Yesterday, during Operation Matrioskas, the Portuguese Police (Polícia Judiciária), supported by Europol, dismantled a transnational organised criminal group mainly composed of Russian citizens who were dedicated to money laundering through the football sector.
Active since at least 2008, this criminal network is thought to be a cell of an important Russian mafia group, directly responsible for laundering several million euros across numerous EU countries, most of it believed to derive from polycriminal activities committed outside the EU area.
The group's known modus operandi is to identify EU football clubs in financial distress, then infiltrate them with benefactors who provide much needed short-term donations or investments.
After gaining trust through donating, these same benefactors orchestrate the purchase of the clubs. The purchase of such clubs is facilitated by individuals operating as front men for opaque and sophisticated networks of holding companies invariably owned by shell companies registered offshore and in tax havens. Thus the real owners and those who ultimately control the club remain unidentified, as does the true origin of the funds used to purchase them.
Once clubs are under the control of the Russian mafia, the large scope of financial transactions, cross-border money flows, and shortcomings in governance allow clubs to be used to launder dirty money (usually via the over- or under-valuation of players on the transfer market and on television rights deals), as well as for betting activities (both for the generation of illegal proceeds due to match fixing or for pure money laundering purposes).
Using this modus operandi, in July 2015 after a series of donations and investments the criminal group purchased a club which had competed in the main Portuguese football league until it faced financial difficulties in 2012 that saw it relegated to lower divisions.
The investigation started due to the detection of strong red flag indicators against the suspects. In particular suspicion was aroused by the high standards of living suspects enjoyed while using high value assets registered under the names of third parties (use of frontmen). They imported large amounts of cash from Russia to Portugal in violation of EU cash regulations (use of cash couriers), and they created and used opaque networks of offshore shell companies intended to preserve the identities of their beneficial owners (use of offshores and tax havens).
Since then, significant evidence was gathered showing that this criminal group operates as a criminal association conducting money laundering, tax fraud, corruption and forgery of documents while preparing various transnational criminal offences.
Head of Europol's Financial Intelligence Group, Igor Angelini, said: "The misuse of offshore companies to conceal the beneficial ownership of assets is still one of the major challenges for successful financial investigations. These barriers also frustrate the attempts of investigators to trace the origin of the money, often criminal, which is re-invested in sectors prone to such infiltration. The football sector presents vulnerabilities related to its structure, finance model and culture which could be exploited by criminals."
Today's operation, involving more than 70 Portuguese police officers and supported on the spot by experts from Europol's Financial Intelligence Group, was the result of more than one year of a challenging and intricate International criminal investigation.
As a result three key members of this organised criminal network were arrested, 22 houses and companies were searched including 4 major football clubs, lawyers' and accounting offices. Several thousand euros in cash (most of it in EUR 500 banknotes) were seized.
The deployment of a Europol team in Leiria, Portugal, assisted Polícia Judiciária officers with real-time intelligence analysis and technical support, which aided the identification of transnational links with serious and organised crimes committed in Austria, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Moldova and the United Kingdom.
- Regulation (EC) n. 1889/2005 of 26th October 2005