As the Swedish football star Victor Lindelof was helping Manchester United beat Brentford 3-1 at a packed stadium in west London on the 19th of January, his wife Maja and their two children were locking themselves in a specially installed panic room as burglars ransacked their Manchester home.
"I was home alone with both the kids but we managed to hide and lock ourselves in a room before they entered our house,” Maja Lindelof later posted on Instagram. "We are okay under the circumstances but it was obviously a very traumatic and scary moment for both me and my little kids. We are now in Sweden and are spending some time off with our families.”
There are some obvious upsides to being an elite level footballer playing in Europe’s super rich leagues. Many earn more money in a week than the average person earns in a decade. But what is growing increasingly obvious is that these sportsmen – and often their very young families – are being targeted on an unprecedented scale by ruthless burglars determined to relieve them of their prized assets.
Despite huge amounts of money spent by players and clubs on personal and home security it’s a phenomenon that has become so prolific over the past 15 years that robbing top level footballers has become a crime subset of its own.
Analysis by VICE World News shows that at least 80 of Europe’s top football players, including three managers, have had their homes raided since the trend started in the mid-2000s, a time when the highest player wages first hit £100,000 a week. Now the world’s top paid football player, Lionel Messi, is paid £960,000 a week.
It is a phenomenon that is being tracked by Operation Opal, a national UK intelligence unit that deals with serious organised acquisitive crime. Opal’s lead officer, Superintendent Carl Williams, told VICE World News that there has “definitely been an increase” in Premier League footballers being burgled in the last 10 years – including two unnamed England players whose homes were burgled while they played games at last year’s Euros.
Apart from the Lindelof incident, recent raids include one at the home of Manchester City player Joao Cancelo in December. The Portuguese international was attacked by a gang of robbers in front of his wife and baby daughter at their home in the Manchester suburbs.
After the attack in December, Cancelo posted on Instagram: ''Unfortunately today I was assaulted by four cowards who hurt me and tried to hurt my family. When you show resistance this is what happens. The most important thing for me is my family and luckily they are all OK. And after so many obstacles in my life, this is just one more than I will overcome.”
Most visibly, in September, a crew of burglars were caught on video breaking into the London home of Chelsea footballer Reece James and dragging out a safe containing his Euro 2020 runners up medal and Champions league winners medal.
Abroad, Real Madrid player Karim Benzema’s home was robbed, for the third time, in January while he was playing an away game and Benfica defender Nicolas Otamendi was violently attacked in December by masked raiders in front if his wife and children in a £300,000 raid on his Lisbon home.
In March last year Paris St Germain player Angel Di Maria was famously taken off the pitch during PSG’s game against Nantes after it was found his wife and children had been the victims of a violent burglary at their Paris home while he was playing. The robbers made off with £500,000 of items from Di Maria and his wife, who were also raided in Cheshire in 2015 while he played for Manchester United. Not long after the attack Di Maria sold his £4 million home and moved his family into a hotel because of fears it could happen again.
Incredibly, during the same PSG game Di Maria was taken off, another player on his team that day, Marquinhos, was also burgled. The Brazilian’s father was at the family home and was battered around the head before the thieves made off with valuables. In October three men were arrested by police in France on suspicion of the Di Maria burglary, and of robbing the home of another PSG player, Julian Draxler.
The violence committed against footballers and their families is very real, and is escalating. In October a Premier League player, who wishes to remain anonymous, was watching his team-mates play live on TV while his wife was in the bath. The couple were surprised by a gang of masked intruders carrying machetes before being tied up, dragged round the house and robbed.
Everton player Dele Alli had three watches worth a total of £350,000 stolen after being punched and held at knifepoint during a robbery in May 2020. Two months earlier, the wife and two young children of another former Spurs player, Jan Vertonghen, were held at knifepoint by masked burglars while he was playing abroad in the Champions League. In Amsterdam last year, the wife and four young children of PSV Eindhoven striker Eran Zahavi were tied and gagged during a raid on their home.
One senior official at the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) told me that many Premier League footballers are growing increasingly “terrified” of their home and families being attacked and robbed by armed crooks after their valuables.
But what do we know about the people behind these traumatic crimes?
First of all, they don’t often get caught. Most footballer burglaries go unsolved, and many perpetrators go unidentified. This is not about police apathy towards solving house burglaries – because these are high value crimes committed against famous victims. The low clear-up rate is more an indication that these thieves are often experienced hands.
