One night last August, one of the sons of the journalist Luis del Olmo went to the offices of the soccer magazine Don Balón in Barcelona. With him was the son of the editor of the magazine, Rogelio Rengel Mercadé. The two men gained access to the building and climbed to the first floor. Rengel’s office door was locked and when his unsolicited visitors managed to enter they saw the 71-year-old sitting at his desk, next to a bottle of whisky, a box of valium and a few farewell letters. Rengel told them he had taken some pills — he could think of no other way out of the position in which he found himself. For several years, he had been defrauding friends, family and neighbors to keep Don Balón, his dream and his life since he bought it in 1979, afloat.
That, at least, was the version of the story told to the police after his arrest. Rengel recounted to the investigators how he had consistently managed to keep his project on its feet. It was not a particularly complicated scheme: he had systematically stolen money from people whose accounts he had been entrusted with, including Del Olmo and even Rengel’s own son, a soccer agent for the likes of David Silva and Santi Cazorla. In the case of Del Olmo, he had been cooking the books for five years. He had left the coffers of the journalist’s family bare. Rengel also dipped into Del Olmo’s son’s business. In all, he says he stole just over three million euros. Investigators believe the amount could be more than seven million.
Charged with document fraud and embezzlement, there is as yet no indication that Rengel profited personally. His Swiss bank account is empty. However, neither did his subterfuge save Don Balón from extinction. A week after his arrest, the magazine ceased publication after 36 years, leaving 20 people out of a job. Rogelio Rengel Jr. broke the news and admitted that his father had robbed the family and left them ruined. Rengel also found himself in the street — his wife threw him out.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you,” Rengel said when contacted by EL PAÍS. “The matter is in the hands of my lawyers and I will not be making any statements on the subject.”
Del Olmo gave an almost identical response: “I’m sorry, but I’ve already spoken on the subject and my lawyers don’t want me to say anything else. The trial will not take place for three months or more.” What Del Olmo has made clear during television interviews is that Rengel is, in his words, “a son of a bitch” who has stolen the savings the radio presenter had accrued during a lifetime of broadcasting. “He had our trust, our friendship… he had the keys to my house. I don’t have two pennies to rub together.”
Investigators believe Rengel may have stolen more than seven million euros
The details of the investigation and statements from employees reveal that Rengel would stop at nothing to keep Don Balón afloat. The Barcelona press community said that Don Balón had always lived beyond its means: “It was like the miracle of the loaves and the fish. Parties at the Ritz, everybody invited… they brought Maradona over and paid for everything. It would have been too much for a publication with a print run of 10,000 copies,” says a veteran journalist. Others say that Rengel bought up all the copies of the magazine that were sold in shops. Everything he did was designed to maintain his status as a businessman with contacts and influence.
In 2010, Rengel was given the job of handing the Ballon d’Or to Leo Messi. “That was what he really enjoyed. Having his photo taken with people at Uefa and having social influence,” says a former employee, who marveled that the magazine always appeared to be profitable. “It wasn’t, that much is obvious. But I am also surprised that Rengel was capable of robbing someone. If you talk numbers with him, he starts doing sums on a piece of paper — but he always gets his multiplications wrong.”
Don Balón’s former employees have taken their case to the courts, claiming unfair dismissal. They all concur that Rengel is not a bad person, just a man stuck in a bygone era, unable to make his magazine competitive among the Spanish sports press. His workers say that he was always affable, and even offered to pay their salaries out of his own pocket when the magazine’s financial woes caused delays to wage payments.
For many people connected with the case, Rengel’s explanations to the police fall short of complete closure. Sources close to the Del Olmo family believe the actual sum Rengel purloined could be as much as 12 million euros: did he genuinely pump that amount exclusively into Don Balón? Rumors are rife that Rengel was involved in failed property investments and foreign editorial projects. The investigation, however, is satisfied that Rengel did indeed pour all of the money into Don Balón to cover the innumerable expenses racked up over the years.
Rengel would stop at nothing to keep ‘Don Balón’ afloat, say his employees
It was Rengel’s son, Amadeo, who discovered the hole in the books of the soccer agency over which his father had complete financial control. When confronted with the figures, Rengel confessed everything and his family broke the news to Del Olmo.
“They sold me the idea that I had been defrauded, but I don’t know whether or not to believe it. I didn’t know if they were telling me a pack of lies,” Del Olmo told El Periodico de Catalunya.