Soccer faces epic fight against match-fixing

Soccer is falling under a cloud of suspicion as never before,
sullied by a multibillion-dollar 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 – or
football, as the sport is called around the world – 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.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a months-long, multiformat
AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through
match-fixing, running over four days this week.

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

Experts interviewed by The Associated Press 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 in an interview with
the AP. ”There’s just more to detect.”

Globalization has propelled the fortunes of popular soccer teams
like Manchester United and showered millions in TV revenue on clubs
that get into tournaments like Europe’s Champions League.

Criminals have realized that 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
organized crime by itself, saying it needs more help from national
law enforcement agencies.

The growing threat has prompted the European Union’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 dollars a
year, and up to 90 percent of that is bet on soccer, Interpol chief
Ronald Noble told the AP in an interview. Eaton, the former FIFA
expert, has cited an estimated $500 billion a year.

The total amount of money generated by sports betting would
equal the gross domestic product of Switzerland, ranked 19th in the
world.

Match-fixing – where the outcome of a game is determined in
advance – is used by gambling rings to make money off bets they
know they will win. Matches also are rigged to propel a team into a
higher-ranking division where it can earn more revenue.

FIFA has estimated that organized crime takes in as much as $15
billion a year by fixing matches. In Italy alone, a recent rigging
scandal is estimated to have produced $2.6 billion for the Camorra
and the Mafia crime syndicates, 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-dollar value of lucrative TV contracts.

FIFA earned $2.4 billion in broadcast sales linked to the 2010
World Cup in South Africa and already has agreed to $2.3 billion in
deals tied to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The U.K.’s Premier
League earned $2.8 billion in broadcast rights for Britain alone in
its last multiyear contract. Membership in Europe’s Champions
League is worth nearly $60 million a year to each team, according
to a lawsuit filed by the Turkish club Fenerbahce.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter has proclaimed ”zero tolerance”
for match-fixing, and FIFA has pledged $27 million to Interpol to
fight it. Computer experts working for FIFA and UEFA – the European
soccer body – monitor more than 31,000 European games and thousands
of international matches every year, trying to sniff out the
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 organized crime, according to a 2012 study on
match-fixing. The report warned 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 dire warnings of
academics and law enforcement officials. UEFA chief Gianni
Infantino said in a statement that, on average, 203 games – 0.7
percent of the matches that UEFA monitors a year – show some signs
of irregularities, ”which does not mean they are fixed.”

”It is a small problem, but it’s like a cancer,” Infantino
said. ”We don’t say 0.7 is nothing. We say 0.7 is 0.7 too much. We
can say generally that UEFA competitions are very healthy in this
respect.”

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. The U.S. has its own
sordid history of gambling scandals, from baseball’s Black Sox in
the 1919 World Series to a handful of point-shaving schemes in
college basketball over the years, to an NBA referee taking money
from a professional gambler for inside tips on basketball games,
including some that he officiated in 2007.

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 U.K.’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 of them for life – on players, officials and
referees from Croatia, Finland, Guatemala, Italy, Nicaragua,
Portugal, South Korea and Turkey.

FIFA bans include some elite figures in the sport. Antonio
Conte, coach of the Italian club Juventus – a team whose winning
tradition rivals that of baseball’s New York Yankees – returned in
December after a four-month ban for failing to report
match-fixing.

Forrest’s report said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on
the U.S., the war on terror relegated the fight against organized
crime to a distinct second place, and that allowed gangs ”to
invest in new areas of the economy with relative impunity for
nearly 10 years.”

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

Criminals have targeted every level of the game: the World Cup,
regional tournaments such as the Champions League, high-powered
divisions like England’s Premier League and Italy’s Serie A,
”friendly” exhibition contests between national teams, all the
way down to semipro games in the soccer wilderness.

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. That’s why fixers don’t try too hard to target
the Super Bowl, he says, because ”the bribes would be so high to
convince the athletes to join.”

World Cup and European qualifiers that face uneven matchups are
key targets because one team may ”have no chance of getting into
the tournament,” Forrest said in an interview.

The same scenario applies to early rounds of major tournaments
or late-season national leagues, where one team is desperately
trying to either win a trophy or avoid being sent down to a lower
league. Those situations propel teams upward into a whole new level
of revenue or send them tumbling off a financial cliff.

