Fifa, world football's governing body, fears players from the game's poorer nations are being "trafficked" in order to facilitate match-fixing.
Young footballers are targeted at junior competitions and helped to earn deals with clubs in Europe and South and Central America by match-fixers, who in return pressurise them to alter the outcome of games from which criminal gambling syndicates can collect huge sums.
On Tuesday seven Zambians and two Georgians were convicted of taking bribes to affect the outcome of games in the Finnish league, with Wilson Raj Perumal, a Singaporean match-fixer, found guilty of bribing the nine players and sentenced to two years in prison. The players received a range of suspended sentences.
During the trial it was estimated that for fixing a game even in the low-key Finnish league, those behind the schemes could make ¤1.5m (£1.3m) per match and 24 fixed matches were identified. At an earlier trial in Finland this year two Zambian brothers were also convicted.
Chris Eaton, Fifa's head of security and the man overseeing the attempt to combat match-fixing, is concerned with the number of players being implicated and how they come to be involved in scams that are impacting leagues in Europe, Asia, Africa and South and Central America.
"It is a form of trafficking, in my view – trafficking for criminal purposes," Eaton told The Independent. "There are examples of players who have been abandoned because they did not perform.
"It is only anecdotal evidence at this stage but it is clear. They [match-fixers] often target people from humble origins. They will go to junior competitions and recruit families of players basically through the attraction of cash. 'I can get you a contract, or a game in Europe or in South America' – they will invest in the development of players and officials and then they expect payment – they want their cut."
A range of measures are being explored in an attempt to deal with the problem, including Interpol briefing all international players before the finals of Fifa competitions. It begins with those at Under-17 and Under-20 level – the most vulnerable – but if England qualify for the 2014 finals in Brazil it would see the squad being instructed on the threat of match-fixing and given clear guidance that there is a system in place for them to report any approaches or suspicions. Fifa is still in discussions with Interpol – they are giving Interpol $20m in funding assistance – as to how the briefings and education programmes are best implemented, but hopes they will be made concrete next year and may even be used for the football competition at the London Olympics.
"These people are criminals, they are organised," said Eaton, a former Interpol officer. "They are well funded and have a long-term plan. They are a real and present danger to the sanctity and ethics of sport. I would not understate its seriousness."
Fifa has determined on a more robust approach, tacitly admitting it could have taken more direct action in the past. February's friendly internationals in Turkey between Bolivia and Latvia, and Estonia and Bulgaria are under investigation for match-fixing – all seven goals were penalties – through corrupt officials. Fifa was aware of concerns that something was amiss but did not feel they had enough proof to prevent the games from going ahead. Eaton said: "It was unconfirmed source information, perhaps if the same match was to happen today I would take a different action.
"Fifa's primary task is to prevent match-fixing. If I have information that a game is fixed I will try to stop it. We are considering all our options. Fifa is redesigning its regulatory arrangements for international friendlies and competition matches, particularly in qualifiers. These are all capable of being abused by match-fixers. We need to arm federations with good due diligence skills – so they know whether these people arranging the matches are genuine. Prevention is the primary task. The second is to protect players and officials from the approach of criminals. They need to have somewhere to go in the full knowledge that they will be assisted and supported. The approach of cricket has been excellent – we will talk more with other sports as well."
At Fifa's congress in Zurich last month, moves to ensure friendlies would come under the governing body's control – previously they had been the responsibility of the host association – were passed. Coincidentally that evening Argentina played Nigeria in a friendly in Abuja, the home side winning 4-1 in a match that involved six players who are with Premier League clubs. The game is under investigation although there is no suggestion players are involved in wrongdoing. Eaton's security team are trying to trace the referee, Ibrahim Chaibou of Niger, who awarded a dubious penalty in the eighth minute of injury time. Betting patterns on the match were irregular.
Chaibou was also in charge of a match last year between Bahrain and Togo – a Togo team later discovered to have been made up of imposters. The friendly was arranged by Perumal.
Eaton said: "If there's a legacy for Perumal's arrest and conviction, it is that it's brought more clarity to the global nature of the match-fixing enterprise. It's about criminality. Very few people in the football world understood the absolute multi-nationality of match-fixing and the ability of match-fixers like Perumal to roam widely internationally to compromise players, officials and administrators almost at will."