Players’ homes are usually bristling with high tech security systems. On top of the match day home security that can be provided by clubs, CCTV systems and personal security teams, players are now buying highly trained £40,000 guard dogs and £50,000 panic rooms. These homes are not soft touches. Yet the burglaries continue.
Of course there are isolated examples of the odd chancer caught robbing a footballer by covering the place in their fingerprints or forgetting to take home their burglary kit. Abraham Muse, who followed Arsenal player Gabriel home with a baseball bat before trying to steal his car, was a heroin dealer, not a cat burglar.
In reality, most people identified for robbing top footballers’ homes in Europe are professional career burglars – and many of them are members of international gangs dedicated to targeting the continent’s rich celebrities, either by stealth or brutal violence.
In November Scotland Yard launched a manhunt for Alfredo Lindley, an international jewellery thief allegedly from Peru with 14 aliases, nicknamed “Lupin” by detectives after the fictional French gentleman burglar.
Police believe that, charged under the name “Daniel Vukovic’”, he orchestrated a raid on then Chelsea manager Frank Lampard’s west London home in December 2019 – the third time the former England and Chelsea player’s home had been broken into, with previous raids in 2005 and 2008.
The team of four burglars first rang the bell to make sure Lampard and his wife, TV presenter Christine, were out. Then they scaled a trellis at the back of the house, forcing open some balcony doors which led to the master bedroom. Within minutes they scooped up £60,000 of jewellery and watches before vanishing into the night when an alarm went off.
The burglary was one of three the team carried out in west London in a fortnight, including Britain’s biggest ever burglary – a £26 million jewellery and gem raid on heiress Tamara Ecclestone’s Knightsbridge mansion – and a £1 million haul from breaking into the home of the late Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.
Timothy Cray QC told the court these were “organised crimes carried out by organised criminals” who had flown to London specifically for the burglary spree.
Three of the team – Jugoslav Jovanovic, Alessandro Maltese and Alessandro Donati – all Italian nationals, were jailed for a total of 28 years last year.
But their leader, named in court as Daniel Vucovic – now suspected of being a Serbian born master criminal named Ljubomir Radosavlejic who stole the identity of a Peruvian lawyer called Alfredo Lingley – has never been caught, nor have any of the stolen treasures been recovered.
A few weeks after Lampard was burgled in London in December, ex-Manchester United player Tomasz Kuszczak's home was targeted by a team of professional thieves who had flown over from Chile in South America to target a string of homes in the upmarket area of Prestbury and Alderley Edge in Cheshire, north west England.
Kuszczak watched as the raid was streamed live via CCTV to his smartphone, with Jorge Pinto Vallejos and Jamie Duarte Vera removing a 100kg safe containing diamond bracelets and watches worth £80,000. Described by police as “tourism burglars”, the pair who robbed £170,000 from five homes during their fleeting visit to the UK, were jailed in 2020.
In Spain and France, most notably in Barcelona, Madrid and Paris, there has been a string of top players burgled. Like the UK, when they are caught, those responsible tend to be highly organised.
In July last year eight members of a burglary ring led by a man nicknamed ‘The Cat’ for his agility were jailed after the homes of seven celebrities, including then Paris Saint-Germain players Thiago Silva and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, were targeted in 2018. Choupo-Moting, who now plays for Bayern Munich, was relieved of £500,000 of luxury goods while playing a game in the Champions League. Silva, who now plays for Chelsea, had £1 million of watches and jewellery taken.
The court heard the burglary ring, and its attendant money launderers, included some with 30 convictions relating to stolen goods. The crew’s burglary specialists often broke in through windows after climbing up gutters and swinging along cornices.
The gang’s leader, Mohammed S. known as “The Cat”, who was also convicted of possessing a pistol, was jailed for six years. At the home of one female defendant convicted for handling stolen goods, police found a handgun and a list of names and addresses of several other French celebrities due to be robbed in Paris. The gang said they spend the money from selling stolen goods on expensive cars, holidays and nightclubs.
In October 2019 Spanish police and Europol said they had “smashed” an international burglary ring suspected of flying into Spain from abroad to target the homes of La Liga players while they were playing away matches.
