Soccer is known throughout much of the world as the beautiful game. But the sport’s ugliest side — the scourge of match-fixing — will not go away.
With next summer’s World Cup in Brazil drawing closer, a European police intelligence agency said Monday that a 19-month investigation revealed widespread occurrences of match-fixing in recent years, with nearly 700 games globally deemed suspicious. The list of matches is staggering and encompasses about 380 games in Europe, covering World Cup and European championship qualifiers, as well as Champions League games, including one match played in England.
Officials of Europol, an agency that works with countries across the continent, offered details that strike at the sport’s core: Nearly $11 million in profits and nearly $3 million in bribes were discovered during the investigation, which uncovered “match-fixing activity on a scale we have not seen before," said Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol.
Fixers typically seek to dictate a game’s result by corrupting the players or the on-field officials, and officials said Monday that roughly 425 people were under suspicion because of the investigation, with 50 people having been arrested. The scope of the investigation covered games from 2008 to 2011.
An organized crime syndicate based in Asia is believed to be the driving force behind the fixing activity, which stretches across at least 15 countries, officials said. Individual bribes were, in some instances, upward of $136,000, and fixers would place bets on the tainted matches through bookmakers in Asia. Various matches in Africa, Asia, South America and Central America were identified as suspicious, though the European element of the investigation is the most significant.
“This is a sad day for European football," Wainwright said at a news conference in the Netherlands, adding: “It is clear to us this is the biggest-ever investigation into suspected match-fixing in Europe. It has yielded major results, which we think have uncovered a big problem for the integrity of football in Europe."
But officials at the news conference repeatedly dodged questions from reporters on how many of the 680 matches cited were previously known and how many were newly discovered.
Nor would they identify any of the teams and individuals newly linked to match-fixing, citing the need to guard the confidentiality of police procedures.
Still, the breadth of the investigation was significant, and it inspired strong reactions from global fans. Even as the news conference continued, fans took to social media to speculate on which matches might have been fixed, with a particular fascination as to what English Champions League contest drew the investigators’ scrutiny. Indeed, the notion that corruption has been identified in British soccer, home of the English Premier League, the world’s most popular grouping, will reverberate globally.
“It would be naive and complacent of those in the U.K. to think such a criminal conspiracy does not involve the English game and all the football in Europe," Wainwright said.
Europol and Interpol officials said an international arrest warrant had been issued for the ringleader of the Asian syndicate so that he can be extradited to Europe to face fraud and bribery charges.
Europol did not publicly identify the ringleader, but several knowledgeable law enforcement officials later said on condition of anonymity that it was a man based in Singapore known as Dan Tan. They said Tan had been implicated in match-fixing cases dating to 1999.
The conclusion of Europol’s investigation comes after a slew of high-profile incidents. Last month Federation International de Football Association (FIFA), the sport’s governing body, barred 41 players for fixing matches in South Korea; in December 2012 the president of the South African Football Association was suspended after FIFA determined that four exhibition matches before the 2010 World Cup had been fixed; and last summer a complex match-fixing network was discovered in Italy, rocking that country’s high-profile professional leagues.
In addition, German prosecutors had previously identified dozens of cases, although it was not clear how many of those, or the ones also previously cited, were included in the tally of 680.
The country with the most cases identified by Europol was Turkey, with 79; Germany was next, with 70, followed by Switzerland, with 41. Cases were also cited in Belgium, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Canada.
To rig the matches, officials said, the criminals operated a sophisticated organization, employing some people to deal with players and referees, others to handle money and place bets, others to carry out money laundering, on up to a strategic command at the top.
Declan Hill, a Canadian journalist and the author of “The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime," cautioned too that North American fans of the game should not assume match-fixing is a problem only overseas. There have been instances of match-fixing in a lower-level league in Canada, and Hill said his reporting has indicated that several players in Major League Soccer have been approached by gamblers in recent years.
According to Hill, there have been no instances of fixed games in MLS, though there have been reported incidents in the Concacaf Champions League, a regional tournament in which MLS teams participate. There have also been instances of MLS players giving gamblers information that could affect a game’s outcome, like an unreported injury to a key player, Hill said.
Dan Courtemanche, a spokesman for MLS, said that last year the league enrolled in an early warning system that monitors betting worldwide for indicators of potential match-fixing and that this year the league is instituting rules that ban the use of cellphones and electronic communication from the locker room beginning an hour before kickoff of games.
“While we have faith in the integrity of those associated with MLS, we will not ignore what has already transpired around the world," Courtemanche said. “We are not so naive as to think we are immune."