The rise and fall of the Oligarch-maker
Investigation reveals how football can be used to launder money
How a convicted criminal can buy a famous English football club
The I-Unit goes undercover to show how English football clubs can become vehicles to launder the proceeds of crime.
10 Aug 2021 | 37 min read
By David Harrison
In a plush suite at a boutique hotel in London, a man known as The Magician is lounging on a sofa, his right arm snaking out across the top.
“The usual rubbish, I’m used to it,” he says. “I’m in the real world. I understand all of this. We’ll have no problem with any of that.”
“The Magician” is Christopher Samuelson, a football dealmaker and offshore finance specialist. He owes his nickname to his expertise in hiding clients’ money, and their identities.
He has just been told by an undercover reporter, posing as the agent for a fictitious Chinese investor who wants to buy an English football club, that the investor has criminal convictions. He was found guilty of bribery and money laundering and is on the run – which should automatically disqualify him from football club ownership.
It was a crucial moment in our investigation. We wanted to find out whether – and how – a convicted foreign criminal could buy a football club to launder his ill-gotten gains.
We thought the revelation of our investor’s crimes might prompt The Magician to make himself disappear, but Samuelson did not bat an eyelid. Instead, he offered to find a home for the criminal’s funds. “If he wants help with moving assets and he wants secure locations, I can do that too,” he said.
“Then I can organise the financial institutions who will hold them for him. Banks where he can move his money to. I have a close relationship with banks in Liechtenstein.”
‘The ultimate man in the shadows’
Few people outside the arcane world of offshore finance have heard of Christopher Samuelson. Unsurprising, perhaps, for a man once described as “the ultimate man in the shadows”. Yet in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he helped to build one of the world’s biggest offshore trust companies, Valmet, with offices in Gibraltar, the Isle of Man and other tax havens.
His clients included some of the richest people on the planet: Middle Eastern sheikhs and Russian oligarchs – such as Boris Berezovsky and Arkady “Badri” Patarkatsishvili – whom he helped to move billions of dollars out of Russia.
Samuelson has been investigated by police in several countries for alleged money laundering, but never charged. In recent years, he has brokered the controversial sale of two of England’s oldest football clubs, Reading and Aston Villa.
Both were taken to the brink of financial collapse under secretive new owners. A third deal he arranged, for an unnamed wealthy Russian to buy a controlling stake in Premier League club Everton in 2004, was called off when the buyer’s name – Boris Zingarevich, a pulp and paper magnate – was leaked to the press.
We set up a fake company and contacted Samuelson. We told him we represented three rich investors looking for a “sleeping giant”, a once-great football club with a big fan base and ambitions to return to the lucrative top flight of the game.
Samuelson took the bait and agreed to meet. We briefed two undercover reporters. “Billy”, as we called him, would ask most of the questions; “Angie” would play the role of Billy’s assistant. Neither of them knew anything about football but after several long briefings, Billy eventually knew his championship from his Champions League.
He would tell Samuelson that the criminal investor, who we call Mr X, wanted to own 60 percent of an English football club; had fled to Hong Kong and smuggled his money out of China through Macau casinos, and was sentenced to seven-year imprisonment in absentia. Now Mr X wanted to clean his money.
One big hurdle for Mr X was the football authorities’ Owners’ and Directors’ Test, which bans anybody with an unspent criminal conviction, and a minimum 12 months’ jail sentence, from owning a football club.
Over a series of meetings in London hotels, a loquacious Samuelson gave a turbo-charged sales pitch, peppered with stories about football, Russian oligarchs and his own success. He spoke with an accent honed in Kent, southern England, where he was born to a society family in 1946, and at Sherborne, the private boarding school he attended in Dorset.
Samuelson said he had almost bought Chelsea, with the West Ham and England World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore, in the 1980s when he ran a sponsorship company. He claimed that Abramovich bought Chelsea, some 20 years later, after he had advised the oligarch to buy a football club to protect himself from a political change in Russia.
