No smoking gun in latest Football Leaks controversy

On Friday, a consortium of media organisations led by the German magazine Der Spiegel released a number of stories based on another installment of the so-called Football Leaks data set.

This batch includes details of a plan by seven of Europe's biggest clubs -- Manchester United, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Milan -- to break away from UEFA and FIFA and set up an independent super league.

It also details the role of Gianni Infantino (then UEFA secretary general, now FIFA president) in helping Manchester City and Paris St Germain avoid the stiffest penalties for breaching financial fair play regulations in 2014 and Infantino's alleged strong-arming of the FIFA ethics committee.

Here is an attempt to make sense of it all:

OK, start at the top: What is "Football Leaks"?

Football Leaks first appeared as a website in the autumn of 2015. It was essentially a data dump of transfer agreements, player contracts and other confidential information, mostly focused on Portuguese clubs and players. Law enforcement kept shutting down its servers, and after bouncing around different hosts, the people behind Football Leaks eventually went underground.

Rather than publishing the documents themselves, they teamed up with Der Spiegel and an organisation called European Investigative Collaborations, a network of European media outlets who work together on investigative projects. Among them were details of commissions paid on Paul Pogba's transfer from Juventus to Manchester United, Gareth Bale's original contract with Real Madrid and documents relating to Cristiano Ronaldo's payoff to Kathryn Mayorga.

Are the documents authentic?

While some documents have been questioned for their authenticity -- including, notably, some of the Ronaldo-Mayorga documents -- none (thus far) have been proven false, faked or forged.

So where do they get them?

That's part of the mystery. Der Spiegel says it gets them from a guy imaginatively calling himself "John." In two interviews with Der Spiegel (here and here), "John" says he's Portuguese, moved to Budapest, Hungary (at least for a while) because he felt it was unsafe for him back home. He apparently lives in hiding.

He says he's merely a football fan who knows a lot of people who pass on documents, and he strenuously denies that he obtains them by hacking into corporate servers. Rather, he says, he and his associates know many people in football who hand over the documents.

In the second interview, he says, "We have very serious, secure sources. However, some of our sources do not realise that they are our source." Which, obviously, implies some kind of hack.

Does this seem plausible?

Not really, unless he's the best-connected guy in the world who people trust with their secrets. Given the sheer breadth of documents he has obtained -- particularly internal emails from an array of different organizations -- it's hard to swallow the notion that he has friends all over the place who pass stuff on. Especially since several of these organisations say they have been the victim of hacking or attempted hacking.

What's more, on at least one occasion, "John" has been accused of being part of an extortion attempt, which saw him accused of threatening to release documents unless he was paid off.

One theory is that "John" may not himself be a hacker, but he gets his data set from cyber criminals who break into servers at law firms, clubs and even FIFA. If this is the case, there are ethical questions raised, particularly with this most recent batch of documents. Indeed, there was a New York Times report last week charting how FIFA was uneasy about another data breach. Some media organisations might not be comfortable publishing material that has been stolen, especially when no crime has been committed and when the public interest standard may not be met.

But surely it's a big story if Europe's blue-bloods are planning to break away from UEFA and form a super league?

It is, although how concrete that plan ever actually was is in dispute. Cast your mind back to the summer of 2016. UEFA's agreement with the European Clubs Association (ECA) for the next three year cycle (2018 to 2021) of the Champions League (including format, access and prize money) was expiring.

With former UEFA president Michel Platini banned and new UEFA boss Aleksander Ceferin not yet installed, there was a power vacuum. Talks dragged on as the big clubs wanted more money and guaranteed places. Eventually, UEFA caved on most points.

You'd imagine, as in any negotiation, that the clubs needed a credible alternative threat, like pulling out of the Champions League and starting their own competition. So they put together a plan to do this. Call it the "nuclear option." Also note that much of this -- although obviously not the actual documents -- was reported at the time.

Do you think a breakaway will happen?

