The Soiling of the Beautiful Game: On the trail of the match-fixing epidemic
Wilson Raj Perumal had numbers on his phone for contacts in 34 countries when he was arrested at Helsinki Vantaa airport trying to leave Finland on a forged passport. He was on Facebook, Twitter and Linked In, promoting a business he called Football4U. But investigators say that was a front for his real job, which was fixing football matches, from low-level and semi-professional contests up to the most elite divisions, all over the world.
He was also on the run, having fled Singapore the year before rather than serve a five-year sentence for injuring a police officer. According to Chris Eaton, who was head of security for FIFA at the time of his arrest, he was also gambling heavily and in debt and pocketing money he was getting from his investors to fix games. Eaton believes he had become a liability to his confederates and their alleged leader, a 48-year-old Singaporean named Tan Seet Eng, or Dan Tan, as he is known.
“He’d be in prison for five years, and perhaps he wouldn’t come out of that prison,” Eaton told The Associated Press. “He has realized that his only way forward is to become an informant and to cooperate.”
So he has, blowing the cover off a global conspiracy financed and led from Singapore that makes untold millions every year betting on scores of rigged football contests.
Spurred into action by Perumal’s revelations, in July 2011, Europol launched an investigation in conjunction with Europol and police in 13 EU countries. Last month, the agency called a press conference at its headquarters in The Hague to announce its findings: 680 “suspicious” games worldwide dating back to 2008, 380 of them in Europe, including World Cup and European Championship qualification matches, two UEFA Champions League matches and matches in several top intrastate leagues. More than 400 players, referees, club officials and “serious criminals” were involved. Europol Director Rob Wainwright called corruption “on a scale and in a way that threatens the very fabric of the game”.
Last year, 51 players, officials and coaches were banned by FIFA, 22 for life. So far this year, 74 people associated with football in Italy and South Korea— players, referees, team officials—have been banished.
“Football,” says Eaton, “is in a disastrous state.”
Four-time World Cup champions Italy have been so mired in scandals that outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti has gone as far as to recommend shutting down the professional game for two to three years to clean it up. This season alone, 13 clubs in the top two divisions have been punished in the standings with points deductions. And Italy’s betting industry is considered one of the best-regulated in Europe. The problem is that licensed bookmakers comprise only 30 percent of it. The lion’s share of the action is funneled through unregulated Internet black markets, most of them operating out of Asia. In South Korea, where only one bookmaker, Sports Toto, is licensed to accept bets, something like 1,000 illegal Web sites do a flourishing trade, according to the Korean Institute of Criminology. South Korean police estimate its value at 3.5 trillion won annually (US$3.1 billion).
“The organised criminal group behind most of these activities has been betting primarily on the Asian market,” Europol said in the statement it issued from The Hague. “The ringleaders are of Asian origin, working closely together with European facilitators.” Its investigation tied at least 150 cases directly to fixers in Singapore, to operatives with the kind of backing that enabled them to spread bribes of up of €100,000 per match.
Italy has no extradition treaty with Singapore, however, and relations between the two on the match-fixing issue “have not been great,” according to the lead prosecutor on the Italian side. But under mounting international pressure, authorities in the city-state finally acted earlier this year. They announced they were sending four senior police officers to Europe to join Interpol’s Global Anti-Match-Fixing Task Force. To further show their good will they offered up a European, a former Slovenian player named Admir Suljic, a suspected member of the “Zingari” and a fugitive in the aftermath of Perumal’s arrest. He was arrested on his arrival in Milan on 21 February on a one-way ticket from Singapore. He is charged in an Interpol warrant with “sporting fraud committed by a criminal association”.
The problem prosecutors face is that Internet betting is simply too big (“bigger than Coca-Cola” is how Chis Eaton describes it), too vast in its global reach, the technological opportunities for subverting it too tempting to resist and extremely difficult to track. Global Betting and Gaming Consultants estimates online sports betting is somewhere around a US$350 – US$ 400 billion industry by turnover (US$20 billion by gross win), and FIFA says football comprises 90 percent of it, its popularity solidified by the phenomenon of real-time betting “in running” or “in play,” which is “particularly advantageous for criminals,” according to a 2012 report by Britain’s University of Salford, and especially popular in Asia, where most internet gambling takes place.
Which only magnifies the problem because few Asian markets are regulated with any stringency, and many not at all. The result is a frustrating dearth of transparency. Vital data—on who is betting and where and on what and how much—is simply not available.
“It’s made for corruption,” said economist David Forrest, author of the Salford report.
An Interpol-led crackdown launched during the 2010 World Cup resulted in more than 5,000 arrests in some 800 illegal gambling dens in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
“This is a global economy, a growing global economy,” Eaton has said, “and it needs to be regulated and supervised.”
The Philippines is of major concern because it is home to Asia’s largest known bookmakers, but regulation there is lax. Operators are under no obligation to file accounts or to share information with sports organizations and investigators or ensure that proper know-your-customer systems are in place and maintained. Eaton calls it a “gray-area betting business” where “it’s almost impossible to measure how they do business and what weaknesses they have that allow organised crime to take advantage of this.” It was to the Philippines that Vietnamese authorities traced a gambling ring they busted in January that was moving millions out of their country on a daily basis. One seized account contained the equivalent of about US$470 million. China, where Perumal said his syndicate places most of its bets, is another black hole. The country’s Super League has become a byword for corruption. Match fixing is so widespread the country’s largest television network has in the past refused to broadcast its games.
“It’s definitely beyond and above the world of sport, above and beyond FIFA,” says Interpol’s Ron Noble. “It’s fair to say we haven’t caught up to the scale of the problem.”
As for the elusive Dan Tan, he “is currently assisting Singapore authorities in their investigations,” according to a statement issued by police there. He remains a free man, and to date, the city-state’s powers have not been inclined to interfere with that. Italian authorities say if they can’t get their hands on him they may try him in absentia. Of what value this would be beyond the “symbolic importance” attributed to it by FIFA’s current head of security, Ralf Mutschke, is impossible to say.
“If we kill Dan Tan then you will have no match-fixing?” he told AP. “No, I think it’s not as easy as this.”