He was a prodigious name-dropper but seemed well-informed and well-connected. He rattled off the names and prices of clubs for sale: Premier League teams Chelsea, 3 billion pounds ($4.1bn), and Tottenham, 2 billion pounds ($2.8bn). Charlton, Millwall and others, for much less. We were interested in a second-tier, championship side with the potential to rise to the lucrative Premier League, the world’s richest league.
Samuelson talked about Leeds United and Nottingham Forest but recommended that we go for another club, Derby County, twice champions of England in the 1970s, because he had an advantage. “I was with Mel [Morris, the Derby owner] yesterday. He’s appointed me to sell the club,” he said. He agreed to take our undercover operatives to meet Morris. Things were moving fast.
‘A gun to their head’
It was remarkable how little Samuelson even pretended to be interested in – or concerned about how Mr X had made his money. The English Football League (EFL) – which governs the divisions below the Premier League – can require would-be owners to produce “evidence of the ultimate source and sufficiency of funds” to buy and sustain a club.
Could Samuelson really get our criminal investor approved by the EFL? The Magician was breezily confident. The EFL would be given “the minimum information”, “presented in the right way”; and he would “come up with an idea of how we can structure it so we defeat the EFL”.
“We create the bio,” he said. “We’ll say his business was real estate investment, and other sectors … We’ll just manufacture it.
“I’m an expert,” he added. “When I did the Aston Villa application, I wrote the whole thing myself and I took the information I needed and left the rest out.”
He talked tough. “I’ll hold a gun to their head. I can pressure the Football League … it will be approved,” he said. “And if we have to threaten them with legal action – watch them fall over.”
EFL investigators? Nothing to be concerned about. “Sometimes, they appoint one of these investigating firms to do a report,” he said. “If they appoint somebody, we’ll know which one is doing it and we’ll deal with them.”
Samuelson named his team: Jamie Banfill, business partner and lawyer; Andrew Obolensky, chartered accountant who worked on the Reading and Aston Villa sales; and Christian Hook, lawyer at London-based Gunnercooke, who did the legal work on the same two clubs. He would look after Mr X’s money until the sale was completed. “He’s very discreet. No leaks,” Samuelson said.
“The main thing is, do you have the money – and the fact it’s sitting in Christian Hook’s law firm’s trust account has a huge effect on them [the Football League],” he added.
“Yes, I can help here. You’ve come to the right person.”
And there was, of course, his fee: 3 percent of the sale price, extra for his associates. Plus, club director roles for himself, Obolensky and Banfill.
Samuelson mentioned another associate with “skills” to help get deals done: Keith Hunter, a private investigator and former Scotland Yard detective. “He works hand in glove with us,” said Samuelson. “He can do all kinds of things, like tap telephones and so on.”
“When we were dealing with [the sale of] Aston Villa, for example, we were monitoring what the Football League was saying behind the scenes. They didn’t know this, of course.”
When Villa’s chief executive Keith Wyness was suspended by the club in 2018, Samuelson – who had fallen out with him – wanted to find out whether he was talking to the media. “Of course, we had an ability to get the telephone records, to see who he was talking to,” Samuelson said. “So, we could identify what numbers he was calling. He was talking to the media.”
During negotiations at Everton in 2004, Samuelson said when the name of the Russian owner who wanted to buy a majority stake was leaked to the media, Hunter obtained the journalist’s private telephone records to find out who the “mole” was.
“We knew which journalist had got the story, so we looked at that journalist’s telephone records. It’s not allowed but we did, and we found out who he had spoken to, and one of them was the financial controller in Bill Kenwright’s office, so we know who leaked it.”
Hunter later confirmed the Everton story to Billy: “Yeah. Two individuals that were communicating with someone they shouldn’t have been.”
Billy: “Two guys inside the football club?”
Hunter: “Yeah, board level.”
