Police in Italy have arrested a Slovenian associate of the man they claim is the kingpin in an international conspiracy to fix top-flight football matches. The Slovenian, who had been on the run, flew to Milan from Singapore and gave himself up. Interpol named him as 31-year-old Admir Suljic and said he was an associate of Dan Tan, a Singaporean national who is believed to be behind a massive betting scam that has fixed the results of hundreds of matches across Europe and beyond.
“Admir Suljic , who is accused of fraud and qualified sporting fraud committed within criminal association, was taken into custody shortly after his flight from Singapore touched down at Malpensa airport on Thursday,” Interpol said in a statement. It said it had acted with the cooperation of the authorities in Singapore, who have previously been accused of failing to take proper action against those accused of fixing at least 680 football matches, including several hundred in Europe. The arrest of Mr Suljic raises the prospect that the authorities might finally move against Mr Tan, who police said was helping them with their inquiries.
According to reports Mr Suljic has been on the run since December 2011 and is considered a “key element” in Italy’s so-called ‘Last Bet’ probe into match-fixing between 2009 and 2011. Police said Mr Suljic would be taken to a prison in the city of Cremona. Television footage in Italy showed Mr Suljic, with his head covered, being escorted down an escalator at Milan’s Malpensa airport flanked by three police officers. He was immediately transferred to Cremona prison, where he will be questioned by prosecutors. Italian police were reportedly alerted to his flight by the police in Singapore.
“His direct involvement in the international criminal group, made of Singapore nationals and people from the Balkans, has emerged from the investigation,” Italian police said in a statement.
The arrest of Suljic, a former player in his native Slovenia, is a significant step forward for the authorities not only in Italy but also for Interpol and Europol, who have sought to promote the issue in recent months. There has been an attempt to co-ordinate investigations and help some of the less well-resourced nations in eastern Europe – such as Slovenia – that have proved an easy entry point for fixing syndicates from the Far East.
“Match-fixing is a real threat not only for one country but to the global community and there’s not one single solution or quick fix to this problem,” said Ralf Mutschke, Fifa’s director of security.
The Italian police’s Operation Last Bet investigated 33 matches over a two-year period and covered 22 clubs and 61 individuals. It focussed largely on Serie B games – the country’s second tier. Among those given sporting bans so far is Antonio Conte, now coach of Juventus, the Italian champions. Conte was banned from the game for four months for failing to report an alleged attempt to match-fix when coach of Siena two years ago. He has always denied any wrongdoing.
Interpol has declined to publicly comment on whether or not Mr Tan has been declared an internationally wanted person. Singapore says he is not wanted there, but that it is working with European authorities investigating the syndicate. It is to send four officers to work with Interpol to assist their inquiries.
Match fixing is said to be rampant in Asia, where lax regulation combined with a huge betting market have made football a prime target for crime syndicates. Last year the head of an anti-corruption watchdog estimated that $1 trillion was gambled on sport each year - with most coming from Asia and wagered on football.
Singapore has been under mounting pressure to explain why key suspects such as Mr Tan remain at large. Interpol secretary general Roger Noble had previously told the Straits Times newspaper that the south-east Asian nation’s “reputation would continue to suffer” until arrests are made. Singapore has long been considered central to football match-rigging around the world. “It is very significant … that the Italian authorities have [Mr Suljic] on their soil. The only way to prosecute is if the person is in the jurisdiction where the prosecution is taking place.”
Earlier this month, officials announced that up to 680 games may have been fixed following an exhaustive, 18-month inquiry. Of these, 380 were in Europe, and included Champions League ties, World Cup and European Champions qualifiers, and other top-flight fixtures.
One of the games said to be part of the probe was a 2009 clash between Liverpool and Hungarian side Debrecen. Liverpool won the match 1-0 but it is alleged that Debrecen goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksic was paid to ensure there were more than two goals in the fixture – something he failed to make happen.
Police said said 425 match officials, club officials, players and criminals from at least 15 countries were involved in fixing European football matches dating back to 2008. The inquiry uncovered 7.2m GBP being made in profile and around 1.7mGBP being paid in bribes to players and officials. Police warned this was just the “tip of the iceberg.”
“This is exactly the type of result which can be achieved when police share information in real time and use Interpol’s global network to locate, identify and arrest suspects,” added Mr Noble. “With the information received from 190 countries around the world, police from Interpol member countries can establish connections with evidence, leads and suspects that would otherwise not be available.”
Key player: Tan Seet Eng
Tan Seet Eng, better known as Dan Tan, has emerged as the lynchpin of an alleged match-fixing scandal that has reached across the globe.
Mr Tan, who is in his 30s and lives in Singapore, has for 18 months been the focus of an investigation by European police about almost 700 football games that might have been the subject of fixing.
Europol has revealed that hundreds of players and officials are under suspicion, 14 people have been sentenced and more than 100 prosecutions are expected.
In a rare interview in 2011, Mr Tan protested his innocence, saying: “If there’s anything against me, I can take it to court and fight it.”