The first person to receive an e-mail from the whistle-blowing organization Football Leaks was António Varela, a columnist at Record, one of Portugal’s three national sports newspapers. The message arrived early in the afternoon of September 29, 2015. Varela, a precise, watchful man in his early fifties, clicked on a link, which took him to a blog entry that had been created at 5:17 a.m. that day. “Welcome to Football Leaks,” it read, in Portuguese. “This project aims to show the hidden side of football. Unfortunately, the sport we love so much is rotten and it is time to say ‘enough.’ ” Below was a collection of previously unseen documents involving Sporting Lisbon, the eighteen-time winner of Portugal’s national league. “Contracts in Portuguese, contracts in English, contracts in French,” Varela told me recently, in Lisbon. “I had no doubts about it. They were real documents.”
European soccer, which reaches its annual climax this weekend, with the final of the Champions League, the game’s most prestigious club competition, is a wonder of the sporting world. Storied teams such as Liverpool and Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus, rise and fall. Each year, the finest players and coaches conjure, in new forms, soccer’s essential, unthinking grace.
The business side of the sport, however, is more like a painting by Bruegel the Elder. Since 1955, the best teams from each country have played against one another, and that has given rise to a dense intermingling of tactics, feuds, and money. Money above all. “Money scores goals,” as the German saying goes. Unlike American sports, with their draft picks, salary caps, and collective-bargaining agreements, European soccer is a heedless, Darwinian affair. Spending rules are broken. Salaries are secrets. The best leagues are awash in Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern sovereign-wealth funds, and Chinese conglomerates. Rumors fly. Middlemen thrive. “Between clubs, it’s not only that we don’t trust each other,” a director of a top European club told me. “We betray each other constantly.” Last season, according to the accounting firm Deloitte, European soccer had revenues of twenty-eight billion dollars, about the same as Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Football League combined.
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