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Key defendants denied bail in football’s “Russian mafia” investigation

Two of the four people arrested after police swoops on an alleged Russian mafia using Portuguese football clubs to launder millions of euros have been denied bail and remain in prison pending further inquiries.

Alexander Tolstikov, president of third-division União de Leiria FC, and his aide Sergiu Renita were detained by Lisbon’s Central Criminal Court, their lawyer Joaquim Malafia has confirmed – while the club’s financial advisor, Pedro Violante, has been released but ordered not to leave the country, and a Lisbon lawyer is bound to remain in the area of his residence.

Safe Communities Algarve meantime has added more detail to this massive and painstaking transnational investigation that sees Europol’s Financial Intelligence Group investigating links with serious and organised crimes committed in Austria, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Moldova and the UK.

According to SCA’s latest newsletter – quoting a statement issued by Europol – the Russian money-laundering ring has been active “since at least 2008”.

The network is “thought to be a cell of an important Russian mafia group, directly responsible for laundering several million euros across numerous EU countries”.

The group worked by identifying EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrating them with benefactors providing “much-needed short-term donations or investments”.

After gaining clubs’ trust, the group then set about orchestrating takeovers.

Purchases were “facilitated by individuals operating as front men for opaque and sophisticated networks of holding companies invariably owned by shell companies registered offshore and in tax havens”, explains SCA – adding that this way “the real owners and those who ultimately control the clubs remain unidentified, as does the true origin of the funds used to purchase them”.

Most of the money laundered is believed to have come from criminal activities outside the EU area.

In the case of União de Leiria FC – a club that was once managed by Special One José Mourinho and enjoyed first division fame – “serious financial difficulties” set in in 2012.

By the time Vítor Tolstikov bought it last year, the club was almost bankrupt.

The Europol statement adds that once clubs came under the control of the Russian mafia, “the large scope of financial transactions, cross-border money flows and shortcomings in governance” allowed them to be used to launder dirty money, usually via over- or under-valuation of players on the transfer market and on television rights deals, as well as for betting activities – “both for the generation of illegal proceeds due to match fixing or for pure money-laundering purposes”.

For now, it is not known how much longer investigators will need before this case, dubbed Operation Matrioska (after the painted Russian dolls that hide smaller and smaller replicas of themselves), comes to trial.

Searches that went ahead last Tuesday involved signature clubs Sporting, Benfica and Sporting de Braga – but these are not thought to be under any suspicion.

Other ‘arguidos’ in the case so far include the club itself and its SAD (sociedade anónima desportiva).

Europol has confirmed the investigation began last year “after the detection of various strong signs pointing in the direction of the suspects” – particularly their high standards of living and the importation of “huge quantities of money from Russia to Portugal, in violation of EU regulations”.

“Solid proof” collected shows the criminal network has been “dedicated to the crimes of money-laundering, fiscal fraud, corruption and the falsification of documents”, adds the agency.

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