‘Sometimes it’s impossible, sometimes it’s illegal’
For the past 20 years, Hunter has run private investigation companies. His latest is called Animus and, like Samuelson, he numbered oligarchs including Berezovsky among his clients, as well as a prominent Nigerian politician, James Ibori, who in 2012 was given a 12-year jail sentence by a UK court for fraud and money laundering.
His past, too, is mired in controversy. An internal 2007 report by Scotland Yard’s anti-corruption team on his former company, RISC Management, obtained by the I-Unit, says: “Intelligence strongly indicates that RISC Management was an aggressive corruptor of serving Metropolitan Police Service staff.” RISC employees also exploited former colleagues “to corruptly obtain sensitive information”. But although Hunter was implicated in police corruption cases in 2006 and 2012 he was not charged.
Billy met Hunter separately, to ask him what services he could offer his clients, such as obtaining competitors’ bank statements.
“Yeah,” Hunter replied. “Banks, credit cards, lifestyle. Have they got a mistress? Is there anything that we could damage their reputation with?”
“We could potentially get that.”
He said third parties could be used in difficult cases.
“Sometimes it’s impossible. Sometimes it’s illegal … But there will be times where you could use trusted third parties to help you get the information you’re looking for.”
“Again, that would be for third parties to do. Other people do those things. I’m very happy to organise an introduction but it would be something that we could ask people if they would do it.”
Billy: “How can you trust them?”
“Because you build up trust. My people will have relationships with people that can do things that we can’t do in-house.”
Hunter told Billy that he was also involved in buying football clubs. He claimed he was close to sealing a deal for Hull City and was confident of getting a mandate to sell Bournemouth AFC. Neither club has been sold to date.
Samuelson’s lack of curiosity about – or indifference to – Mr X’s finances had a precedent. In 2016, he arranged for Tony Xia, a Chinese businessman, to buy Aston Villa for a reported $105m, installing himself as deputy chairman.
Samuelson told our undercover reporters he was sure Xia was a front for other buyers – but still helped him obtain approval from the EFL.
“Tony Xia claimed to own this, that and everything else,” he said. “I said I don’t want to hear about it. I want one asset where you made more money, enough money to get you approved. He came with one, which was 450 million sterling [$621m] equivalent.
“OK, it may not have been his, Billy, but he claimed it was his. So, we put that on the form, just that.”
How much of that was his own money is a question. How much of it was somebody else’s?
“He said it was him. Well, of course, it wasn’t him. He was a front. I was sure he was a front.”
Two years later, Aston Villa was in deep financial trouble. Xia was sued by creditors in China for allegedly defaulting on loans worth tens of millions of dollars. He sold the club. In October 2019 Chinese authorities issued an arrest warrant for Xia and he was later detained for failing to repay loans. He denies the charges and remains in custody pending the results of a police investigation.
Keith Wyness, Villa’s chief executive under Tony Xia, until he left the club in 2018 and sued for constructive dismissal, said in a statement he prepared for an employment tribunal: “Not a lot was known about him that could be independently verified. My concern was that for a supposed billionaire with a string of companies, Mr Xia appeared not to have a grasp of basic financial modelling.”
‘A crook, a thief and a liar’
During our investigation, we obtained a secret 2005 report by the Dutch police which gave details of allegations against Samuelson. The investigators suspected he was the “de facto leader of an international money laundering operation”, with clients who had been the subject of criminal investigations.
The report said that his clients included the Russian oligarchs Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky and “Badri” Patarkatsishvili and; the two largest organised crime families in the UK; and Kurdish organisations whose finances he helped structure to avoid money laundering accusations.
Samuelson was later named in court papers in the US as the subject of “multiple, high-profile, money-laundering investigations”. A 2011 court deposition in Miami said in an email from 2006, Badri had called Samuelson “a crook” and “a thief and a liar”. Samuelson dismissed the allegations as “farcical”.
