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Dan Tan: the man who fixed football

This man is alleged to have masterminded a global match-fixing syndicate which has bribed players and officials involved in hundreds of matches in several countries. Andrew Buncombe reports from Singapore on a growing international scandal

The security guard glanced once, twice, at the photograph of the chubby-faced man with thick brown hair parted down the middle. “No,” he said unconvincingly. “I’ve not seen him. Not now, not last year.”

The man in the picture had long gone. But at least until the autumn of last year, this cream-coloured, 15-storey apartment block in the east of Singapore, with its lush foliage and electronically controlled gates, had been home to him, his wife and their young son. Since he moved out, details of his whereabouts have been restricted to just a handful of people, including, apparently, the Singapore police.

He is Dan Tan Seet Eng, better known simply as Dan Tan, and investigators in Europe have accused of him of being at the centre of a sprawling network of football match-fixers that rigged hundreds of games in a number of countries. How many millions of pounds were involved remains unclear, but earlier this year police said they had evidence that networks based in the city state of Singapore had rigged, or tried to rig, at least 680 local, national and international matches by bribing referees, officials and players.

Earlier this month the German news magazine Der Spiegel published what it said was an email interview with Dan Tan in which he admitted fixing a match in September 2001 between Barcelona and Fenerbahçe in Istanbul by ordering four technicians in his pay to turn off the floodlights once the game reached 3-0. Unfortunately for him, the lights came back on with the aid of an emergency generator. “That’s how I lost $3m [£1.9m],” he said.

Along with the sheer jaw-dropping scale of match-fixing revealed by the European investigators, the case of Dan Tan has raised difficult questions for the authorities in Singapore. Given the claims, why was a country famed for its anti-corruption measures not acting?

Declan Hill, the author of The Fix, which examined match-fixing in Singapore and Malaysia, said: “This is revealing the seamy underside of Singapore. These match-fixers are completely protected.”

For months the Singapore authorities said nothing. They told local journalists they had insufficient evidence to act. Then in late February, they apparently questioned Dan Tan and a handful of other men named in European documents. They also dispatched four detectives to Interpol headquarters in Lyon to examine the evidence amassed by European investigators. They returned this week.

The Singapore police declined to answer specific questions from The Independent. In a statement, spokesman Cho Kai Li said: “Dan Tan is currently assisting the Singapore authorities in their investigations. We are, however, unable to address your other questions on the scope of our investigations or Dan Tan’s address as [this is] operational and confidential information.”

Documents filed by Italian prosecutors in Cremona, where an inquiry into fixing in the Italian leagues is taking place, suggested that Dan Tan was a kingpin in the match-fixing syndicate known to investigators as “the zingari”, or gypsies, via his links to criminal gangs in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Dan Tan had the role of “leader and organiser”, the documents say. Others allegedly involved in the network apparently referred to him as “the boss”.

Cremona, a town of just 72,000 people, seems an unlikely headquarters in the fight against a shadowy global betting network. But look below the surface and it becomes a fitting demonstration of the sheer scale of the task now facing investigators.

In November 2010 the local third division side, Cremonese, were 2-0 up and cruising in a game against Paganese. But when the home side ran out for the second half some of the players were noticeably listless and slow. The result did not change but after the game players fell ill and one crashed his car on the way home.

It turned out they had been drugged. The club took urine samples and found traces of lormetazepam, a sedative normally prescribed for insomnia. They contacted the police who set up wire taps on the Cremonese squad. The results were astounding.

According to the Cremona court papers, the Cremonese goalkeeper, Marco Paolini, was a heavy gambler who had promised to rig the match to pay off his debts. Unable to recruit his fellow players to the scam, he took the next best option and spiked the team’s water bottles. In 2011 he was banned from football for five years.

Roberto di Martino, the Cremona prosecutor, is now in charge of the Italian end of the match-fixing investigation. The probe into Paolini’s corruption found the goalkeeper had also tried to rig other games that he was not playing in, acting as an agent for money-men in Italy with links to the same “gypsy” gangs allegedly run by Dan Tan. Mr Di Martino said: “Dan Tan has a central role in this criminal system. He has been sending money to Italy to bribe footballers and also organising the money to place bets. If Dan Tan did come to Italy we would seek his immediate arrest.”

Mr Di Martino has admitted he is swamped by the scale of the match-fixing probe, named Operation Last Bet in Italy, which has seen the former Italian national stars Giuseppe Signori and Cristiano Doni arrested. At the same time, authorities in Germany and the trans-Continental police agency Europol are involved in parallel inquiries.

“It’s quite likely that this [match-fixing] is happening in the higher levels – the Champions League as well as Serie A matches,” Mr Di Martino said. “The problem is getting people to talk about it. At the moment people who do talk can be punished – even disqualified, even if they were not involved, simply because they failed to reveal what they knew at an earlier date. This is an absurd situation. The players at this level earn so much and have too much too lose, and getting them to reveal what they know is extremely difficult. We need to change the regulations – probably at an international level as well – to encourage players to come forward.”

