion in Portugal, and the Danish director Niels Borchert Holm tells the story of how the former history student ended up being accused of more than 90 crimes – including the alleged attempted blackmail and extortion of Doyen. Pinto declined to appear on screen, clearing the way for Lucas to take centre stage, although Pinto is expected to give evidence in court on Monday , more than three and a half years after he was extradited from Hungary.
Lucas accused Pinto in court testimony last year of inflicting “a real public lynching” and compared himself to “that lady who was raped and then has to explain why she was raped”. The 41-year-old doesn’t hold back in the film either. Lucas does, however, strenuously deny that he and Arif Efendi – the Kazakh-Turkish businessman behind Doyen – tried to organise a prostitute party in Miami to convince Florentino Pérez to sign the French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia from Monaco.
“I spent months and months trying to get that interview,” says Borchert Holm. “I had to explain to him that it was in his own interest to sit down and tell this story from his perspective. Both the specific story of what happened with Football Leaks and the broader story about his role in the football industry. That was my challenge here – to convince people that I’m not out to portray them as these cartoonish villains who get up in the morning and say: ‘OK, I will now go and corrupt football.’”
Jonathan Barnett discusses the reaction to the Football Leaks revelation that his client Gareth Bale’s move from Tottenham in 2013 had surpassed the world-record fee Real Madrid paid for Cristiano Ronaldo, and the film delves into some of the other big stories that sent shockwaves through football’s ecosystem.
From the finer details of Ronaldo’s and José Mourinho’s tax affairs to the leaked emails that led to Uefa’s investigation into Manchester City’s sponsorship deals, the unassuming Pinto became a cause celebre for supporters opposed to a corrupt system and has even been described as football’s Edward Snowden.
“On the surface it’s this clear-cut David-and-Goliath story where a complete outsider gets some very resourceful people in trouble through quite a simple method,” says Borchert Holm. “It’s unbelievable how much Rui Pinto has revealed about the football business. But when I read about some of the other things that he had done, that’s when I thought: ‘This really adds another dimension.’ It becomes less clear who is the hero and who is the villain of the story.”
After Pinto’s arrest in 2019, allegations were made that €34,627 had been paid into a Deutsche Bank Lisbon account registered to him by the Caledonian Bank, an offshore company registered in the Cayman Islands, in September 2013 after someone hacked into their banking system. That was followed a few weeks later by another payment, this time from a German pensions fund and for €230,000, to the same account. The latter was immediately returned after the authorities were alerted, and Pinto – who continues to deny wrongdoing – eventually agreed an out-of-court settlement to pay back half of the original payment after being summoned by police.
“There are several layers of irony to that, in the sense that Football Leaks started with this manifesto saying: ‘The game we love so much is rotten, let’s take back the peoples’ game from all these greedy men,’” Borchert Holm says. “It’s the Robin Hood principle … to me a significant detail is that the €230,000 came from a pension fund. That is the least Robin Hood-like thing you can imagine.”
Pinto and his lawyer, William Bourdon, who represented the US whistleblower Snowden, have insisted that Pinto did not steal any money from the Caledonian Bank and that “not a single cent was paid” to him during the correspondence with Doyen. He is alleged to have used the identity of Artem Lobuzov in an attempt to extort what was described as a “good donation” of $1m.
“I don’t consider myself as a hacker, but as a citizen who acted in the public interest,” Pinto, who faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty, said in an interview with Der Spiegel in 2019. “My sole intention was to reveal illicit practices that affect the world of football. I do not consider myself a hacker, just as a normal computer user. In addition, I don’t think it makes any difference whether someone passes on incriminating documents from within a company to the public, or whether they do so with material they receive from outside.”
A Game of Secrets is out in the UK at the end of October and will be available on HBO Max