Match-fixing has also branched out from traditional hotbeds of
corruption – Asia and the Balkans – to places like Canada, Finland
and Norway, which rank among the least corrupt nations in the
world. Until recently, no one – 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 (bet) serious money. In most
sports, the bet you can make is too small.”

Goalkeeper Richard Kingson of Ghana says he was offered – but
declined – $300,000 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 $516,000 to fix a match in the top league of Serie A;
$155,000 for a fix in the second division and $64,500 for a
third-division fixed match.

In Croatia, court documents show that first-league games in 2010
could be fixed for as little as $25,600.

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
kick.

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.”

An American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks quoted the
U.S. Embassy in Sofia as reporting that ”Bulgarian soccer clubs
are widely believed to be directly or indirectly controlled by
organized crime figures who use their teams as a way to legitimize
themselves, launder money and make a fast buck.”

In 2011, Turkey’s venerable Fenerbahce soccer club won 16 of its
last 17 national league games to stay in the coveted Champions
League – a benefit it estimated as worth $58.5 million a year. In
July 2012, Fenerbahce 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 favor his team.

Yildirim was one of 93 people who went on trial in Turkey last
year for match-fixing – and only 14 of them 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 cooperate because their careers would be jeopardized,”
Dmitrovic told FIFPro, the soccer players’ union.

This ”chairman-to-chairman method” of match-fixing is still
common in Russia, Albania and the Balkan nations, according to
Forrest’s sports corruption 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 2011, China’s main TV network refused to broadcast the
country’s soccer games because match-fixing was so widespread. Last
year, two former heads of China’s soccer federation were sentenced
to 10 1/2 years in prison.

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. On Dec. 15, the South Africa Football Association said
Perumal allegedly used tainted referees to manipulate games for
betting purposes in 2010.

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 halftime 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
the FIFPro union portrayed a region where players often are not
paid for months but instead are intimidated, blackmailed or beaten
up.

Many said they had been approached by match-fixers – an average
of 11.9 percent across the region, with spikes in Greece (30
percent) and Kazakhstan (34 percent). In Russia – host of the 2018
World Cup – about 10 percent of players had been approached to
throw a game.

In four nations – the Czech Republic, Greece, Russia and
Kazakhstan – at least 43 percent of players said they knew about
tainted games in their leagues.

Almost 40 percent 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 organized 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 in an interview.

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

Because scoring in soccer is so low, its referees have an
outsized influence on the game. 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.

FIFA has been trying to improve its referee ranks with more
training and taking proactive measures such as paying referees with
checks instead of cash.

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 also are believed to be at the heart of one or
more games involving South Africa in 2010, with a FIFA report in
December finding ”compelling evidence” of match-fixing.

In 2011, two friendly matches in the Turkish beach resort of
Antalya – one between Bolivia and Latvia, the other between
Bulgaria and Estonia – appeared suspicious when all seven goals
came from penalty kicks awarded by referees. The German magazine
Stern later reported that $6.9 million was wagered on the Bulgarian
game alone.

FIFA banned the six eastern European officials involved in those
games for life.

Officials who govern the sport can’t stop match-fixing by
themselves and need the cooperation of law enforcement bodies and
governments across borders, said Schenk of Transparency
International.

Noble, the Interpol chief, agreed.

”It’s definitely beyond and above the world of sport, above and
beyond FIFA,” he said. ”It’s fair to say we haven’t caught up to
the scale of the problem.”

During the 2010 World Cup, police in China, Hong Kong, Macau,
Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand arrested more than 5,000 people in
Interpol-organized raids on nearly 800 illegal gambling dens.
Interpol organized other raids in 2011 and 2012, but does not make
arrests or conduct national investigations itself.

Schenk and the players’ union say soccer authorities must also
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 organizations’ credibility in the
fight against match-fixing,” Schenk wrote in a commentary.
”Unless sport organizations 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 $261,500 to throw a game and reported it to police,
setting off an investigation that led to scores of arrests. Despite
being honored 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 $26,100 but handed
back all but about $650 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.”

John Leicester in Paris, Graham Dunbar in Geneva, Gerard Imray
in Johannesburg, Mike Corder in Amsterdam and Menelaos Hadjicostis
in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this report.

Norman-Culp is AP’s Assistant Europe Editor in London. Prior to
that, she covered FIFA for AP in Zurich. Follow her at
snormanculp(at)twitter.com