The EFL had asked Samuelson about the Dutch investigation during a meeting at its headquarters in Preston to discuss his suitability to be a director of Aston Villa. In a statement written after the meeting, obtained by the I-Unit, Samuelson says that Nick Craig, the EFL’s head of legal affairs, had described him as “a master of concealment”. Samuelson claimed the investigation was politically motivated and said all claims against him were dropped. He was approved as a director.
Samuelson and Hunter prided themselves on their caution and discretion. Over high tea at an upmarket London hotel, they urged our reporters to be vigilant in case people were trying to record their conversation – unaware that they themselves were being covertly recorded. “I know too many of the old tricks,” said Samuelson. “When we were dealing with the Russians you had to make sure there wasn’t bugs in the room. Here they couldn’t bug it because it’s too difficult.”
He jokingly leaned in towards a teapot to see if there was a recording device inside. “Can you hear us?”
Football clubs as ‘vehicles for money laundering’
It has been said that Samuelson can make an elephant disappear. But could he make Mr X disappear, by concealing his name and identity, so he could buy a famous English football club.
The Magician said he had many “tricks” for doing this. His preferred option was to set up an offshore company with two other investors owning 50 percent each. They would then sign a Declaration of Trust in favour of Mr X. That meant they were holding shares for Mr X who was, in offshore parlance, the “beneficial owner”. Their names would be disclosed in the share registry but Mr X would be hidden from public scrutiny.
“Nobody can ever get behind who the shareholders are in the public domain,” Samuelson said. “No media can penetrate because it’s held in what we call nominee names.”
“I’m one of the leading specialists in this kind of work,” he said.
Samuelson claimed he had used offshore trusts to deceive the Football League before when he helped to arrange the purchase of a majority stake in Reading FC in 2012.
The money raised for Reading belonged to Boris Zingarevich, the Russian pulp and paper magnate. “I didn’t clear Boris [with the EFL], I cleared Anton,” said Samuelson, referring to Boris’s son. “Anton didn’t have any money. So, I got his father to gift the money to him, OK, done. That’s it. They didn’t argue about it, at all.”
But Anton Zingarevich did not have the funds to sustain the club and Reading were relegated after just one season in the top-flight, prompting fury from fans. “The fans at this point just felt they’d been taken for a ride,” said Jon Keen, former vice chairman of the Supporters’ Trust at Reading.
Zingarevich sold up. “He left Reading holding a big bill that he’d run up with no money left to pay it,” said Keen.
Samuelson had another “trick” as a fallback. He said he would set up an investment fund with 20 or 21 small companies, each held in a separate trust and with a stake of 5 percent or less. The real owner would be hidden in a master trust behind the small investors but the size of the shareholdings meant that the name of the real owner would not have to be disclosed, according to EFL rules.
He said he had planned to use this scheme for the Everton takeover in 2004, using a Brunei-based company called the Fortress Sports Fund – until Boris Zingarevich’s name was leaked to the media.
Keen said offshore trusts are “dangerous” for the game. “It leaves football clubs open to be vehicles for money laundering. Nobody knows where the money’s come from, it could come from any source, no matter how criminal or disreputable.”
A new identity
Samuelson said his offshore schemes meant only the Football League would have to know Mr X’s name and they were obliged to keep it strictly confidential. But we pushed harder, insisting that his identity had to be kept secret from everybody, including the EFL. Again, we thought this could be the end of our investigation. But for Samuelson, it was just another obstacle to overcome and, once again, he had a solution.
“We can always look at getting another passport for your big man,” Samuelson said. “With a new name, yes, why not?” This would give Mr X a totally new identity and an address in Cyprus to deceive the EFL.
Samuelson called his friend Hunter and told him Mr X needed another passport. “How quickly can we get a Cyprus one, money no object?” He made it sound normal, as if he was asking how soon a kitchen table could be delivered.