Much of the information gathered by European investigators came courtesy of a Singaporean Tamil man, Wilson Raj Perumal, a match-fixer and a former friend and associate of Dan Tan until the pair had a falling out.

In Singapore, Mr Perumal’s exploits have become little short of legend; in one case in 2010 he arranged an entire, fake Togolese national team to play in a rigged match against Bahrain, which the latter won 3-0.

In February 2011, Mr Perumal was arrested in Finland and convicted of trying to bribe players and officials in the Finnish league. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and at that point  he assumed the authorities had been tipped off by his former associates, with whom he fallen out over money, and decided to leverage his knowledge.

Having spoken at length with European investigators, Mr Perumal was released from jail in February 2012 and was taken to Hungary, where he was also wanted by police. Investigators in Italy said Mr Perumal was the “primary source” of their investigation.

Not everyone believes Dan Tan and Wilson Perumal are the “kingpins” that they have been portrayed as in some reports. “These are the small guys, the kindergarten guys,” said Suresh Nair, a veteran Singaporean sports writer. “Dan Tan – he is no more than three out of ten on the ladder. Those at six or seven, you’ll never see them.”

Neil Humphreys, a British journalist based in Singapore, chose to make his 2009 book Match Fixer a work of fiction because he thought it was a more effective means of capturing the “weirdness of the match-fixing world”.

Humphreys said it was relatively simple to fix games, by bribing officials or players in smaller national leagues where many of the players were semi-professional and thus all too glad of some cash, particularly during the off-season when they earned no money from football. Such games were not watched by global sports fans and yet within the feverish world of both legal and illegal Asian betting, it was simple to bet on them. Online betting has made it even easier.

And bets are available not just on who will win but on endless variations – which team scores first, in what minute the goal is scored, the total number of goals scored, even when throw-ins are taken. Humphreys said: “In Singapore they don’t have a sports culture, they have a sports-betting culture. And because of this, everyone assumes the matches are fixed.”

For all the attention on Dan Tan, surprisingly little is known about him. He is said to be 48, to have driven cars including a Porsche and a BMW 7-Series, and to have a taste for horse-racing. His wife, Guan Enmei, is said to be his third.

In 2011, he confirmed to Singapore’s The New Paper that he had once been a director of Exclusive Sports, a company that had Wilson Perumal as another officer. But he also denied he was the same person named in a European media report over match-fixing. “That photo resembles me. It’s [the photo] very blur. But I don’t recognise the shirt. I think they made a mistake,” he said.

Until this month’s comments to Der Spiegel, that remains his only public utterance on the subject. A Singapore journalist who in recent weeks has published reports containing comments from unidentified friends of Dan Tan said he had been told he did not wish to speak. The management of the Rivervale Crest apartments refused to say when Dan Tan moved out, while the property agent who sold him the flat refused to say when he moved in.

The Singaporean authorities insist they are serious about tackling corruption in sport, as in other areas. But the domestic S League, set up in 1996, has been struck by several bribery scandals involving overseas players. “The Football Association of Singapore has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to match-fixing,” spokesman Noor Mohd Aziz said. “We are encouraged to note that no players were convicted of match-fixing in Singapore in recent years. There was a case of attempted match-fixing last year when two foreigners offered a large sum of money to one of our clubs’ goalkeepers to persuade him to influence the result of a match.”

Jeremy Goh Joek Hiang of Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau said: “Since 2005, we have investigated eight match-fixing cases involving bribery in Singapore. In all, 11 individuals were charged and convicted in court.”

Some are not impressed. Declan Hill, the investigative writer, said the only way to force Singapore’s hand was to threaten to exclude it from international competitions. “Fifa and Interpol are refusing to put pressure on Singapore,” he said. “We should say, ‘Until you clean up your act, you’re out’. It happened to England in 1985 with hooliganism. Why can’t the same thing be done with Singapore?”

Yet wheels may be slowly turning. Following the February announcement by Europol that it believed Singapore was at the centre of the operation that had targeted 680 matches, steps were taken. The local media was told that half a dozen individuals named by the European investigators had been called in for questioning. A couple of days later, one of those apparently called in, Admir Suljic, boarded a flight for Milan and gave himself up to the Italian authorities. A former player in Slovenia, he was said to be an associate of Dan Tan.

It seems it is not only European investigators who are after Dan Tan and his associates. At the address of one of the Singaporean men named in the Italian court documents, a neighbour, Tan Boonhwe, said the apartment had been targeted by loan-sharks. As it was, the man named by European investigators had left in August. “They were threatened,” Mr Tan said of the new occupants. “Orange paint was thrown over the doors.”

The same happened at the flat owned by Dan Tan before he moved into Rivervale Crest. The couple who bought the apartment said they received a series of threatening letters from loan-sharks demanding money, and paint was also thrown over their door.

One of the threatening letters contained a mobile phone number with the +971 prefix – the United Arab Emirates. When The Independent called the number, the man who answered claimed there must have been a mix-up. “I’m not looking for Dan Tan,” he said. “Just forget it.”