Senglea football club: when fuel smuggling and generosity can buy legitimacy

Money laundering cases against former footballers Darren Debono and Jeffrey Chetcuti lifted the lid on how they tried to buy legitimacy. KURT SANSONE looks at how the murky world of money laundering has latched onto football

Darren Debono (left) at the table of Senglea’s executive committee, with property entrepreneur Reuben Debono (right)
Darren Debono (left) at the table of Senglea’s executive committee, with property entrepreneur Reuben Debono (right)

Isla ranks as one of the densest places on earth with a population of just under 3,000 sandwiched between the ramparts of the fortified city.

Home to the iconic Gardjola that overlooks the Grand Harbour, the town boasts of a 78-year-old football club, Senglea Athletic.

Founded in 1943, the club has a lacklustre story, playing for a good part of its long history in the lower divisions of Maltese football. The closest it ever came to some form of glory was when the club made it to the FA Trophy final in 1981 but lost to Floriana.

The club played in the Premier League for the past four seasons and was relegated this year after finishing last.

But this is not about football. It is a story of how clubs can be used by some to wash their dirty cash and gain legitimacy.

In June 2019, Senglea were seeking to strengthen their squad and as part of the transformation, former national team footballer Darren Debono was elected to the committee.

His appointment raised eyebrows since Debono had already been charged in Italy with involvement in an international fuel smuggling ring and judicial proceedings against him were pending.

Darren Debono holds the Valletta FC gear for the team’s Silver Horse ‘By Sonni’ platinum sponsorship. He is flanked by Valletta president Victor Sciriha (centre) and deputy president Alexander ‘Sonni’ Fenech
Darren Debono holds the Valletta FC gear for the team’s Silver Horse ‘By Sonni’ platinum sponsorship. He is flanked by Valletta president Victor Sciriha (centre) and deputy president Alexander ‘Sonni’ Fenech

Senglea’s president – the notary Reuben Debono, a part-owner of the FES Group plc, a boutique hotel group with a €5 million bond issue – had at the time told Net FM’s Replay Ikompli, that Darren Debono will have “an important role” within the club and will be “more than just a committee member”.

A month later when the club presented the official list of committee members for vetting to the Malta Football Association, Debono’s name was not on the list.

It appears Senglea Athletic did not want adverse publicity but a glimpse of Debono’s contribution to the club was provided in court a fortnight ago.

Paying foreign players

Debono and another former footballer, Jeffrey Chetcuti, are charged with fuel smuggling, money laundering and other financial crimes in the Maltese courts.

During compilation of evidence proceedings against the pair, the Senglea Athletic cashier testified how the accused were roped in as sponsors to pay the costs of foreign players recruited by the club.

The cashier, Stephen Buttigieg, told the court that the ex-footballers lent a great helping hand, financially and by offering advice.

He said Debono was never a member of the club committee but helped cover the costs of wages of foreign players and trips abroad.

Buttigieg explained that monthly wages varied between €770 to €1,000 or more and Debono would pay the footballers directly. “All I know is that the players never came to us to complain,” the cashier said, adding that Debono paid the players between August and November 2019.

Debono’s generosity with the club went as far as providing a €70,000 sponsorship that was paid in two €35,000 cheques from a company owned by him.

This testimony lifted the lid on how the murky world of money laundering has latched on to football.

Infiltration of organised crime

Last August, Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, released a situation report in which it warned of the infiltration of organised crime groups in sports to move large sums of dirty money.

Football was a main target because of its popularity, financial dimension and large turn-over betting market attached to it.

Europol intelligence observed an increasing trend especially in football, where clubs of lower divisions, sometimes beset by heavy financial problems, are taken over by individuals and companies.

The legal structures most often used to move the money would be players’ agent companies, organisers of sporting events and gambling-related companies.

The reasons for Debono’s interest in Senglea Athletic are unclear. He never had ties with the club or the town and yet chose to finance the cost of the foreign players.

He may have been seeking legitimacy but the pattern became clearer in separate money laundering proceedings against Debono’s step-daughter, Florinda (Floren) Sultana.

She and a former bank official were charged with operating two fish restaurants in Valletta and Marsaxlokk, which were used to launder money from Debono’s oil smuggling operation.

A bar donation

A search of Sultana’s home yielded some €52,000 in cash, various branded items including Gucci and Armani and ten watches, including a Rolex, large glass jars containing banknotes and coins as well as documents linked to sales at Porticello, Capo Mulini, Silver Horse ‘by Sonni’ and Onda Blu restaurants.

The mere mention of Silver Horse raised eyebrows in football circles because last summer, the popular bar on the capital’s Strait Street entered into a ‘platinum’ sponsorship agreement with Valletta FC, a top-flight football club.

The promotional photo for the event included Debono and Chetcuti with the club’s top officials. The sponsorship deal is understood to cover some €500,000.

Valletta FC subsequently distanced itself from the bar, insisting the club never held any commercial interest in the operations of Silver Horse. The club and its officials also disassociated themselves from any actions alleged in court.

Seeking legitimacy

There is nothing to suggest that the Valletta FC sponsorship was illicit but the mere involvement of two men accused of money laundering and fuel smuggling casts an aura of suspicion.

An assessment on the risk of money laundering within the EU, carried out by the European Commission three years ago had included football for the first time in its monitoring exercise.

The report said that social status was an attraction for some to invest great sums of money with no apparent or explicable financial return or gain, other than the social prestige of investing in professional sport.

“Professional sport’s popularity, and especially that of professional football, can be a tool for criminals to legitimise themselves by appearing alongside famous people, entrepreneurs, or authorities,” the Commission report noted.

Maltese football clubs may not have the international allure but they are increasingly being used by people with dubious intentions to gain legitimacy in the community through generous donations and sponsorships. Regatta clubs also appear to offer the same attraction.

Financial crime reality

Europol warned last summer that sports corruption is often addressed only from the perspective of sports integrity because practitioners lack awareness on the involvement of organised crime.

Football clubs and activities around them generate a yearly economy of around €25 million, according to Bjorn Vassallo, president of the Malta Football Association.

Speaking on Xtra last week, Vassallo said the size of the football economy meant that financial crime is a reality.

The MFA plans to address this situation by professionalising the sector. It intends creating a two-tier licensing system that distinguishes between amateur and elite clubs.

This will lead to the commercialisation of club ownership at elite level that will require clubs to have the majority shareholding owned by a company.

The reform promises to be a major step forward but it will not be enough.

Recent developments suggest that the sporting sector, particularly football, will increasingly have to fall under the purview of financial crime agencies, something that became clear in Europol’s situation report last August.

The Debono case has given us a glimpse of how the money laundering system works with football but it most certainly is not the only one.