Like Samuelson, Hunter was unfazed when he heard the details of Mr X’s criminal record. He had excellent, high-level contacts, including a government minister in Cyprus, who could help obtain a Cyprus passport, he said.
It could be done through property investment. The Citizenship-by-Investment programme, a European Union scheme, allowed investors to obtain a Cyprus passport for an investment of $3m.
Convicted criminals were excluded from the scheme but Hunter was calmly reassuring. “We’ve done this many, many times for others who, I can assure you are in a worse position than your boss. So, you’ve just got to leave it to us.”
“The different name we just have to work on. We might just change the date of birth slightly. Everything’s possible.”
Hunter said he had obtained passports for “Indian, Russian, Ukrainian and Nigerian” clients. “And the process is seamless.”
Between them, Samuelson and Hunter would prepare due diligence reports for the English Football League and the Cyprus authorities.
Days later Samuelson emailed to say he had met two of Hunter’s Cyprus contacts who said the minister had given the price to get a passport for Mr X. “Last evening I attended Keith’s box at Epsom races and met Chris Giovani and Antonis Antoniou who handle obtaining Cypriot passports,” Samuelson wrote. “Their discussion … resulted in the Minister saying that the passport would be issued within 8 weeks providing the investment was 10 million euros ($12m).”
On the brink of striking a deal
Back on the football club trail, our undercover team headed up to Derby, with Samuelson, to meet Mel Morris, the club’s owner. On the way, Samuelson went through the numbers: 50 million pounds ($69m) for the club, plus 29 million pounds ($40m) for the stadium and a further 20 million pounds ($27.6m) to cover losses for the coming season. Total: 99 million pounds ($136.5m).
Morris gave our undercover reporters a tour of the Pride Park Stadium and the club’s training ground. He was passionate about the club and understood its importance to the people of Derby. He wanted the new owners to continue that close relationship.
Morris has put an estimated $200m of his own money into the club and he was keen for our investors to become the new owners. He proposed to help them by becoming a minority shareholder with a stake of 9.9 percent. This would mean he could write off his loans to the club over a number of seasons rather than in one go at the time of sale. The move would benefit the club financially but could be seen as circumventing Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. Morris admitted: “It is something we must not commit in writing.”
Kieran Maguire, a football finance expert at Liverpool University, said Morris’s proposal broke the spirit if not the letter of the law. “That would be for the EFL to monitor and to choose whether or not to have charges against the club.”
Morris has had a few run-ins with the Football League over FFP rules, which limit a Championship club’s losses to no more than 39 million pounds ($53.8m) over three seasons.
In 2020, Derby County was cleared of breaching FFP rules over Morris’s sale of the stadium, effectively to himself. But in June this year, the club was fined 100,000 pounds ($138,000) for breaching rules governing the valuation of players and, in a non-FFP charge, was given a suspended three points deduction for failing to pay players’ wages.
Morris was keen on our investors buying his club. We left Derby knowing that we were on the brink of striking a deal to buy a famous English football club for a convicted criminal.
A message to Mr X
It was time for us to fly to Cyprus where Hunter had arranged for Billy and Angie to meet British estate agents Tony and Denise Kay who would start the process of acquiring Mr X’s new passport. “Keith is a good friend and I’ve worked with him for many years,” said Tony. “We refer each other people. If I send someone to him, I know that he looks after me and vice versa.”
Denise said of Keith Hunter: “He does the due diligence for us.”
The extra millions of dollars for the passport, our reporters were told, was not through the official scheme. “Where there are problems, it costs more money to achieve these things,” said Tony.
In a whirlwind week, our reporters were introduced to a network of powerful people who all said they were willing to help Mr X obtain a Cyprus passport.
A lawyer, Andreas Pittadjis, said: “So he had convictions … we will need to find ways to overcome this problem.”
He told Billy over dinner in Ayia Napa: “If it wasn’t for Keith and Tony, I wouldn’t even accept to see you.”
