Soccer: The beautiful game or just the dirty game?

A Europol report last week claimed that 380 soccer games in Europe and 680 worldwide were ‘suspicious’. Match-fixing has tainted the world’s most popular sport, drawn in major crime gangs, and ruined players’ lives, writes Sheila Norman-Culp

Soccer: The beautiful game or just the dirty game?

SOCCER is falling under a cloud of suspicion as never before, sullied by a multibillion-euro web of match-fixing that is corrupting increasingly larger parts of the world’s most popular sport.

Internet betting, emboldened criminal gangs, and even the economic downturn have created conditions that make soccer a lucrative target.

Known as “the beautiful game” for its grace, athleticism, and traditions of fair play, soccer is under threat of becoming a dirty game.

“Football is in a disastrous state,” said Chris Eaton, director of sport integrity at the International Centre for Sport Security. “Fixing of matches for criminal gambling fraud purposes is absolutely endemic worldwide... arrogantly happening daily.”

At least 50 nations in 2012 had match-fixing investigations — almost a quarter of the 209 members of Fifa, soccer’s governing body — involving hundreds of people.

Europol, the EU’s police body, announced last week that it had found 680 “suspicious” games worldwide since 2008, including 380 in Europe.

Experts believe that figure may be low. Sportradar, a company in London that monitors global sports betting, estimates that about 300 soccer games a year in Europe alone could be rigged.

“We do not detect it better,” Eaton said. “There’s just more to detect.”

Globalisation has propelled the fortunes of the likes of Manchester United and showered millions in TV revenue on clubs that get into tournaments such as the Champions League.

Criminals have realised it can be vastly easier to shift gambling profits across borders than it is to move contraband. “These are real criminals — Italian mafia, Chinese gangs, Russian mafia,” said Sylvia Schenk, a sports expert with corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Ralf Mutschke, Fifa’s security chief, admits that soccer officials had underestimated the scope of match-fixing. He told the AP that “realistically, there is no way” Fifa can tackle organised crime by itself, saying it needs more help from national law enforcement agencies.

The growing threat has prompted the EU’s 27 nations to unite against match-fixing. “The scale is such that no country can deal with the problem on its own,” said EU Sport Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.

Gambling on sports generates hundreds of billions of euro a year, and up to 90% of that is bet on soccer, Interpol chief Ronald Noble said. Eaton, the former Fifa expert, has cited an estimated €370bn a year.

Fifa has estimated that organised crime takes in as much as €11bn a year by fixing matches. In Italy alone, a recent rigging scandal is estimated to have produced €1.9bn for the Camorra and the Mafia, Eaton said.

Soccer officials are well aware that repeated match-fixing will undermine the integrity of their sport, driving away sponsors and reducing the billion-euro value of TV contracts.

Fifa earned €1.7bn in broadcast sales linked to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and has already agreed to €1.6bn in deals tied to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The Premier League earned €2.3bn in broadcast rights for Britain alone in its last multi-year contract. Membership in the Champions League is worth nearly €45m a year to each team, according to a lawsuit filed by the Turkish club Fenerbahçe.

Fifa president Sepp Blatter has proclaimed “zero tolerance” for match-fixing, and FIFA has pledged €20m to Interpol to fight it. Computer experts working for Fifa and Uefa monitor more than 31,000 European games and thousands of international matches every year, trying to sniff out betting spikes that can reveal corruption.

So far, however, sports authorities are “proving to be particularly helpless in the face of the transnational resources” available to organised crime, according to a 2012 study on match-fixing. The report warns that the risk of soccer “falling into decay in the face of repeated scandals is genuine and must not be underestimated”.

Some top soccer officials shy away from the warnings of academics and law enforcement officials. Uefa chief Gianni Infantino said that, on average, 203 games — 0.7% of the matches that Uefa monitors a year — show some signs of irregularities, “which does not mean they are fixed”.

Match-fixing has been around for decades, of course, and is not limited to soccer. It has also infected sports like cricket, tennis, horse racing, and even volleyball.

