Scourge of game-fixing disrupts Europe's elite for the first time

Asian betting rings target young players across world, reports Robin Scott-Elliot

Not long after 6am yesterday morning two blue-and-white police cars drove through the gates of Coverciano, Italy's well-appointed national training centre near Florence. It marked the moment a match-fixing scandal that has linked far-flung corners of the global game touched the elite of the European game.

Simultaneously Antonio Conte, fresh from steering Juventus to the scudetto in his first season in charge, was being informed he was under investigation in the same inquiry. His home in Turin was searched. In Rome, the early-morning operation saw detectives arrest Stefano Mauri, captain of Lazio.

Fixing football matches is almost as old as the game itself, and fixed football matches in Italy are also far from a new phenomenon. But yesterday's dramatic developments are striking.

This is an entirely different operation from the one that saw Juventus stripped of their Serie A crown in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal of 2006. That was an Italian affair, centred around an attempt to ease the Old Lady's path to the title. This is international, but centred around south-east Asia, and is about, simply, money – fixing matches or moments in matches to win potentially millions of pounds.

"A can of worms" is how one betting industry expert familiar with the on-going investigation by Italian police put it. Operation Last Bet, into 33 matches over the past two years, largely involving Serie B games, has already seen Cristiano Doni, the former Italy striker, imprisoned and Beppe Signori, a Lazio great, arrested and banned for five years. The level of painstaking detail in what has become a sprawling inquiry – 22 clubs and 61 individuals have so far been named by the Italian football authorities in connection with the affair – has impressed sources.

But this is not just an Italian problem. The man on the top of the Italian police's wanted list is a Singaporean, Tan Seet Eng, also known as Dan. He is believed to be at the heart of a match-fixing ring run by south-east Asian crime syndicates that has targeted matches at club and international level from Finland to the Baltic nations to Africa, China and South America. It is a global market estimated by Interpol to be worth some $90bn (£58bn) a year.

Dan is part of a sophisticated network that targets players from an early age – large sums of money are spent effectively grooming players who are then expected to deliver when they reach first-team level. It can start, according to a source, as early as under-16 level when players are "adopted" and given "tips" – €100 here, €100 there – for scoring or winning matches. That develops as the players climb towards the higher level, through "nights out and girls" as the fixers build relationships. And in due course they demand something for their outlay.

"It may cost millions to fix a game but that is more than offset by the payback," said the source. "We're talking the chance to make many millions."

The process of slow corruption was much how Wilson Raj Perumal operated – he first helped players from Africa find clubs in Europe. Perumal now sits in a Finnish prison, serving a two-year sentence having been convicted last year of fixing games in the country's domestic league. Perumal and Dan have history. Perumal is supposed to have been one of Dan's fixers but the pair fell out and Perumal has claimed since his conviction that it was another of Dan's men who tipped off Finnish police that Perumal was in the country illegally.

Dan and his fixers have been linked to a range of high-profile cases: the fake Togo team that played a friendly against Bahrain in 2010; the international friendly double-header in Turkey last year that ended with six referees banned for life; wide-scale fixing in Zimbabwe.

Perumal's conviction was a rare triumph for those involved in the bid to check the poisonous advance of fixing. Uefa and Fifa have linked up with Interpol in an attempt to address the problem, but each investigation has to be carried out by the police force of the particular country involved and they are both time- and resource-consuming, as well as expensive.

"It will be impossible to go right to the end with this because my office is not equipped to do so," said Roberto Di Martino, the Cremona prosecutor leading the Italian investigation. "If people wanted, we could go on forever but there's very few personnel. It will be impossible to go ahead with this for a long time." The onus then is on football authorities to find a balance between drastic sanction and education. Fifa has recently sent a memo to all national associations involved in the Olympics stressing the need to inform players to be aware of any approaches.

"There are a lot of people who are prepared to betray their sport," said Doni after admitting his involvement last year. "An omerta [code of silence] is destroying Italian football and we have to blow that wide open. We must have the courage to say how rotten football is."

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