• The Spark
  • Posts
  • Kicking dirty money out of the beautiful game

Kicking dirty money out of the beautiful game

How Vitesse Arnhem can turn relegation into a *net* positive

You know that point in a sports movie where all seems lost? Our hero flubs the first big match; the team’s star player is disqualified; the cheer squad realises their routine is plagiarised. But there’s still half an hour of the film left to go, and things only seem darkest before dawn.

That’s where Vitesse Arnhem is right now. Vitesse is a Dutch football club that for three decades has played in the Netherlands’ top league. But beneath the yellow-and-black strip, the club’s finances were in poor shape. Money poured in, but the club refused to say from where.

Last March, in a joint investigation with The Guardian, TBIJ revealed that companies owned by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich loaned Vitesse more than €100m through a complex network of offshore companies across the world. 

At the same time this was all happening, Abramovich owned Chelsea FC, raising huge questions over exactly how level the playing field – ground? pitch? I’m more of a rugby fan – was. Vitesse even had the nickname ‘Chelsea B’ because so many players were loaned from the London club, but throughout the two clubs denied any formal connection.

And once Abramovich was sanctioned for his connections to Putin, Vitesse had even more reason to deny the links – or at least to claim they were all in the past. Unfortunately, they weren’t.

TBIJ’s reporting triggered an investigation by the Dutch football association, the KNVB, and a few months later, the Ministry of Economic Affairs. In April, the KNVB docked 18 points from Vitesse, a record in Dutch football history, and ensured their relegation from the country’s top league. 

~ I know Vitesse fans may not feel that relegation is a ‘positive’ change BUT dirty money damages the whole sport. This penalty will hopefully mean Vitesse and other clubs will clean up their game ~

The massive penalty was for repeated breaches of licensing regulations and giving incorrect information to investigating authorities. However, in its announcement, the KNVB backed up the reporting – saying that it had found “indications that Abramovich has or has had control over Vitesse”.  

The follow-up investigation with The Guardian, published last month, went further. My colleague Simon found that Abramovich was the source of virtually all the money used to fund Vitesse by its most recent owner, Valery Oyf. In other words, the oligarch’s money was secretly funnelled, via Oyf, and into the Dutch club. When the article came out, Oyf was still the club’s owner. 

Events move quickly in Arnhem though. Just days later, we heard that a transfer of the club’s shares to an independent foundation – “Vitesse Forever” – had been approved. The club has finally cut ties with Russia. This should also help Vitesse regain access to banking and accounting services, which it lost when it was linked to a sanctioned oligarch. 

Edwin Reijntjes, the club’s interim general manager, said: “Today is an exceptionally good day for everyone who cares about Vitesse. With this message we can transfer the shares. That is an absolute necessity to be able to retain the licence at all. Step by step we get closer to our goal. That is very positive!”

Vitesse is not out of the woods. Amid long-running investigations, controversy over its owners and disastrous performances on the pitch, the club is still in financial turmoil. It needs to pay off millions in debt, which has meant having to make redundancies, and even launching a crowd-funding campaign. Current and former players lined up to contribute, and last we heard the club had raised more than €1m. 

Management has been given a little more time to prepare a rescue plan for the club, which must have the approval of the KNVB. Only then will it be allowed to keep its licence. Until then, all eyes are on it. I’m hoping for an epic sports movie ending – but we’ll have to see. 

A word also on Simon, the reporter behind the story who’s now TBIJ’s de facto football correspondent. He doesn't actually follow the beautiful game, but he is a whizz at deep diving into complicated financial structures; and top-tier football is synonymous with big money.  

In Mexico an air conditioner is called a politician because it makes a lot of noise but doesn’t work very well.

Len Deighton

In 2023, The Fuller Project reported on abuses women endured in Somaliland while working for Asli Maydi, a company that supplied frankincense resin to doTerra, the US multi-level marketing business selling essential oils. After the story was published, the women started a collective called Beeyo Maal that put the power back in their own hands. Amina Souleiman is one of the cooperative’s founders

A woman in glasses and a patterned headscarf holding a biro

Amina Souleiman, one of the founders of the cooperative

“There were a lot of abuses in terms of bad working conditions: the women weren’t being paid, there were sexual abuses and intimidation. And the company told lies about the community – they claimed that they were helping the community, and were paying the women a fair wage, but they were getting low wages and the work was hard. 

The Fuller Project’s investigation stopped the company from trading in Somaliland. That gave the community some breathing time. Stopping their operations was really good because also there was a lot of damages to the forest. [Frankincense is made from a resin harvested from Boswellia trees].

The planning for the cooperative started earlier than the Fuller Project investigation, but the article strengthened the project because it gave the women time to concentrate on something that’s their own. It really helped to bring the community together. The cooperative started with 280 people but now it’s more than 2000. Women are the majority but there are also some men who work as harvesters and labourers. 

The article gave the women strength and empowered them. Without the Fuller Project exposing the company there was no way we could have set up this cooperative.”

A woman in a blue hijab

Luul Siciid Jaamac

Luul Siciid Jaamac is the chairwoman of Beeyo Maal, and also wanted to contribute to this newsletter. In her words: “The Fuller Project gave the women a voice and helped them fight exploitation”.

~ The Fuller Project has been relentless in making sure that those responsible are held to account and I have it on good authority that a follow-up story to this will be coming out soon. I’ll let you know when it’s published! ~ 

I hope you enjoyed this edition! As always, if there’s a story that’s been making waves you think I should be looking at, please let me know. It’s been lovely to hear from those of you who have been in touch so far.

In UK news, Rishi Sunak announced to everybody’s surprise that there would be an election on July 4. This is so-called “Tory suicide” – it’s unheard of for a prime minister to call an election when their party is so far behind in the polls. 

Investigative journalists across the country will be sleuthing through documents and data making sure the political parties aren’t receiving unscrupulous funds or spending dubiously. It’s a pernickety task but I’m thankful we have them to keep our politicians in line. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I’d recommend checking out the work of Peter Geoghegan – he’s got his own newsletter here. 

Have a great week!

Lucy Nash
Impact Producer