A wide-ranging match-fixing investigation has uncovered 680 suspicious football matches around the world and found evidence that a Singapore-based crime group is closely involved in illegal betting and corruption of players and officials.
The probe by Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, found 41 suspicious matches in Switzerland, making it the third-most affected country in Europe behind Germany (79) and Turkey (70).
Europol found a total of 380 suspicious matches in Europe and another 300 questionable games outside the continent, mainly in Africa, Asia, South and Central America. All matches – which include World Cup and European Championship qualifiers and two Champions League games – took place between 2008 and 2011.
“This is a sad day for European football,” Rob Wainwright, head of Europol, said at a news conference on Monday. He said the investigation uncovered “match-fixing activity on a scale we have not seen before”.
Ottmar Hitzfeld, trainer of the Swiss national team, talked of a potential catastrophe for football. “If solid facts come out, we obviously have to crack down hard.”
Europol declined to name suspects, players, clubs or officials involved so as not to prejudice ongoing investigations, and it was unclear exactly how many of the matches mentioned were previously known to have been tainted. Still, the very announcement shed light on a murky underworld of match-fixers and illegal betting spanning the globe.
The investigation uncovered €8 million (SFr9.85 million) in betting profits and €2 million in bribes to players and officials and has already led to several prosecutions.
“Concerted effort” needed
Wainwright said a Singapore-based criminal network was involved in the match fixing, spending up to €100,000 a match to bribe players and officials.
He said while many fixed matches were already known, the Europol investigation lifted the lid on the widespread involvement or organised crime in rigging games.
“This is the first time we have established substantial evidence that organised crime is now operating in the world of football,” he said, adding that a “concerted effort” across the football world was needed to tackle the corruption.
The global nature of the organised crime syndicates involved makes them hard to track down and prosecute. Europol said a single fixed match can involve up to 50 suspects in ten different countries.
Mark Pieth, the Swiss law professor charged with curbing corruption at FIFA, world football’s governing body, told Swiss media on Tuesday he wasn’t surprised by the latest news but said the “dimensions were distressing”.
“Action must now finally be taken against these machinations,” he said. “There should be a systematic monitoring of all bets – for example, with software that can recognise unusual bets, like with insider trading on the stock market.”
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 paid per match,” Friedhelm Althans, chief investigator for police in the German city of Bochum, told a news conference.
Concerning Switzerland, Althans said there had been suspicions about 31 games for years, but now Europol was talking about 41 manipulated games. Which teams are involved is not known.
Peter Gilliéron, president of the Swiss Football Association (SFA), said the organisation’s supervisory bodies would immediately get to work as soon as facts and further evidence came to light.
He pointed out that since the most recent rigging accusations in the Swiss Challenge League – three players were acquitted in November – the SFA had been part of a supervisory system belonging to UEFA, European football’s governing body.