That's another topic for another day, but yes, the biggest clubs drive a disproportionate amount of the revenue. Because a number of them are run by investors seeking a return, these clubs demand a bigger say and more guarantees. Eventually, either UEFA keeps giving them more (as they have been doing over the past two decades) or they'll walk.

What about this business with Infantino helping Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain avoid financial fair play punishments in 2014?

The background here was that 2014 was the first year when UEFA's financial fair play (FFP) regulations came into effect, limiting the amount of losses a club could sustain over a certain period.

Both City and PSG came under scrutiny because they had spent enormous amounts and had a ton of income from "related parties": companies or entities linked to their respective owners, royal families in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, respectively. Under FFP rules, these deals would be assessed at "fair market value" (determined by a number of outside consultants and marketing companies).

Predictably, many were found to be inflated. PSG, for example, had a sponsorship deal with the Qatar Tourism Authority worth an average of ($240 million) over five years; that was reassessed at around $3m at "fair market value." Clearly, City and PSG had breached FFP.

The question was whether they could reach a "settlement agreement" -- basically a plea bargain -- with UEFA or whether they would be referred to the adjudicatory branch of the Club Financial Control Body, the independent entity UEFA set up to rule on FFP. That's when things got tense.

How so?

Both City and PSG threatened lawsuits if they were thrown out of the Champions League, the maximum punishment allowed under FFP. UEFA felt they were on solid ground legally, but with courts and lawyers you never quite know. Plus, even if they won a lawsuit, a legal challenge would be bad for the brand. And because the CFCB was independent and there was no pre-existing jurisprudence, there was no way of knowing what they might do.

UEFA pushed for a settlement, and Infantino got personally involved in the negotiations. Which, as a lawyer and a former head of UEFA's legal department, made sense even though some of the coverage makes it look like he undermined the process. Eventually, both City and PSG signed settlement agreements.

But weren't both City and PSG let off with a slap on the wrist?

Yes and no. They were fined and faced transfer and squad restrictions. At the time, Infantino said that the object of FFP wasn't to punish clubs, it was to help them become sustainable (and investable) by reducing costs. Kicking City and PSG out of the Champions League would not have served that purpose.

That said, the sheer size of the losses is stunning, relative to the punishment (and how quickly both turned things around). Remember, too, that under FFP rules any "affected party" -- i.e., other clubs -- could challenge the settlement agreement. None did.

On the FIFA Shady Scale, I don't think this ranks particularly high.

What about Infantino and the ethics committee? Plenty in the Football Leaks documents about them; what's the deal?

Here's the back story. FIFA has an independent ethics committee, with an adjudicatory branch and an investigative branch. After Infantino was elected, the heads of the branches -- Hans-Joachim Eckert and Cornel Borbely -- were told their mandates would not be renewed. They were replaced by Vassilios Skouris and Maria Claudia Rojas. Rojas, a Colombian judge, has had her credentials as an investigator harshly criticized.

So Infantino is accused of replacing the ethics bosses with puppets he controls?

Not sure I'd go that far. For a start, it's worth noting that Eckert and Borbely were appointed in the Sepp Blatter Era, with all that that implies. Eckert, for example, is the person who refused to publish in full the Garcia Report investigation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids.

Skouris spent 12 years as president of the European Court of Justice and is widely respected. But Rojas seemed an odd appointment, mainly because of her lack of experience as an investigator. All of that we already knew before Football Leaks.

The issue is that when Rojas and Skouris rewrote the ethics code last summer -- among other things introducing a statute of limitations on corruption cases (10 years) -- the Football Leaks documents show that they asked Infantino for input. He happily gave his suggestions. That's not a good look for an "independent" committee.

So what happens next?

Supposedly there are more revelations to come, but none of what we've seen thus far is new. Nor are there any particular "smoking guns."

For me, what is most jarring -- although not a surprise -- is the degree to which the game's top clubs are willing to flex their muscle and exercise power to their advantage. The game after 2024 -- when both the current memorandum of understanding between clubs and governing bodies and the global match calendar will have expired -- may well look very different.