Yesterday's glittering draw for next summer's Euro 2008 finals was partially overshadowed by what officials fear could become one of the biggest match-fixing scandals ever to hit the European game.
No teams have been identified but it is understood as many as 26 matches, many of them from this season's early rounds of Champions League and Uefa Cup, are being investigated by Uefa as a result of an illegal betting scam in Asia where the practice remains rife despite efforts to stamp it out.
Two years ago, Uefa signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Betfair to monitor football betting with the aim of ensuring the continued integrity of European football. Under the terms of the agreement Uefa was able to access a greater level of information than it had previously been able to garner and it is understood this may have been how the current revelations came to light.
The fixtures concerned Uefa confirmed 15 but according to the German magazine Der Spiegel, there may have been up to 26 are believed to involve mainly southern and eastern European teams playing in the preliminary rounds of the game's elite tournaments. Michel Platini, the Uefa president, met with representatives of Europol, the pan-European police organisation, last week to discuss how to improve early-warning systems that pick up unusual betting patterns. "It's a big problem for us. It could become very bad for football," Platini was reported to have said from Lucerne.
According to Der Spiegel, a 96-page dossier has been handed by Uefa to Europol, outlining the methods used by illegal betting syndicates. High-ranking Uefa sources re-iterated yesterday that no games involving English teams at either club or international level were involved. Significantly, last week Uefa opened an investigation into the InterToto Cup match between Bulgaria's Cherno More and Macedonia's Makedonija, which Cherno More won 4-0.
Uefa anticipate it could be several months before the inquiry is complete and have promised stern penalties if they establish which, if any, clubs or players willingly collaborated.
Even before last weekend's revelations, Platini had targeted corruption as one of his prime challenges and is due to hold a meeting with European Union officials early next year to tackle the problem of money-laundering. Illegal betting has long been rife in Asia, with millions of pounds staked in Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, China and Hong Kong. Dozens of illegal football betting houses have been shut down but the practice remains rampant; so much money changes hands that it is estimated that Thais bet nearly one billion dollars on the 2006 World Cup.
Graham Bean, former head of the Football Association's Compliance Unit, told the BBC: "These are clearly exceptionally serious allegations, but having said that they will be extremely difficult to investigate. This is potentially one of the most serious things that has ever happened in world football."
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