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Scourge of match-rigging hits Europe's elite for first time

Asian betting rings target young players around world, writes Robin Scott-Elliot

Not long after 6am yesterday two blue-and-white police cars drove through the gates of Coverciano, Italy's well-appointed national training centre near Florence. It was the moment a match-fixing scandal that has linked far-flung corners of the global game touched the European game's elite.

Simultaneously Antonio Conte, fresh from steering Juventus to the scudetto in his first season in charge, was being informed he was under investigation in the same inquiry. His home in Turin was searched. In Rome, the early-morning operation saw detectives arrest Stefano Mauri, captain of Lazio.

Fixing matches is almost as old as the game itself but yesterday's dramatic developments are striking. This is an entirely different operation from the one that saw Juventus stripped of their Serie A crown in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal of 2006. That was an Italian affair, centred around an attempt to ease the Old Lady's path to the title. This is international, but centred around south-east Asia, and is about, simply, money – fixing matches or moments in matches to win millions. .

"A can of worms" is how one betting industry expert familiar with the on-going investigation by Italian police put it. Operation Last Bet, into 33 matches over the past two years largely involving Serie B games, has already seen Cristiano Doni, the former Italy striker, imprisoned and Beppe Signori, a Lazio great, arrested and banned for five years. The level of painstaking detail in this sprawling inquiry – 22 clubs and 61 individuals have so far been named by the Italian football authorities in connection with the affair – has impressed sources.

But this is not just an Italian problem. The man on the top of the Italian police's wanted list is a Singaporean, Tan Seet Eng, also known as Dan. He is believed to be at the heart of a match-fixing ring run by south-east Asian crime syndicates that has targeted matches at club and international level from Finland and the Baltic nations to Africa, China and South America. It is a global market estimated by Interpol to be worth some $90bn (£58bn) a year.

Dan is part of a sophisticated network that targets players from an early age – large sums of money are spent effectively grooming players who are then expected to deliver when they reach first-team level. It can start, according to a source, as early as under-16 level when players are "adopted" and given "tips" – €100 here, €100 there – for scoring or winning matches. That develops as the players climb towards the higher level, through "nights out and girls" as the fixers build relationships. And in due course they demand something for their outlay.

"It may cost millions to fix a game but that is more than offset by the payback," said the source. "We're talking the chance to make many millions."

The process of slow corruption was much how Wilson Raj Perumal worked – he first helped players from Africa find clubs in Europe. Perumal now sits in a Finnish prison, serving a two-year sentence having been convicted last year of fixing games in the country's domestic league.

Perumal is supposed to have been one of Dan's fixers but the pair fell out. His conviction was a rare win for those seeking to check the poisonous advance of fixing.

"There are a lot of people who are prepared to betray their sport," said Doni after admitting his involvement last year. "An omerta [code of silence] is destroying Italian football and we have to blow that wide open. We must have the courage to say how rotten football is."