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Football Leaks: Rui Pinto gets suspended prison sentence

James Thorogood
September 10, 2023

The self-proclaimed whistleblower has been convicted for violation of privacy and attempted extortion. Here's what you need to know.

Rui Pinto, center, is surrounded by police officers in the hallway of the Metropolitan Court in Budapest in 2019
It has taken almost three years for Rui Pinto (center) to reach the conclusion of Football Leaks trialImage: Pablo Gorondi/AP/picture alliance

Rui Pinto, the hacker behind the most extensive information leak in sports history has been handed a 4-year suspended prison sentence by a Lisbon court. Pinto's leak exposed some of the dirtiest secrets in European football.

The court on Monday convicted Pinto on five counts of "illegitimate access" to IT systems, three counts of "correspondence violations" as well as attempted extortion.

Pinto admitted he used illegal means to obtain documents. He argued that he was a whistleblower acting in the interest of the public.

But presiding judge Margarida Alves told the court that "the freedom to inform does not justify violations of privacy." She also said it had been "clearly established that he was hoping to get money."

Following the ruling in the first of two cases against Pinto, his lawyer highlighted that the ruling "recognizes that there was a public service" in the leaks.

The suspended sentence comes after the ruling had been twice pushed back, first in April and then again in August due to an visit by Pope Francis to attend World Youth Day in Lisbon.

What was the Football Leaks release?

Hailed as a Robin Hood figure, Pinto has explained in the past that he wanted "to expose the rot in football." 

From 2015 to 2018, working under the pseudonym of "John," Pinto shared a treasure trove of 18.6 million documents and 1.9 terabytes of data with various media outlets including Der Spiegel in Germany.

The leaked files revealed how agents, intermediaries and clubs, including current Champions League and treble winners Manchester City, were perverting ethical and financial regulations to maximize the personal wealth generated by football.

A "massive cross-border investigation" followed, looking into "the dirty deals that turn the beautiful game into an industry that extracts millions in cash," according to media website The Black Sea, part of the European Investigative Collaborations network.

Who were the Football Leaks victims?

When Der Spiegel asked Pinto, in a rare interview during his time in prison, whether it was all worth it given the charges he was facing, Pinto highlighted "some results" in the search for justice. "Ultimately, you'll have to be patient to judge if it was all worth it."

The Football Leaks revelations initially led to several clients of Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes being investigated for tax evasion, including Cristiano Ronaldo

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner was forced to pay the Spanish tax authorities over €18 million ($20 million) in 2019 after admitting he had committed a "voluntary and conscious breach of his fiscal obligations." 

Ronaldo, in yellow-and-blue outfit, chases a ball, spectators ostensibly blurred behind him
Football Leaks also revealed a rape complaint against Ronaldo that was later dismissed by a Nevada court in 2022Image: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

While some of Europe's biggest football clubs also felt the impact, few have been hit as hard as Manchester City. The Premier League charged the club with numerous breaches of financial regulations in February.

What was Pinto charged with?

The 34-year-old hacker was arrested in Budapest in 2019 and extradited in 2020 to face trial in his home country of Portugal, where he spent a brief spell in prison before being released in August of that year. 

Pinto is facing 89 hacking charges and an additional charge of attempted extortion, a crime punishable by two to 10 years in prison in Portugal.

During evidence, Pinto told the court he should be given protective status as a whistleblower. But while Football Leaks did uncover punishable breaches of the law, Pinto admitted to hacking and expressed remorse for an alleged attempt at blackmailing Nelio Lucas, the public face of investment fund Doyen Sports.

Christoph Winterbach, sports journalist, on revelations from the Football Leaks database

Pinto said he was "outraged by what I discovered, and I decided to make it public — I never did anything for money." But he recognized that his "conduct could be framed as extortion."

The trial also heard that his alleged victims included top Portuguese football club Sporting Lisbon and the Portuguese Football Federation.

Is Pinto facing any other charges?

On July 4, the Portuguese Public Ministry opened a new case against Pinto, in which he is facing 377 separate charges.

The indictment states that 202 offences are for qualified unlawful access, 134 for violation of correspondence, 23 for aggravated violation of correspondence and 18 for computer damage.

Most of the charges are reported to pertain to Pinto accessing and subsequently sending confidential emails from Portuguese football club Benfica to the director of communications at rival outfit Porto, Francisco Marques. 

"The investigation is not finished, and it is unlikely that the criminal police body which was assigned the task of carrying it out will finalize it in the coming months," Vera Camacho, of the Public Prosecution Service, wrote in the indictment.

In a statement made by Pinto's lawyers on his behalf, they claim "the indictment is part of the prosecution's strategy to perpetuate Pinto's judicial career."

Pinto said he was also behind the Luanda Leaks, a trove of 715,000 emails, contracts, audits and other documents that explain how Isabel dos Santos, daughter of late Angolan dictator Jose dos Santos, built a business empire and became the wealthiest woman in Africa.

Edited by: Matt Ford

James Thorogood Sports reporter and editor, host of Project FußballJMThorogood