Police arrested four men, three Albanians and a Spaniard, in Madrid and Toledo, with Spanish media reporting that the men, described as “individuals specialising in home theft with great skill”, were suspected of robbing two Real Madrid players, Benzema and Casemiro, and Thomas Partey, now an Arsenal player and formerly of Atletico Madrid in 2019, as part of a string of at least 14 suspected burglaries they are alleged to have carried out in just four weeks.
“It is believed that the criminal group monitored the players’ activities through their social media accounts to know when to strike. In some cases, there were family members inside the homes when the criminal group entered,” said Europol. One member of the gang, who all flew back to their home countries shortly after the crime spree, is believed to have been robbing the homes of Spain’s most affluent people since the mid 2000s.
“There is an organised element to these crimes, hence our involvement,” said Superintendent Williams from Operation Opal, who’s unit works with the National Crime Agency and with police forces across Europe.
“A lot of them are sophisticated criminals. Targeting footballers’ homes is a game of high risk, but high reward. We do see criminals from abroad coming to the UK to target high value victims, for example from South America, and we often work with international police forces on this.
“We don’t just look at the burglars, but also those involved in the disposal of high value goods, the need to export them abroad, the businesses that appear legit but are not, and the money laundering that all forms part of that kind of offence.”
Williams said footballers are targeted not just because they are wealthy, but because their lives are so public.
“It’s easy to blame someone for putting a Rolex on social media and say they had it coming. But social media is part of that life, it gives fans an insight into their lives. But unfortunately a byproduct is that this information is available to less scrupulous people. So football players do expose themselves a little bit. Plus we all know when they are away from home, so in terms of burglars doing reconnaissance, it’s far easier with footballers.”
This is the likely reason behind two England players being burgled during the Euros. “The fact that they are footballers meant that it was fully advertised that they would be away from home playing for their country at certain times. This was highlighted to an even greater extent due to the hype that comes with the Euros.”
Why does he think these burglaries continue despite the high level of security? “Even the best security systems aren't foolproof, although the more difficult you can make it the better. Footballers can help themselves by being cautious about how much information they put out on social media.” Williams says so few of these burglars are caught because “these crimes are complex, often there are no immediate outcomes. They involve forensics and a lot of covert work to find individuals. It takes a long time to solve.”
What is surprising is that, with the endless flow of footballers subjected to violent, devastating robberies, some players don’t appear to be that bothered about security.
A security firm director, who wants to remain anonymous because of his sensitive role in the industry, told VICE World News that some players see home security as an afterthought.
“Believe it or not, a lot of footballers will spend £20,000 on a table full of vodka, which they don’t even drink, in a nightclub, but they won’t pay for security for their houses, because there’s nothing tangible in it for them. It stuns me,” said the security expert, whose company looks after three top Premier League players and also some foreign players when they travel to UK games.
“If teams get into the Champions League, criminals know that’s 20 or so players who won't be at home at this date and time. It’s not hard finding out where these footballers live, just look out for the orange Lamborghini and the biggest house on the block. They've got people outside their houses wanting to sign T-shirts all the time. A lot of footballers think they are one of the lads, they don’t need to worry about things like that, but they do.”
He says some security firms don’t do the job properly when they’ve been hired to look after a footballer’s home by the player or by the club. “One player’s house, he’d hired a residential security team, but they didn’t want to get out the car and check the perimeter. They just sat there. What the burglars did was see them sitting out the front, so they just came round the back way and popped the window, got in and ransacked the house.”
He has also heard of inside jobs, where someone close to a football, star sets the job up. “You find in some incidents the burglars know exactly where everything is, they just went straight to the secret place where all the valuable watches were being kept. How did they know? Probably because one of the player’s mates told them.” He says the most security-covered player in the Premier League is Manchester United player Ronaldo.
Because of the increased threat, he said some players now wear fake top-end watches when they go out, and that some of the younger players had started buying apartments in high end housing blocks because they felt safer.
It’s tempting to see these rich footballers being burgled for a £350,000 watch that might cost them a week’s wages as some kind of lesser crime, that they in some way either deserved or should just brush off like a bad offside decision.
But these burglaries are not just about money changing hands. Far from being carried out by some kind of old romantic vision of a gentleman thief in the night, who vanishes away your valuables under your very nose, they are often carried out by ruthless and armed professionals who will do anything to speed off in your Maserati with a pocket full of Richard Milles.