Recent revelations about financial improprieties at Chelsea FC have sparked EU plans to subject football to tough restrictions to combat money laundering.
EU negotiators are locked in a battle over whether to include football clubs, managers and associations in the bloc’s anti-money laundering (AML) rules; This would potentially require major sponsors and even fans to undergo extensive scrutiny.
Allegations that surfaced this week about complex financial transactions by former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich have given an extra weapon to MEPs seeking to bring football within the rules.
French Green Party MP Damien Carême, who is leading the AML talks on behalf of the European Parliament, told euronews: “The Chelsea incident once again shows the risks inherent in the football industry,” adding: “Anti-money laundering cannot rely on any loophole… no risky economic The sector cannot be exempt from oversight.”
Based on leaked documents, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) alleged that Abramovich made tens of millions of dollars in undisclosed payments through offshore companies, bypassing rules aimed at ensuring financial fair play in the sport.
“I ask those who are against it: What more evidence do you need?” said Carême.
MEPs in the European Parliament see football clubs, agencies and associations as a tempting target for illicit financing and want them to report suspicious activity to the authorities, just as banks, back-dealers and diamond dealers already do.
This follows the Commission’s 2019 report, which highlighted the game’s “complex organization and lack of transparency” as a money laundering risk, and a 2020 study by EU police agency Europol, which alleged match-fixing by mafia-style criminal groups.
EU member states on the council are less convinced. In a closed-door meeting on Tuesday 14 November, known as the tripartite, MEPs and members of the Council met to draft the final text of the AML law.
Three sources with knowledge of the talks told Euronews that they discussed the football issue but could not reach an agreement. TBIJ’s Cyprus Confidential reports emerged just a few hours later, with Abramovich’s news arriving early Wednesday morning.
European football’s governing body UEFA told Euronews it shared the goal of tackling financial crime and protecting the integrity of the game but urged the EU not to rush into regulation.
“EU policymakers must engage appropriately with football stakeholders to assess impacts and develop policy options that meet our common objectives,” a UEFA spokesperson said in an emailed statement, warning that poorly drafted legislation “could have unintended consequences in Europe’s diverse football environment.” found.
This could be borrowed from the experience of Belgium, which adopted new AML rules for football in 2018 following the so-called “Operation Zero” scandal, in which prosecutors investigated suspected financial transactions that led to raids on clubs such as Anderlecht, Bruges and Standard de Liège.
Niels Appermont, an associate professor at Hasselt University, told Euronews that the Belgian regime offers a cautionary tale.
“The current framework does not mesh well with the professional football industry,” Appermont said; because the rules were designed for banks, not sports.
Appermont said that while anti-money laundering rules required checks on “customers”, it was not always clear what this meant for an incoming player transfer, for example, or how potentially lengthy vetting procedures fit into the tight timescales of a transfer window.
William Bull, an assistant professor at Maastricht University who wrote the UEFA-funded 2022 Belgian law study with Appermont, acknowledged problems in the football market but questioned whether AML rules were the right way forward.
In the football sector, “everyone seems to pretty much agree that there is a problem in terms of transparency, reliability, concerns about various collusions or payments made through agents,” Bull said, but added that “the jury is still out” on whether current financial sector regimes are cost-effective about.
Chelsea did not immediately respond to Euronews’ request for comment, but in a statement to TBIJ it said the allegations predate the club’s current ownership and that the club has reported potentially under-reporting financials to football regulators. TBIJ said representatives for Abramovich, who was forced to sell Chelsea last year after being hit with sanctions over his links to Russian President Vladimir Putin, did not return requests for comment.