International soccer authorities and law enforcement officials are struggling to combat rampant game fixing by what they describe as sprawling networks of organized crime, a problem that has plagued the sport for decades but appears to have intensified recently.
Game-fixing scandals are engulfing men’s professional leagues around the world, from Turkey, whose top officials are meeting this week to determine whether the coming season will have to be delayed pending an investigation, to South Korea, where dozens of players have been indicted over the past several weeks. Authorities attribute the apparent burst of fixing cases to sophisticated criminal operations based in Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
“Probably 90 percent of the legal and illegal gambling on football around the world takes place in Southeast Asia,” said Chris Eaton, a former Interpol official who for the last year has been head of security for FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. “There they bet on all kinds of matches, particularly European football. So it makes sense that criminal activity would arise there alongside it.”
Concerned about the unyielding waves of allegations, which have prompted questions about the integrity of the sport, FIFA pledged $20 million in May to create a unit within Interpol in Singapore dedicated to rooting out game rigging in Asia.
The investigations, which are not believed to involve women’s soccer, relate to games that were played before FIFA and Interpol announced their arrangement. Among the current cases worldwide:
In Turkey, more than 30 players, coaches and club officials were jailed last week on charges of game fixing, including the presidents of two of the country’s top clubs and a former president of the national soccer federation. A third club announced Thursday that it was returning the Turkish Cup, which it won last season, until its deputy chairman and coach are cleared of charges that they helped fix the tournament final and other games.
In South Korea, 55 professional soccer players have been indicted since June in the biggest game-fixing scandal in the country’s history. Ten players have received lifetime bans, and the South Korean K-League announced last week that it would administer lie-detector tests to players.
In Finland, more than a dozen people, including current players, have been implicated in a widening scandal after a court ruled last year that two Zambian brothers playing for a Finnish club were guilty of accepting 50,000 euros to influence the outcome of a game.
Other investigations are continuing in Hungary, Italy, Germany, El Salvador, Israel, China, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Vietnam and Greece, where the presidents of three top clubs were among 84 people charged with game fixing in recent weeks.
Specific games that have drawn scrutiny include an under-20 matchup between Argentina and Bolivia in December in which the referee, who was from Hungary, extended the game by more than 10 minutes after gamblers had bet heavily that a goal would be scored in the last five minutes, and a Bahrain-Togo game in which the Togo team, a 3-0 loser, was later revealed to be fake.
Eaton said that while game fixers sometimes target a player with gambling debts, most often they put players from poor countries and backgrounds in compromising positions by helping to arrange for them to make their way to professional clubs.
“Then the player is tied,” Eaton said. “We’re often talking about players from very humble backgrounds. They tell them, ‘We can set you up in Europe for a couple years.’ ”
According to the World Lottery Association, an organization of state-authorized lotteries, 90 billion euros are spent each year in legitimate wagers on soccer games. The same group estimates that an additional 90 billion is spent in illegitimate soccer betting. Eaton said Interpol estimates put the figure much higher.
“Fans will no longer go to football matches if they know they are fixed,” FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, said at a news conference in May when the group’s arrangement with Interpol was announced.
The Zimbabwe Football Association released a report last week detailing game fixing from 2007 to 2010. According to a statement from the former national team manager, players on tour in Asia were paid $1,000 per game to lose by prearranged scores.
The mastermind of the game-rigging operation in Finland was Wilson Raj Perumal, a Singaporean convicted of paying 11 players to manipulate the outcome of Finnish league games. Interpol and FIFA officials also contend that he helped assemble the team that was passed off as Togo’s national squad in the September 2010 game at Bahrain, and was involved in Zimbabwe’s tours in 2008 and 2009 to Thailand, Malaysia and Syria.
Ernest (Maphepha) Sibanda, the former Zimbabwe team manager, told Zimbabwe association investigators about an August 2007 tour of Malaysia. He said the team was met at the airport by four men led by a man named Rajah, whom they mistook for security and who stayed at the same hotel as the players.
That night Rajah and his team went to the players’ rooms and “said he was just an agent but he seemed to be more than what he said he was,” Sibanda said.
“We were worried as Rajah was now talking a lot to the players,” he said. “For the first game, players were told instructions by Rajah and, for that, each player was paid U.S. $1,000.” Sibanda said team officials received $1,500 at halftime, and by the end of the tournament, players had received between $5,000 and $6,000 each and officials between $7,000 and $8,000 each.
Elliot Kasu, a member of the Zimbabwe association who helped investigate game fixing there, said the scope of the problem might be too large for the federation to handle.
“We wrote to FIFA,” Kasu said. “We actually told them it is a mammoth task. This is a crime, and we are likely to make a lot of litigation against many individuals, but we might need assistance. At the end of the day it might be a lot for us.”
Eaton said that the pattern of game fixing uncovered in Zimbabwe was not uncommon.
“These are not usually mafia-style criminal outfits, but they are sophisticated and organized,” Eaton said.
Ronald K. Noble, the secretary general of Interpol, said that one reason for the rise in reported game fixing was that soccer authorities and law enforcement officials have become better at detecting when games have been rigged.
“Match fixing has been a cancer within football that is only now being recognized for its deadly consequences to the sport,” Noble said in an e-mail message. “FIFA’s section of Interpol to develop comprehensive global anticorruption and anti-match-fixing training programs will help to kill this cancer before it spreads further.”