In the wake of Europol investigation into gambling syndicates, just how fixed is European football?

With Europol’s match-fixing revelations said to be the “tip of the iceberg”, Robin Scott-Elliot speaks to those trying to stem the tide of corruption

“This is,” suggested Friedhelm Althans, the chief investigator of the Bochum police in Germany, “the tip of the iceberg.”

It may only have been the tip of that iceberg exposed but it still made it a day to savour for Althans, a tall, chatty man with immaculate English, who has driven his investigation into match-fixing from his offices in a small Ruhr city to global attention. What began as an inquiry into the  fixing of fourth-tier domestic matches is now an international inquiry, taking in 15 countries around the world and more than 400 suspects. His lonely crusade has now found an international following.

It is Althans who speaks for Europol’s Operation Veto, a well-meaning cooperation between five European countries to try and combat what they – and many others – regard as a growing threat to the integrity of football in Europe and abroad, and at levels from regional leagues in Europe’s lesser footballing nations up to the Champions League and international football.

The bread and butter is what Althans began with, the fixing of three German fourth division games. It earned, according to the German authorities, those who arranged it a profit of €250,000 (£215,000). From there it has mushroomed; 79 suspect games in Turkey, 70 in Germany, 41 in Switzerland, 20 in Hungary, 19 in Belgium and all the way down to one in England. It represents, as Rob Wainwright, head of Europol, himself pointed out, a small percentage of professional games played in the time frame under investigation, roughly since 2009, but it is there and it is growing.

“We recognise the problem continues,” said Wainwright. “Criminal syndicates see this as a high-profit, low-risk area for criminal activity.”

It fell to Althans to outline the task that confronts the authorities, be they footballing or law enforcement. “One fixed match involves up to 50 suspects in 10 countries,” he explained. “Police coordination is nearly impossible and it is difficult to collect evidence.”

There are many other difficulties facing Althans and his associates. Where he is checked by borders and boundaries, the fixers, in particular one syndicate believed to operate out of Singapore and the Far East, are not. Evidence is difficult to obtain – wire-tapping has been the most productive source – and even more difficult to turn into a case strong enough to convince prosecutors to go to court. Criminal liability differs widely from country to country. It is as expensive a business to police as it is a profitable one for the fixers to arrange.

On a grey day at Europol’s uber-modern HQ in The Hague, Althans and Wainwright were joined by policemen from Finland, Slovenia and Hungary, the roll call from Europe’s outer nations in itself significant. This is the way in for the fixers, on the fringes. Take Hungary; four referees were arrested in 2011 and €320,000 in cash discovered on accompanying raids. Referees are an easy target, particularly in countries where they are poorly paid. The sums the Hungarians believe are offered to officials range from €40,000 to €600,000 to fix a game. The highest bribe uncovered by Althans’ investigation was €140,000 paid to fix an Austrian Bundesliga match between Kapfenburg and Austria Wien – the maximum profit they found on one game is €700,000, again in the Austrian league. It is a healthy return.

The Hungarians currently have in custody Wilson Raj Perumal, a Singaporean already convicted of match-fixing by a Finnish court. Perumal is believed to have helped fix games via Hungarian organisers,  including an Under-20 match between Argentina and Bolivia that was settled by a dubious penalty awarded in the 12th minute of injury time.

The trail from Perumal leads to a man called Tan Seet Eng, also known as Dan Tan, another Singaporean. An international arrest warrant has been issued for Tan – he is wanted in Italy and Hungary – but the Singaporean authorities are yet to act on it. Gianni Baldi, Interpol’s head of criminal organisations and part of Operation Veto, said: “This is not a quick matter – these are complicated investigations. We are working with the Singapore authorities.”

Interpol has its own match-fixing task force, of which the UK is a member, but it is Operation Veto that has given dramatic fresh impetus to what is widely regarded as a deep-rooted threat to the game’s integrity. Althans said there is evidence that Tan was involved with attempts to fix a Premier League game as far back as 1999.

It remains a threat that will largely flirt around the edges of the top leagues – although Serie A has not proved immune and Tan is suspected of involvement in the latest fixing scandal that led to the Juventus coach Antonio Conte, among others, serving a ban for not passing on information to the authorities (he continues to deny any wrongdoing). It will, to an extent, be a relief to the likes of Althans that two such high-profile fixtures, those two from the Champions League, one in England, have been discovered as it raises the profile of their cause. It is down among the makeweights, the roots of the European game, that the widest threat lies; but it is spreading – 41 suspicious games in the Swiss league, 18 in Croatia, the list gets longer each year.

At junior level too it is a broadening problem through the increasing number of under-age international fixtures now played. Fifa’s former head of security, Chris Eaton, told The Independent two years ago that he had evidence of young players being caught up in the fixers’ webs early in their careers. They are paid small sums at first, then helped to find clubs in Europe, at first in Europe’s peripheral leagues, and then it’s payback time. Eaton described it as, in effect, “trafficking”. Player awareness is a key feature of attempts by football authorities to combat the spread of such practices.

The numbers revealed by Europol are striking – and also difficult to break down. Some of the matches have already involved prosecutions and convictions, others are still at the suspicious stage. There was an element of smoke and mirrors in The Hague, a body highlighting its worth, but for all that this is a real and present danger to football. Althans expects more countries to become involved, yesterday suggesting the Netherlands as a likely addition to a lengthening list.

“This is an integrity issue,” said Wainwright. “It goes to the very heart of the game, the fabric of what sport is.” Or as Altans put it: “We can’t let citizens, the public, athletes lose trust in sport.”

Past scandals: Fixing’s roll of shame

Italy 2006

Juventus were relegated to Serie B and were stripped of their two Serie A titles from 2005 and 2006 for their involvement in Italy’s “Calciopoli” scandal. A number of teams, but most notably Juventus and their general manager Luciano Moggi, were found guilty of rigging games by selecting favourable referees.

Germany 2005

In 2005, a €2m match-fixing scandal centred on German referee Robert Hoyzer, who confessed to trying to fix matches for Croatian crime syndicates. One German Cup game, in which Hamburg lost 4-2 to Paderborn, included two dubious penalties, while Emile Mpenza was sent off for protesting. Hoyzer went to prison for two years.

Brazil 2005

Referee Edilson Pereira de Carvalho was banned for life in October 2005 for favouring sides in Brazil’s top-flight in return for a fee. Eleven games had to be replayed.

France 1993

Marseilles president Bernard Tapie bribed Valenciennes into throwing a French league game in 1993, allowing Marseilles to win the title and giving them more time to concentrate on the European Cup final against Milan, which they won. Marseilles were stripped of their Ligue 1 title, relegated and Tapie eventually went to prison.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam