The Al Jazeera network on Monday aired a new documentary which – though dealing with the laundering of money through the purchase of English football clubs – also reveals some of the backstory to the network’s prior investigation of Cyprus’ controversial passports-for-sale scheme.
Called ‘The Men Who Sell Football’, the new production is the result of an undercover investigation by the media network. But it also explains how this investigation had led al Jazeera to take an interest in Cyprus’ now-defunct citizenship-by-investment scheme.
The new documentary on murky dealings inside English football was released at 7pm (local time).
Speaking a few hours ahead of the documentary’s airing, attorney-general Giorgos Savvides said any new information pertaining to Cyprus would be assessed “carefully and properly.”
“We do not consider it right that, from the first moment that this case began, to rush into things with the first video. Investigations must be done carefully, methodically, step by step, in order that we get the best results under the circumstances,” Savvides told media.
During the course of their investigation, the network’s undercover reporters spoke to allegedly shady operators – acting as middlemen for the purchase of financially distressed English football clubs- who in turn revealed how they could also launder money and set up fake identities for individuals seeking to obtain an EU passport through Cyprus.
Al Jazeera said the new production exposes how English football clubs are bought up by criminals, and turned into vehicles for money laundering via offshore trusts.
Under English football regulations, a person receiving a criminal sentence of at least 12 months is prohibited from owning a club.
Using hidden cameras, the al Jazeera reporters pose as proxies for a (fictitious) Chinese individual who has a criminal record relating to bribery and money laundering. Through various contacts, the ‘proxies’ come close to closing a deal for the purchase of Derby County on behalf of the Chinese individual.
A key figure in the investigation is a veteran manager of funds in offshore locations, who Al Jazeera names. His name had come up years ago in connection to the Reading football club. According to Al Jazeera, during the 1990s and through a company, this individual transferred overseas hundreds of millions of dollars of two oligarchs, one from Russian and one from Georgia, who later both died under mysterious circumstances.
The same individual had also come on the radar of law enforcement in a number of European countries – although no charges were ever pressed.
Seeking out and meeting the fund manager, the Al Jazeera journalists tell him they represent a Chinese investor who’d like to launder his money by purchasing an English football club.
The pretend proxies tell the fund manager that the Chinese investor was convicted in absentia to seven years in prison and had taken his money out of China through a casino in Macau.
The individual then proceeds to give the ‘proxies’ a step-by-step guide on how offshore trusts can be used to conceal the money and identity of individuals with a criminal background. In the footage, he assures the undercover journalists that he will be able to manipulate the English Football League.
He next accompanies the two ‘proxies’ to Derby, where they meet with Derby County’s owner. There they begin negotiating an agreement for the sale of the football club and its sports grounds for 99 million pounds sterling.
The operator also brings the undercover reporters in touch with a private detective who used to work for Scotland Yard. Both men assure the pretend proxies of the Chinese investor that they can obtain a new identity for him.
At one point the private detective mentions his own contacts in Cyprus who engage in similar dealings. This connection, explains Al Jazeera, is what had brought the media network to the island – and ultimately to a separate undercover investigation leading to ‘The Cyprus Papers Undercover’ documentary.
After the undercover reporters met with the private detective, the fund manager sent them an email that he had met with a major Cypriot property developer (then Akel MP) Christakis Giovanni at the detective’s box at the horse races outside London. He said the passport could be issued in eight weeks for an investment of $11.8m dollars, some $8m more than the official scheme.
“The next you know it, we were on our way to Cyprus to get Mr X a new passport and a new name,” the podcast said. The detective put the undercover journalists in touch with an estate agent in Cyprus, who told them they needed the extra $8.5m because they would have to see who to pay to get the job done.
Giovannis sent them to lawyer Andreas Pittadjis who would do the legwork on the passport deal, and who said they could change the name on the passport.
“This is Cyprus,” the lawyer is famously heard saying when the undercover reporters expressed surprise by how easy he said this was.
The reveals in the Cypriot passports documentary – aired in October 2020 – forced the government here to nix the citizenship-by-investment scheme. They also led to the resignations of former House President Demetris Syllouris and Akel MP Christakis Tziovanis – who had both been secretly taped apparently offering to help the pretend Chinese national with a criminal record secure a Cypriot passport.
In May of this year, the attorney-general’s office filed the first case relating to the passports scheme. The case involves five individuals and four companies facing 37 charges. It is based on the findings of an ad hoc three-member panel headed by Securities and Exchange Commission chief Demetra Kalogerou.
And a report by a committee of inquiry found that a little more than half of approximately 3,000 citizenships granted by the state between 2007 and August 2020 as part of the island’s citizenship by investment programme were unlawful.