Still, nothing approaches the scale of the match-fixing allegations now hitting soccer, because of the sheer number of games played and the enormous Asian betting interest in European games, according to David Forrest, an economist at the UK’s University of Salford Business School, one of the co-authors of the 2012 report.

In January alone, Fifa banned 41 players in South Korea from soccer for life due to match-fixing. That follows 51 worldwide bans last year — 22 for life — on players, officials, and referees from Croatia, Finland, Guatemala, Italy, Nicaragua, Portugal, South Korea, and Turkey.

Fifa bans include some elite figures. Antonio Conte, coach of the Italian club Juventus returned in December after a four-month ban for failing to report match-fixing.

Eaton attributes the surge in match-fixing to an exponential rise in online gambling — “at least 500%, and likely far more” — in the last decade.

Criminals have targeted every level of the game: the World Cup, the Champions League, high-powered divisions like the Premier League and Italy’s Serie A, friendlies between national teams, all the way down to semi-pro games.

Criminals are always trying to find the sweet spot between how poorly the players are paid and how much bettors want to wager on a game, Forrest said.

World Cup and European qualifiers that face uneven match-ups are key targets because one team may “have no chance of getting into the tournament”, Forrest said.

Match-fixing has also branched out from traditional hotbeds of corruption — Asia and the Balkans — to places such as Canada, Finland, and Norway, which rank among the least corrupt nations in the world. Until recently, nobody — including sports regulators — thought to look for corruption in lower-level leagues. Still, given the vast amount of soccer betting, there’s plenty of money to be made.

“It’s liquidity of the markets,” Forrest said. “You can make serious money only if you can put on serious money. In most sports, the bet you can make is too small.”

Goalkeeper Richard Kingson of Ghana says he was offered — but declined — €220,000 to lose a game to the Czech Republic at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

But prices have gone up. Italy’s Calciopoli investigation found it cost up to €380,000 to fix a match in the top league of Serie A; €115,000 for a fix in the second division; and €47,500 for a third-division fixed match.

In Croatia, court documents show that first-league games in 2010 could be fixed for as little as €19,500.

There is also a shift in the traditional match-fixing scenario in which players are paid to lose or referees are paid to make sure one team wins. With the rise of online spot betting — wagers made during the game — criminal gangs can predetermine not only the outcome of the match but also make money on bets like how many goals are scored, when they are scored, or who will take a penalty.

These live bets can “be particularly advantageous for criminals”, according to Forrest’s report, because they increase the number of wagers placed on the same fixed game.

As former Balkan warlords and Chinese businessmen have discovered, owning a club means players don’t need to be paid extra to fix matches; they can just be ordered to lose. Corrupt team officials have also dangled career advancement instead of money before vulnerable young players.

“There is an increasing worry about gangs taking over football clubs as a way to further match-fixing... and then they could also use the club to launder money,” Forrest said. “It’s quite cheap to buy a football club because so many of them are failing.”

IN 2011, Turkey’s Fenerbahçe won 16 of their last 17 league games to stay in the Champions League.

In Jul 2012, club president Aziz Yildirim was convicted of fixing four of those games and bribing to influence the outcome of three others. He did it by promising rival players a roster spot or arranging for referees who would favour his team.

Yildirim was one of 93 people who went on trial in Turkey last year for match-fixing — only 14 were players.

Serbian player Boban Dmitrovic says he saw many instances in his home country where two clubs simply agreed on the outcome in advance.

“Right before the match, a note was handed to the players. They had to co-operate because their careers would be jeopardised,” Dmitrovic told FifPro, the players’ union.

This “chairman-to-chairman method” of match-fixing is still common in Russia, Albania, and Balkan nations, according to Forrest’s report.

The vast majority of the world’s wagering originates in Asia, according to Forrest, but its own bettors shun that continent’s games for those in Europe because Asian soccer has been so corrupt for years.

In Finland, eight African players with ties to a Singapore crime gang were banned in 2012 for match-fixing. Their handler, Wilson Raj Perumal, was convicted of fixing games in Finland and is being investigated for allegedly fixing other matches in Europe and Africa.

