A DEADLY GAME: Organized Crime, Political Corruption Tarnish Soccer Clubs in Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

When he was shot in the heart with a single bullet in front of his office, Ilia Pavlov was the president of the Varna football (soccer) club and one of the richest businessmen in post-communist Bulgaria. A former wrestler who married the daughter of a general of the Bulgarian communist State Security agency, Pavlov turned out to be just one case in a string of more than 200 soccer-related murders in post-communist Eastern Europe. The bloodshed, in large part, was a result of intertwining relationships between the most popular team sport in the world, organized crime, corrupt law enforcement and dirty politics.

In recent years, Eastern European football has become a deadly game for the ruthless organized crime groups that use it as their playground. Mobsters, lured by big money and prestige, have bought football clubs to showcase themselves. In addition, they have created global networks of agents and owners who quietly skim the fees paid by one club to another in exchange for acquiring a name player. To avoid taxes, they have worked through tax havens and companies with shell proxies. These organized crime groups have managed to infiltrate politics in Eastern Europe and have shielded themselves from prosecution using connections with corrupt public officials. They have solidified their positions through threats and violence, including murders.

A team of 10 investigative reporters and editors from six countries worked under the auspices of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which can be found at www. reportingproject.net, and lifted the veil of secrecy over parts of what was once known as the "beautiful game."

The resulting project, "Game of Control," is part of a broader OCCRP effort to help the people of Eastern Europe understand how organized crime and corruption affect their lives. OCCRP is a consortium of Eastern European investigative centers, news organizations and journalists that have banded together to cover transnational organized crime and corruption in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. The site features investigative projects, news, blogs and features - making it the world's only Web site dedicated to covering organized crime. In addition to the stories, OCCRP is building an online resource center of documents related to organized crime that will include court records, laws, reports, studies and company records that will serve as a resource center for journalists and the public alike.

Putting the puzzle together

The investigation started from the realization that law-enforcement agencies of various countries were investigating the sport, but their efforts stopped at their borders. Nobody was investigating the whole picture of what has become a multibillion-dollar transnational business - some of it quite corrupt.

Reporters from investigative centers and prestigious media outlets in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Ukraine began a simultaneous look at the business of football in their countries. The data they collected was exchanged using collaborative software platforms. Hundreds of records were mapped by using social networking analysis software. A virtual newsroom was created to put the pieces of the puzzle together and to prove once more the tremendous power that the Internet and new digital tools offer to investigative journalism.

The OCCRP reporters found a link to their stories in an investigation in Brazil, then combed through the records of more than 50 companies and investigations in the British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Romania and Uruguay to get at the scope of illegal transfers.

Just as in other OCCRP projects, the reporters scanned national registries of commerce to gather the ownership data of the most important football clubs in the region. The information was then shared and posted in country-specific folders through Microsoft Office Groove, which is a software platform that enables secure collaboration through the Internet and creation of virtual newsrooms. …