Black money in amateur soccer: insiders from the north unpack

According to ARD research, 500 million euros are presumed to flow into the pockets of amateur soccer players in Germany each year, bypassing the tax authorities. Two insiders report to the NDR, how these business run off.

by Hanno Bode and Tom Gerntke

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere in northern Germany stands this house, whose owner was only able to fulfill his dream of owning four walls because he received money for practicing his hobby. A lot of money. "I have an average of 12.000 to 15.000 euros a year", says the former footballer to the NDR Sportclub. He does not want to be named. During his career, in which he played for several clubs from the fifth league down, he never paid taxes on a single cent of his additional income.

Our informant has always received the money in cash. And sometimes in very unusual places. "Once I got it in an envelope even before the end of the game on the bench", he tells.

Amateur soccer players earn a billion euros a year

It is not an isolated case, as the ARD documentary: "Billions of euros in amateur soccer – When the money comes in an envelope" shows, shows. 500 million euros flow into the pockets of amateur soccer players in Germany every year, bypassing the tax authorities. The same amount is paid by the clubs to the players in the regular way, i.e. excluding the statutory social security contributions that are due above a certain amount. This is the result of an online survey by ARD in cooperation with the research center "Correctiv". 10.134 soccer players with an average age of 28 took part in the survey.

Two amateur soccer players on a soccer field © IMAGO / Kirchner-Media

Amateur soccer worth billions – when the money comes in an envelope

Almost 80 percent of amateur soccer players receive allowances

Among other things, the participants provided information about the league they belong to at their current club, the amount of their salary and whether the financial agreements were recorded in writing. The result: While cash payments play practically no role in women’s soccer below the national leagues, 60.2 percent of the male amateur players between 18 and 39 years of age surveyed have at some time received cash for practicing their hobby. A further 18.2 percent of the survey participants were also remunerated by their clubs in the form of non-cash assets or services.

So there is also a lot of money in circulation at the clubs below the three German professional leagues. The slogan of a campaign of the German Soccer Association (DFB): "Our amateurs. Real professionals" is with view of the ARD inquiry almost already makaber.

Payouts in back rooms

The phenomenon of black money payments in amateur soccer is not new, as another informant confirms to the NDR Sportclub, who was active as a player and coach in northern Germany for almost three decades. At the beginning of his career, he even made it to the professional level ("There, everything was done correctly with the payments") before he was subsequently paid princely wages at lower-class clubs. "As a former licensed player, there were many offers that involved a lot of money. There were then already so between 6.000 and 8.000 DM per month", reports the ex-footballer and gives an insight into how the money changed hands at the time.

"As businessmen do, we agreed with a handshake. At the end of the month one then went into a back room. Then either the manager and coach sat there and it was all added up again. And then you got your envelope", he explains. Sometimes it was even more bizarre, according to the informant: "There were sponsors who would say to you, ‘Go to my car, there’s an envelope in the glove compartment. Take out of there as much money as you think you were worth last month."

Pay taxes? "Didn’t give it a second thought"

The former player says he earned a six-figure sum during his long career as an amateur footballer. Patrons made it possible for him, as an amateur, to be paid like a professional at times. "From the building contractor to the commodity futures trader, everything was there", reports the informant. The money they pumped into soccer was probably not always earned legally beforehand, he suspects. "I guess one or the other sponsor has tried to place his black money in an amateur team."

The treasury would have been defrauded twice in this case – both by the entrepreneur and the player. "For me it was all right when I signed a receipt. I thought to myself, okay, the club will handle this sensibly. I myself have never thought about whether I now have to declare this in my tax return or not", says the informant.

HFV boss Okun calls for raising the tax-free ceiling

He apparently dribbled around the tax office like so many other amateur kickers. The German Football Association (DFB) and its state associations are aware of the flow of illicit funds and disapprove of the payments. "Yes, it is also brought to my attention again and again that money is being slipped in there. But I have known that for several decades. And from my point of view, it is also regrettable that it will continue for decades to come", Christian Okun, President of the Hamburg Football Association (HFV), explains to NDR.

In his estimation, the vast majority of clubs would properly account for the expense allowances paid to their players. However, many voluntary club representatives are simply no longer in a position to "cope with the bureaucracy", as the former referee believes. Okun therefore wishes: "I would argue that the bureaucracy at the clubs is relieved."

In addition, the 42-year-old advocates increasing the clubs’ current tax-free cap on expense reimbursements and/or expense allowances for amateur kickers.

Hardly any player has an amateur contract

According to the DFB’s playing regulations, clubs are obliged to conclude amateur contracts with players who earn more than 250 euros per month. Because taxes and social security contributions are then also due, these contracts are gathering dust in the drawers of most clubs. In the past series, according to the DFB regional associations, only 8.500 amateur contracts submitted to them. And that with over 700.000 male hobby kickers! The majority of clubs simply do not seem to be able to afford to enter into these agreements.

Okun demands therefore: "If I consider that 250 euro are perhaps not at all sufficient, is yes the question, how I can look for solutions. And of course the politicians are called upon to decriminalize the whole thing and to raise the de minimis limits." HFV president proposes increasing tax-free amount paid to players to 450 euros.

Clubs must maintain an overview in the paragraph jungle

Sums in this order of magnitude are transferred monthly by Hamburg’s fifth division club WTSV Concordia to its players, according to its president Matthias Seidel. "I would say that a major league player earns between 200 and 300 euros. But if you are ambitious, like we are, you have to pay a little more, of course", explains the club boss to the NDR. Most players at Concordia have amateur contracts, says Seidel. Some are employed as mini-jobbers and for others – such as students – the club has a "different method of employment" chosen.

He and the other mainly honorary officials of the traditional club, which is aiming for promotion to the regional league, have to keep their heads above water in a jungle of paragraphs in order not to come into conflict with the tax office. "The problem is the legal requirements", criticizes Seidel.

Tax offices turn a blind eye

Now it is however not so that constantly the tax investigation with the amateur football clubs would become vorstellig. Completely on the contrary: On ARD inquiry the tax offices of the countries communicated "that amateur associations no examination emphasis" are. A tax official, who wished to remain anonymous, told the station, "If we can’t prove a flow of money, how are we supposed to punish someone?" So the treasury seems to be powerless to stop black money payments in amateur soccer.

Or maybe he does not want it at all? "There are really many people who say that the clubs should be left alone. They think that they are an important part of our society – especially in the social sphere", said the financial official of the ARD.

Clubs depend on patrons – and perish

The state tolerates thereby a system, in which not only horrendous sums change the owner tax-free, but also clubs perish, because they make themselves dependent on patrons. "Many of the clubs I played for have gone bankrupt", reports the informant, who in all his years as a footballer earned the said little house together. Whether he had a guilty conscience? "No! I am not responsible for the fate of the clubs!", is his answer.

The soccer players of the Oberliga club WTSV Concordia Hamburg enter the pitch at Sportpark Hinschenfelde © Hanno Bode Photo: Hanno Bode

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