Experts say a typical scenario can go like this: bookies set the odds for a game, not knowing it has been fixed. Right before the game starts, gangs unleash a torrent of bets, sometimes employing hundreds of poor workers on laptops. The wave hides the mastermind of the bet. If there is live wagering — on what the score will be at half-time or other topics — several bets can be made on the same fixed game. Ninety or so minutes later, the bettors hand over their winnings to the boss.

In the past, the perception was that greedy players were behind match-fixing. Yet a study of eastern Europe released last year by FifPro portrayed a region where players often are not paid for months but instead are intimidated, blackmailed, or beaten up.

Many say they had been approached by match-fixers — an average of 11.9% across the region, with spikes in Greece (30%) and Kazakhstan (34%). In Russia about 10% of players had been approached to throw a game. In four nations — the Czech Republic, Greece, Russia, and Kazakhstan — at least 43% of players said they knew about tainted games in their leagues. Almost 40% of the eastern European players who reported being asked to fix a game also said they had been victims of violence.

Zimbabwe’s national team players were threatened at gunpoint in the dressing room and ordered to lose matches by their own soccer officials in 2009, the country’s new federation chief, Jonathan Mashingaidze, said in an interview in December.

Sometimes the threat comes from a teammate. In Italy, a goalkeeper under heavy pressure from organised crime to fix a game in 2010 resorted to drugging several of his teammates so they would play badly. They did — and one even crashed his car after the match, prompting a police investigation that uncovered the fix.

Former player Mario Cizmek of Croatia says he agreed to fix one match in 2011 after he and his teammates had not been paid by his club for more than a year. That led to repeated demands by the fixer, a well-known former coach who used to drink at the same bar as Cizmek’s team. It was a classic case of a trusted acquaintance approaching a player to throw a match — a method that Forrest’s report says is used often.

“As a sportsman, I know I destroyed everything, but at the time I was only thinking about my family and setting things right,” Cizmek said.

Now broke, unemployed, and divorced, Cizmek has been sentenced to 10 months in jail by a Zagreb court.

In a Jan 22 memo, Fifa urged its members to demand that referees tell soccer authorities immediately about “any suspicious situations, contact or information”. “Our global experience is that referees and assistant referees are the primary target of match-fixers,” the memo said.

Dmitrovic said when fixed games in Serbia were not going according to plan, corrupt referees would step in with questionable calls to “achieve the desired result”. “The referees always knew what was going on,” he said.

Tainted referees are also believed to be at the heart of one or more games involving South Africa in 2010.

In 2011, two friendly matches in the Turkish resort of Antalya — one between Bolivia and Latvia, the other between Bulgaria and Estonia — appeared suspicious when all seven goals came from penalties awarded by referees. The German magazine Stern later reported that €5.1m was wagered on the Bulgarian game alone. Fifa banned the six eastern European officials involved in those games for life.

During the 2010 World Cup, police in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand arrested more than 5,000 people in Interpol-organised raids on nearly 800 illegal gambling dens.

Schenk and the players’ union say soccer authorities must make sure their own ranks are free of corruption. One World Cup ticket scandal was linked to the family of a senior Fifa vice-president while the former head of Zimbabwe’s soccer federation is accused in a corruption scam.

“There is a strong link between good governance in the bodies that run sports and the sport organisations’ credibility in the fight against match-fixing,” Sylvia Schenk of Transparency International wrote. “Unless sport organisations are accountable and transparent, they will not have the authority to tackle the problem.”

Both Schenk and Fifa chief Blatter say whistleblowers must also be protected better. In 2011, Italian defender Simone Farina turned down a fixer’s offer of €195,000 to throw a game and reported it to police, setting off an investigation that led to scores of arrests. Despite being honoured by Fifa, he found himself shunned by many in Italy who considered him a snitch.

“I said no because my immediate thoughts were of my wife, son and daughter,” Farina said. “How could I look them in the eye if I said yes? What kind of husband and father would I be?”

Cizmek — the Croatian player who said he took €19,000 but handed back all but about €480 to police — says his scars from match-fixing will last a lifetime.

“This turned my life upside down,” he said. “I should have just taken my football shoes and hung them on the wall and said ‘Thank you, guys’ and gone on to do something else.”

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