The Hague: Hundreds of soccer matches at club and national team level have been fixed in a global betting scam run from Singapore, police said on Monday, in a blow to the image of the world’s most popular sport and a multi-billion dollar industry.
Six hundred and eighty suspicious matches including qualifying games for the World Cup and European Championships, and the Champions League for top European club sides, have been identified in an inquiry by European police force Europol, the European anti-crime agency, and national prosecutors.
“This is a sad day for European football,” said Rob Wainwright, director of Europol. “This is now an integrity issue for football. Those responsible for running the games should hear the warnings.”
The world’s most popular sport, soccer is played on every continent. Major international tournaments such as the World Cup are watched worldwide and generate billions of dollars for clubs and broadcasters. Top players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are household names.
The matches in question, some of which have already been subject to successful criminal prosecutions, were played between 2008 and 2011, the investigators said. About 380 of the suspicious matches were played in Europe, and a further 300 were identified in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Criminal gangs are believed to be involved in match-fixing networks, using them as a way to launder cash, officials said. Last year the head of an anti-corruption watchdog estimated that $1 trillion was gambled on sport each year — or $3 billion a day — with most coming from Asia and put on soccer matches.
A German investigator described a network involving couriers ferrying bribes around the world, paying off players and referees in the fixing which involved about 425 corrupt officials, players and serious criminals in 15 countries.
“We have evidence for 150 of these cases, and the operations were run out of Singapore with bribes of up to 100,000 euros paid per match,” said Friedhelm Althans, chief investigator for police in the German city of Bochum.
German investigators said international matches were implicated as were games in Turkey, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, Bosnia, Slovenia and Canada. Suspicious games had also been identified in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Investigators said no names of players or clubs would be released while the investigation proceeded. However, the fixing also included top flight national league matches in several European countries, as well as two Champions League matches, including one played in Britain.
Uefa, European soccer’s governing body, said it expected to receive further information from Europol in the coming days.
“As part of the fight against the manipulation of matches, Uefa is already co-operating with the authorities on these serious matters as part of its zero tolerance policy towards match-fixing in our sport,” it added.
Soccer has been affected by bribery scandals in the past, with the English game suffering in the 1960s and Italian soccer hit by a series of fixing cases in recent years.
The growth of televised sport and technology that allows gamblers to bet during a match have created fresh opportunities for fraudsters with links to organised crime.
Corruption goes beyond soccer. Three Pakistani Test cricketers were jailed in Britain in 2011 for their part in a scam where players agree to rig a specific part of a game, so-called “spot-fixing”.
Singapore police said last month that they were helping Italian authorities to investigate alleged match-fixing involving a Singaporean, but said he had not been arrested or charged with any offence there.
Althans said that, though German police had concrete proof of $11 million in gambling profits from the match-fixing, this was probably the tip of the iceberg.
Investigators described how gang members immediately subordinate to the Singapore-based leader of a worldwide network were each tasked with maintaining contacts with corrupt players and officials in their parts of the world.
Laszlo Angeli, a Hungarian prosecutor, gave an example of how the scam worked. “The Hungarian member, who was immediately below the Singapore head, was in touch with Hungarian referees who could then attempt to swing matches at which they officiated around the world,” he said.
Accomplices would then place bets on the Internet or by phone with bookmakers in Asia, where bets that would be illegal in Europe were accepted. “One fixed match might involve up to 50 suspects in 10 countries on separate continents,” said Althans. “Even two World Cup qualification matches in Africa, and one in Central America, are under suspicion,” Althans added.
World soccer’s governing body Fifa issued a statement pointing to quotes from its Director of Security, Ralf Mutschke, before a match-fixing conference in Rome last month.
“World Cup qualifying matches are tough to fix as a general rule, since the World Cup is the biggest event for teams and above all players,” he said. “We’re obviously still keeping a very close eye on the matches, but as yet there have been no suspicions of fixing.”
However, Theo van Seggelen, head of international players’ union FIFPro, said authorities were failing to tackle the problem properly. “Professional football needs not one but maybe 10 wake-up calls,” he said, calling for tighter controls on the works of soccer agents and on player ownership.
Last year Chris Eaton, who is director of Sport Integrity at the International Centre for Sport Security, a Qatari-backed anti-corruption watchdog, gave the $1 trillion estimate for global sports gambling.
“Around 80 percent of that money is gambled on football and most of that money is either in or to southeast Asia,” said Eaton, a former head of security at Fifa, world soccer’s governing body.