Even if you’ve not heard of Football Leaks you will have read some of the stories which originated from the whistleblowing website.
That’s because they’ve been nearly unavoidable, intermittently dominating news cycles worldwide for the last three years with subjects which go well beyond football.
While things like transfer fees details and third-party ownership may only appeal to fans of the sport, Football Leaks go much further, with financial irregularities, tax avoidance and sexual misconduct allegations among those to be splashed across the front of newspapers.
Football’s biggest stars and most storied clubs have been affected. Cristiano Ronaldo has been accused of rape – an allegation he strongly denies – while Lionel Messi’s tax affairs have also been exposed.
Allegations against Manchester City for financial doping and the possible formation of a European Super League have caused ripples in the football world this week, with German publication Der Spiegel publishing articles based on information provided by Football Leaks.
So who is behind Football Leaks? What is their motivation? And crucially, how have they managed to obtain so many confidential and highly secretive documents?
Football Leaks started from humble origins in September 2015 as a basic blog. Initially it was concerned with exposing supposedly corrupt details around transfers in Portugal, with the country's biggest clubs, Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Benfica targeted.
From there the website branched out, taking aim at agents and those involved in third-party ownership of players – a practice banned by Fifa in December 2014.
While shedding light on what it perceived as the dark areas of the business of football, the people behind Football Leaks managed to remain mysterious. As one anonymous European club official told the New York Times in 2015: “No one knows exactly what is happening, but everyone knows that they don’t want to be next.”
With interest growing, many media organisations attempted to reach out to Football Leaks. One was successful: Der Spiegel made contact in January 2016, receiving an emailed reply written in English from a Russian address.
The subsequent exchange, published in this year’s book “Football Leaks” by Spiegel journalists Rafael Buschmann and Michael Wulzinger, helped answer some of the most pertinent questions.
“We are all Portuguese citizens,” they wrote. “We are big football fans ourselves and our first priority is to help other football fans to better understand this secretive football business... There needs to be a public debate about the sport in order to clear it of this secretiveness. A business that lacks transparency the way football does is a paradise for corruption, money laundering and tax fraud.”
In Football Leaks’ view they are working against a growing blight behind football in which agents and investment funds are seeking to exploit and corrupt. “The age of transparency” is the ultimate goal.
Buschmann has met a member of Football Leaks on several occasions. “John”, as he called himself, is described as a Robin Hood figure and “a clever young man who speaks five languages” but wears jeans full of holes and dirty shoes.
Throughout the course of the book “John” grows increasingly anxious and paranoid, worrying about private detectives following him and his beer being poisoned.
Although Spiegel have met “John” there are clearly problems with Football Leaks. The most pertinent of which is: where does the information come from and is it illegal?
“We haven’t hacked anyone,” Football Leaks insist. “The accusation is ridiculous. We have a variety of sources who supply us with the contracts and agreements.” Nevertheless, they cite Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and whistleblower Edward Snowden as inspirations.
Spiegel themselves have previously admitted it “isn’t clear whether John is supported by patrons pursuing their own interests” and they have published details without being able to “definitively determine who exactly is behind the project.”
While the origin of the information is still a mystery, there has been impacts from Football Leaks’ work, with Dutch club FC Twente banned from European competition in 2015 for three years due to a variety of exposed violations.
Football Leaks may remain in the dark in many senses, but with this week’s revelations the wave they are creating appears to be swelling in size.