An MP and property developer, Christakis Giovani, said: “We help people take a passport, why not? I think we have a way to help.”
Finally, the president of the Parliament, Demetris Syllouris, the de facto vice president of Cyprus, told Billy to pass on a message to Mr X. He asked Mr X to come to Cyprus and said he would provide any support he can, using all levels of the state.
We told the story of Cyprus passports in a documentary called The Cyprus Papers Undercover, released in October 2020. Within days of its release Giovani and Syllouris resigned, the Cyprus passport scheme was scrapped, the EU and the Cyprus government launched investigations and weeks of anti-corruption protests erupted on the streets of Nicosia.
‘Football fans should be angry’
Before our trip to Cyprus – and soon after our meeting with Morris – we pulled out of the Derby deal so as not to prevent genuine buyers from buying the club. Samuelson tried to rekindle our fictitious investors’ interest. We said they had decided against Derby but were still interested in buying a football club and so we would press ahead with obtaining a Cyprus passport and a new identity for Mr X.
Two other deals to buy Derby County have since collapsed. One of the proposals was led by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family through a company called Derventio Holdings (UK). Two of the original directors of Derventio were Samuelson and Obolensky but they stepped down after just two months, in November 2020.
In April 2021, football club ownership was thrust into the spotlight after the announcement of a European Super League for 12 leading clubs. Protests were held by fans in England where six clubs – Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham – had signed up to the breakaway league. The fans claimed that billionaire owners were treating English football as a global cash cow and cutting clubs off from their communities.
The Super League was dropped after 48 hours and the fiasco prompted the launch in the UK of a fan-led government review, headed by MP Tracey Crouch. Its interim report, published in July, called for an independent regulator for the sport and reform of the football authorities, particularly in financial regulation, corporate governance and ownership.
Ben Cowdock, investigations lead at Transparency International, said the I-Unit’s investigation exposed serious problems with football club ownership. “This investigation will be of great interest to the police and also the English football authorities,” he said. “They are up against faulty, fraudulent due diligence reports and a network of enablers seeking to pull the wool over their eyes.”
He added: “Football fans should be angry about this investigation because it shows the entire vulnerability of the English football system to funds from dubious origins and unsuitable owners for their clubs.”
Maguire found our evidence “disturbing” and said Samuelson “is a person that should have nothing to do with football in this country”.
“Football clubs in England hold a particular place in the heart of everyone,” he said. “They are part of our history, heritage, community and so on and as such, they should be protected.”
Al Jazeera contacted all those involved in this investigation.
Christopher Samuelson’s lawyers say that he had never been told that Mr X had a criminal conviction for money laundering and bribery. Had he known of any criminality, he would have ended discussions immediately.
Keith Hunter refuses to engage with the details of our findings but says that he strongly disputes most of them. Hunter says that he left the police with an exemplary record. His company, Animus, refutes all allegations of wrongdoing.
Mel Morris and Derby County did not respond to the subject of Financial Fair Play regulations and other matters featured in this investigation. They tell us the club would only be sold to “appropriate custodians” and that they have not had any “formal association” with Samuelson for some time.
Roman Abramovich’s lawyers say he never had a personal relationship with Samuelson and never received advice about purchasing a football club.
A spokesman for Mikhail Khodorkovsky denies that Samuelson advised him to buy Yukos and says that it is “highly likely” that he has never met Samuelson.
Christian Hook and the Gunnercooke law firm say they comply strictly with all legal and regulatory obligations at all times. Our investigation uncovered no evidence to suggest otherwise.
Andrew Obolensky tells us he is not Samuelson’s partner and has never had dealings with anyone resembling Mr X.
Tony and Denise Kay, Andreas Pittadjis, Christakis Giovani, Antonis Antoniou and Demetris Syllouris, deny any wrongdoing.
Tony Xia is currently in jail in China pending a police investigation. He denies all charges.