Football: Whistle-blowers and fixers: scandal that casts a shadow on the World Cup

As Klinsmann's Germany build up to next year's tournament, the hosts face an urgent exercise in damage limitation

Early February sees the climax of the carnival season in Germany and nowhere marks the occasion quite like Dusseldorf, where the altbier flows as freely as the Rhine and anyone not wearing a clown's costume stands out as clearly as the gleaming glass towers of the city's Stadttor building.

It should also be a time to celebrate the rebirth of the national football team. Rejuvenated under Jurgen Klinsmann's imaginative leadership, Germany face Argentina here tonight in a high-profile friendly in the build-up to the World Cup which the country will host next summer. Much of the football talk, however, is not about Oliver Neuville's first call-up by Klinsmann or yesterday's naming of Jens Lehmann to play in goal in place of Oliver Kahn, but about the actions of a 25-year-old referee who was virtually unknown until a fortnight ago.

Robert Hoyzer is an unlikely figure of national hate. Sociable, good- humoured, tall and handsome, with blond highlights in his hair and a permanent tan, he was popular with everyone and regarded as one of the country's most promising young referees. He also had a liking for easy money. Approached by a betting ring last year, Hoyzer agreed to rig matches.

His first attempt, a regional league fixture in May between Paderborn and Chemnizter, ended in failure, but on the following two weekends Hoyzer successfully engineered the results of two matches in the same competition. In August the Berliner fixed a German Cup game in spectacular - and, in retrospect, foolhardy - fashion. Hamburg were leading Paderborn 2-0 when Hoyzer awarded the minnows two controversial penalties and sent off the Bundesliga club's leading striker, Emile Mpenza, for protesting. Paderborn won 4-2, which helped bring about the dismissal of Klaus Toppmoller, the Hamburg coach.

Felix Zwayer, a referee's assistant who ran the line in a number of Hoyzer's matches, was the first to notice his erratic decisions. However, it was only after Hoyzer had twice invited Zwayer to help fix matches that the latter alerted a colleague. Last month, when two other officials came forward to voice their suspicions, the four men informed the German football federation DFB.

Hoyzer at first denied any wrongdoing, but when the federation started legal action he confessed. He admitted fixing four matches - and failing to rig two more - in exchange for Û50,000 (pounds 34,500) from a betting syndicate said to be linked to Croatian mafia. In the hope of leniency, Hoyzer told police investigators about other allegedly corrupt officials and rigged matches. Oddset, the state company which has a monopoly on gambling in Germany, also reported some suspicious betting, including wagers of Û100,000 (pounds 69,000) on Paderborn to beat Hamburg. Three men connected with a Berlin bar frequented by Croatian gamblers were subsequently arrested, bank accounts blocked and Û2.44m (pounds 1.66m) seized.

Nineteen homes across the country were raided last week by police, who seized documents and computer records. Twenty-five people, including 14 players - all from second division and regional league clubs - and four referees, are under suspicion. Some players have publicly admitted receiving payments, although, crucially, they say the money was in return for winning matches rather than losing them. Ten games are being investigated, including one Bundesliga match, between Kaiserslautern and Freiburg in November.

Heike Rudat, the 43-year-old criminal director of the Berlin police, has reportedly been put in charge of a 33-strong team investigating the case - the only comparable police unit is said to be one dealing with Islamic terrorism - which includes specialists in money-laundering, the mafia and gambling. The police are sharing their findings with the football federation. Meanwhile, some clubs have appealed against results of matches, while one of the referees said to be involved called a press conference and showed video footage of a game to underline his claims of innocence.

Match-fixing scandals are nothing new in modern football, but what particularly hurts Germany in this case is that this is a country proud of its reputation for excellent referees. Marcus Merk is regarded by many as the best in the world, while Volker Roth is head of the referees' committee at both the German federation and Uefa, the European game's ruling body.

Klinsmann told The Independent: "It has been a shock for all of us. It has undoubtedly hurt our overall image at the moment. There are qualities that we've always been admired and appreciated for as a nation: being correct, being serious, being trustworthy. Now this has happened and it puts those qualities under question. All we hope is that the police and the federation are able to resolve the case as quickly as possible."

He added: "We have one guy who's been doing something wrong and he will pay for that, but we shouldn't forget that we still have some of the best referees in the world. We shouldn't forget to give them the respect and the appreciation they deserve."

Although the football authorities are hoping the affair can be resolved well before the start of next year's World Cup, criminal proceedings could delay matters. The federation has started its own inquiry and says it will ban for life any referee found to have rigged matches. It is planning to ban betting by anyone involved in football and to put in place an "early warning" system to identify irregular gambling patterns in future.

Wolfgang Niersbach, the executive vice-president of the 2006 World Cup organising committee, fears next year's tournament, which is only 16 months away, could be damaged if the affair is not concluded promptly. "I believe the previous match-fixing scandal in the Bundesliga in the 1970s [when 53 players were punished and two clubs, Arminia Bielefeld and Kickers Offenbach, demoted] took three years to resolve," he said.

"We need to go on the offensive and sort this out very quickly. I think it can be solved quickly, because the previous case was much more complicated than this one appears to be. The circle of people involved doesn't appear to be as big as in 1971, though the involvement of a referee does bring a new dimension to it."

If there is a criticism of the football authorities it is over their failure to identify a problem after Hamburg's original complaint about the Paderborn match. "The DFB checked it out originally and could find nothing," Niersbach said. "What should a sports federation do in these circumstances? Maybe the one question mark should be over the refereeing department. There was some speculation about Hoyzer. They knew that there had been reports about his bad performances in matches but they obviously weren't aware of the real background. But it's very easy to say that after the event."

The early signs are that the damage can be limited and that nothing will dampen the enthusiasm for next year's tournament. The first 820,000 tickets went on sale via the internet last week, with 1.2 million orders, 80 per cent of them from Germans, placed on the first day. A ballot will be held after the first sale window closes next month.

If Germans are looking for consolation, they could look back to a previous World Cup when the hosts were embarrassed by a match-fixing scandal which led to 10 players - including two internationals - being given prison sentences just 18 months before the tournament. Shocking as it was, the downfall in January 1965 of men like England's Peter Swan and Tony Kay ultimately did nothing to taint the triumph of Bobby Moore and company - against West Germany - the following summer.

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