Fifa were warned that two international friendlies were being targeted by match-fixers nearly two weeks before they were played, officials from the Estonian football federation said yesterday.
The world governing body yesterday began disciplinary proceedings against six match officials in relation to possible match-fixing of the Bolivia against Latvia and the Estonia v Bulgaria friendlies played in Turkey on 9 February. All seven goals in the two games were penalties, with one of them taken twice after the first one was missed. Five million Euros (£4.3m) was bet on the Estonia match – an astonishing figure for such a low-profile match – although one leading British bookmaker pulled its market on the game before kick-off after becoming aware of significant moves in the Asian market.
"We alerted Fifa as to our initial doubts and suspicions on 27 January – two weeks before the match," Mihkel Uiboleht of the Estonian FA told The Independent yesterday.
The games were organised by a Thai-based company called Footy Sports International via a Fifa-recognised agent based in Russia, but concern was raised at the Estonian federation when it became aware of one of the key figures involved in setting up the games, a Singaporean national associated with a convicted match-fixer. The games were played back-to-back in Antalya on the south-west coast of Turkey, with Latvia beating Bolivia 2-1 before Estonia and Bulgaria drew 2-2. There is no question over the integrity of any of the federations or players involved.
Uiboleht said: "We had information that there was a potential problem. At first there was nothing specific but other federations had mentioned concerns to us. There were hints over problems with the referees. We took it seriously and gathered a lot of information.
"We have found out that the referees for our game were only qualified to officiate in the third division in Hungary. For the Latvia v Bolivia game we were told the officials were Bosnians but when we were introduced they said they were from Croatia. They were wearing Fifa badges. We are still not sure of their identity. We saw a potential for match-fixing. Fifa advised us to go ahead with the match as there was no firm evidence to stop it. We had already signed a contract to play the game."
In the wake of the matches all four federations involved requested Fifa to investigate, leading to yesterday's announcement. A Fifa statement said: "The proceedings were opened following an evaluation of all documentation and information received by Fifa, in relation to a possible match-fixing situation in these matches."
Fifa refused to name any of the officials who face charges, and neither has it set a date for its disciplinary committee to hear the cases. Last month the Hungarian football federation suspended Kolos Lengyel, Krisztian Selmeczi and Janos Csak for taking charge of the Estonia against Bulgaria game without its permission.
Fifa's announcement comes just a week after Jacques Rogge, the president of IOC, identified match-fixing as a "potentially crippling" threat to the future integrity of all sport. Rogge hosted a conference in Lausanne to attempt to co-ordinate international action through sporting bodies, governments and law-enforcement agencies. Interpol revealed that it has already mounted a series of operations in the Far East, leading to nearly 7,000 arrests. It estimates the volume of illegal betting and match-fixing to be worth $500bn (£311bn) on the Asian market. The focus of its investigations has been China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand.
It is common practice for international friendlies to be organised through third parties – Brazil are playing Scotland in just such a game at the Emirates later this month – as long as Fifa-authorised agents are involved. At first, both the Estonian and Latvian federations were happy to use Footy Sports. Martin Hartmanis, of the Latvian federation, said: "It was the first time we had any dealing with them. They told us they were a newly created company, we had not heard of them. They paid us to play in the game – they said this match was important to them to strengthen their position in the market. All documents were signed by an official Fifa agent. They was no basis not to believe them."
Match-fixing is not a new problem in the Baltic states: the Estonian and Latvian governing bodies are battling corruption within their own leagues. Hartmanis said: "There are people in Latvia trying to influence games. We have concerns over the Asian market and Latvian club football. We have set up a system with the police to try and deal with it, but we need international help."
Fifa is belatedly trying to tighten regulations over the appointment of match officials. It wants organisers to give two months' notice of who will referee international games and it has promised to veto suspect appointments.