By Tony Attwood
In 1968, Sir Alf Ramsey described the West Ham player Martin Peters as “ten years ahead of his time”.
It was a singularly odd phrase from a singularly odd man, and one that I suspect Peters came to hate, as every time he failed with a pass or a cross everyone repeated the phrase in what may be described as an ironic fashion.
I’m not sure Untold has ever been described as ten years ahead of its time, although we’ve tried to focus on stuff that isn’t currently in the everyday domain of your journalist down the pub. Sometimes, like referee reform we have placed it on the agenda, sometimes like coaching our thoughts have been repeated by others and taken for their own.
But on one topic we’ve been singularly unsuccessful in terms of influencing debate – and that is football as a mechanism for money laundering. Indeed it is the only subject I have been quietly advised to drop, the only one that has met with open derision, and the only one that in the end we did let go of, just because we were getting nowhere fast.
It was way, way back in 2009 that Untold did what I think was our first article on money laundering and football: Money laundering, Notts County, Portsmouth, Newcastle, etc
It didn’t get much of a take up but we battled on with the theme, which over time became quite simple – that organisations, some with a legal face, some criminal throughout, use football as a way of putting in crime related money and getting out clean money. In its simplest terms you buy a club, buy and sell lots of players, let huge amounts of money wash around, and you draw out vast sums, disappearing back from whence you came, leaving others wondering how such a club could go to the wall like this.
In the articles we gave all sorts of examples in the articles of what might happen and what probably has happened but the theme was always the same and to my mind the evidence, although not enough to stand up in court, was persuasive.
But it was certainly not a theme that the media wanted to hear, because below it was the very real suggestion that football was rotten to the core.
After the initial flurry of articles we dropped the more speculative side of the issue and came back in 2013 with 41 clubs visited by police on suspicion of tax dodging and money laundering (which does have a partial index to some of the earlier articles at the end, if you are interested).
In that article we covered 18 Serie A clubs, 11 Serie B clubs and 12 lower league clubs that were being investigated. Magistrates based in Naples spoke about non-existent costs surrounding either non-existent players or players who have moved on. And what does that sound like?
Oh yes, money laundering.
La Stampa reported that the police were particularly interested in getting players’ contracts, something we heard about with Rangers where players had at least two different versions of a contract exist. One for the player and one for the tax man. (Although the allegation in the Rangers case was one for the club and one for the rather simplistic souls who were running the SPL at the time).
But did any of this lead to a bigger analysis of the theme by our football-mad press? Did the FA or SFA look closely?
No. But Fifa did. Unfortunately in classic Fifa style they looked at it from the point of view of a model, rather than a threat, and thought, “hey this is a neat idea. Why aren’t we doing that?” And off they went.
And so, Swiss investigators are now looking into 53 possible cases of money laundering and 104 incidents of suspicious activity in Swiss bank accounts as they meander around the award of the World Cups to various dubious locations. (But it is all right really because England will step in and host them if you want, and England never does anything wrong. And that’s official).
Domenico Scala, of Fifa’s audit and compliance committee (can you imagine putting that on your cv – “I was head of Fifa’s audit and compliance committee”) , says he is looking for clear evidence of bribery and corruption and if found, the allocation of the finals could be changed. Russia, as we know, borrowed the computers it used to write up its bid (apparently the local machines had an old version of Word) and then gave them back. Funny that.
I think we can give Domenico Scala a pat on the head and send him off to bed with his dreams. But those dreams might be turning a little darker since the Swiss attorney general Michael Lauber announced that investigators were examining “nine terabytes” of data from Fifa’s Zurich headquarters and Swiss banks.
(Incidentally, and by way of comparison, the entire collection of printed works of the U.S. Library of Congress is about 10 terabytes, so that nine terabytes of stuff is quite a lot really.)
And so at once the British press move on to tales of the England under 21s and how Arsenal will swap Oxlade-Chamberlain for a new goalkeeper next season. Because just as the British press don’t do stories asking why PMGO has so few referees, and why its statistics make no sense, so they don’t do money laundering in football stories. It’s just not, well, British. And besides it is getting a bit close to the truth.
Lauber went on, “So far, our investigative team has obtained evidence concerning 104 banking relations; be aware that every banking relation represents several bank accounts.”
He also said that transactions investigators were looking at included 53 which had been flagged in suspicious activity reports by Switzerland’s Financial Intelligence Unit, which turns out to be… an anti-money laundering agency. And so now that old topic is back within the football agenda (although not necessarily in most of the British press – with one honourable exception).
The Swiss investigation even collected documents from Swiss marketing agency Kentaro relating to a friendly between Brazil and Argentina in Doha in 2010.
And this emphasises the point that the Swiss investigation is the first really broad analysis of finance in football. It is not going to be fast (the phrase “working to its own timetable” keeps popping up) but it is broad, and I still retain hope that for once it is going to get inside the issue of what really happens to the money in football.
Michael Lauber also tends to say quite often that the Swiss process is independent from the US procedure and that they would not automatically share documents and information with anyone else, because Swiss law doesn’t require them to.
What all this suggests is that the Swiss investigation is not just a little bit extra added onto the Fifa investigation, which is the impression the English press seems to put out, but something quite different and a lot deeper when it comes to the worldwide use of football as a means of washing out dirty money.
You never know, maybe those old articles on Untold were on the right lines after all.
Anniversary of the day
19 June 2007: Jeremie Aliadiere sold to Middlesbrough for £2m. He played 78 times for them before moving on to Lorient. In 2014 he moved onto the Qatari side Umm Salal
Untold Arsenal. And on Twitter @UntoldArsenal. And Facebook too.