Spies and Sport

Ahead of the Women’s World Cup semi-final clash between Australia and England there was a “spy row” about secretly filming England’s tactics for the match. While the Australian team practised behind closed doors, the England team were on an open air pitch where they were closely watched by a cameraman operating from a helicopter. The helicopter had been chartered by the Australian Daily Telegraph and it is not known if the pictures were seen by the Australian team but it was widely criticised as unsporting behaviour.

But there is a long history of sporting spies:

In September 2006, Portal, a Portuguese restaurant in London and one of Jose Mourinho’s favourite restaurants hired a prvate security company after a bug was discovered in its dining room. Kitchen staff had discovered a device near a plug fitting by one of the corner tables where several members of the Chelsea team usually dined. A radio in the kitchen was producing terrible feedback and the owner could not work out why. The mystery now appears to have been solved. The device was hidden in a two-socket adaptor, a type that is available commercially. The restaurant believes the device had been there less than 24 hours. The device would have required the receiver to be sitting fairly nearby.

In 2007, confidential information was passed by Ferrari mechanic Nigel Stepney to his friend Mike Coughlan who was Maclaren’s chief designer. Stepney was caught when his wife tried to make copies of documents at shop and the owner telephoned Ferrari to tell them of his suspicions. Stepney was sentenced in Italy to 20 months imprisonment for sabotage, industrial espionage and sporting fraud, though he never served a day in prison following a plea deal. Maclaren were initially found not guilty by the FIA, but after a second hearing they were fined $100 million and disqualified from the 2007 constructors’ championship which otherwise they might have won.

In the same year, In American football, New England Patriots secretly recorded the New York Jets defensive coaches’ signals during an NFL match. The NFL fined Bill Belichick, the Patriot’s coach $500,000 and fined the Patriots $250,000 plus removing their right to a first round draft pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

In 2010, according to the Sunday Times, the UK private intelligence company Diligence was hired by Qatar to spy on FIFA officials and a rival bid team ahead of the vote to host the 2022 World Cup.

In 2013, Genoa’s youth team coach, Luca De Pra, was believed to have watched local rivals Sampodoria training while wearing camouflage gear! Sampodoria said he was caught hiding “like Rambo under a tree”. De Pra was fined by his club.

In September of that year, Liverpool FC paid a settlement of £1 million (without admitting liability) to Manchester City FC after MCFC’s scouting database, Scout7, was hacked into “hundreds of times” between June 2012 and Feb 2013. Scout7 is a system used by about 2,000 people from different clubs. This was not really a hack as the breach is believed to have been caused by people using proper passwords. The breach is believed to have occurred after three MCFC scouts left (Michael Edwwards, Dave Fallows and Julian Ward) and joined Liverpool. The settlement was confidential and not revealed until 2019. The breaches were discovered after MCFC hired a security expert to examine their systems. A complaint was made by MCFC in July 2013. (In February 2020, the FA announced that it would take no further action In the case because of the money paid in settlement and the age of the issue. The affair is referred to in footballing circles as Spygate.)

In August 2016, a bugging device was found in a chair in a Sydney hotel room where the All Blacks were having team meetings ahead of Bledisloe Cup test match with Australia. Apparently it was a sophisticated attempt and online gamblers were suspected.

In 2018, Swedish football scout Lars Jacobsson used a house near South Korea’s training ground in Austria to secretly record their training sessions using a high-performance telescope and video equipment. This was just before the 2018 World Cup. When the match was played the S Koreans changed the numbers on their shirts in order to confuse the Swedish game plan. Faced with the accusation, the Swedish coach Janne Andersson admitted they had filmed the sessions, but said that the scout hadn’t realised that they were closed sessions. No further action was taken.

In January 2019, an unnamed man was caught while on hands and knees with  a pair of pliers trying to break through the perimeter fence of Derby County FC’s training ground. Police were called and he was found to be a member of Leeds United staff hoping to spy on the team ahead of their crunch match with Leeds United. No further police action taken. Although Leeds apologised, 11 clubs complained and eventually the FA fined Leeds £200,000.

In F1 motor racing the differences in car design that mean success or failure are miniscule. So F1 teams hire “spy photographers” at race tracks. Their job is to take detailed photographs of the opposition cars. This is especially important when a car has crashed and is craned off the race track as this is a very rare chance to photograph the underside of the car and it is floor pans that are so important to aerodynamics and where the greatest gains have been made recently. In 2023, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner confirmed: “It’s the same for everyone …each team will be employing spy photographers to get pictures of the cars when they are in parts and pieces.” Frank Vasseur, the Ferrari principal, also confirmed the practice.


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