Paul Joyce reports on the growth of match-fixing at every level across Europe, and how the authorities are working to combat it
In November 2009, news broke of the biggest match-fixing scandal in European football history. With the support of UEFA, investigators working for the public prosecutors’ office in the German city of Bochum identified 200 matches in nine European countries where manipulation was believed to have taken place. The Bochum commission, codenamed Flankengott, had intercepted phone calls, SMS messages and emails from 200 suspects throughout Europe.
Some of the eight alleged ringleaders who remain in custody in Germany have since made detailed confessions which reveal the true extent of the scandal. On July 13, it was announced in Bochum that 270 matches and 250 suspects were now under investigation. In Turkey, where the number of suspicious games has risen from 29 to 74, 70 arrests have been made since April – these include a club president, six coaches and several goalkeepers. Germany lies second in the match-fixing table with 53 implicated fixtures, whose participants range from second division VfL Osnabrück to Arminia Bielefeld’s Under-19s.
The financial extent of the corruption is also becoming clearer. The fixers made an estimated profit of €7.5 million (£6.3m) from bets placed on the Asian and European markets – one British-based Asian bookmaker took 6,000 bets from the group worth over €32.5m. A staggering €1.5m was spent on bribes to European referees, players and officials. When Roland Gnägi, the president of Swiss third-tier side FC Gossau, was allowed access to the investigators’ files on his club, he was shocked to discover that his players could earn up to €30,000 for throwing a match.
The suspected ringleaders, five of whom are of either Turkish or Croatian origin, are a disparate group based in Berlin, Nuremberg and the Ruhr. One of them is a repeat offender – Ante Sapina, a Berlin-based Croat, who was sentenced to 35 months in prison in 2005 for attempting to bribe referees, such as the convicted Robert Hoyzer, to rig 23 German matches. Links to organised crime and nine murders committed in Germany between 2000 and 2006 have also been established.
The phone calls intercepted by the investigators provide an insight into the fixers’ strategies. To rig a match, at least three players per team should be bribed – “two are not enough”, Sapina reportedly stated. Sometimes the whole team would be in on the fix. In April, the German tabloid Bild published extracts from the Bochum files on the Bosnian club NK Travnik’s visit to Switzerland in June 2009 for five pre-season friendlies. Match-fixing suspect Marijo C allegedly travelled with the team, even sitting on the bench, and informed a colleague in Germany before the match against Young Boys Bern that they had “exactly 11 workers” in the Travnik team. The players were instructed to fall three goals behind, and then bets would be placed in London that a further goal would be conceded. A minute after the bet was confirmed, Young Boys scored, netting the conspirators €82,000. The tour as a whole yielded an estimated profit of €304,400 for the match-fixers.
Evidently, no game is now too small for the Asian betting industry – and for manipulation. The Ukranian referee Igor Ishchenko is even alleged to have received a five-figure sum in November 2009 for ensuring that Germany’s Under-21 team would beat San Marino by “six, seven or more goals”.
More prestigious fixtures have also attracted the interest of the Bochum commission. In July, two Croatian newspapers reported that Dinamo Zagreb’s 3-0 victory over Hajduk Split in the first leg of the 2009 domestic cup final had come under suspicion. The brother of Dinamo’s executive manager, Zdravko Mamic, is alleged to have influenced the selection of the referee, who sent off two Hajduk players in the first half.
Sapina reportedly earned €1.4m by betting on the match in Asia alone. “If Hajduk score 20 goals, the others will get 22, that’s certain,” he allegedly boasted. Two further Dinamo matches are being investigated, including their 3-0 home defeat to Arsenal in a 2006 Champions League qualifier. According to the Flankengott files, the betting mafia also tried to infiltrate UEFA’s refereeing commission. In October 2009, Marijo C reportedly persuaded the Slovakian commission member Jozef M to ensure the promotion of Bosnian referee Novo Panic to Europa League status. Panic, who is also alleged to have received €50,000 for manipulating an Under-21 international between Switzerland and Georgia, has since been banned for life by UEFA.
The Bochum commission announced in July that some suspects would go on trial “soon”, but that their complex investigations would inevitably last “a very long time”. National sports authorities now face the dilemma of whether they can punish individuals against whom nothing has yet been legally proven. In Switzerland, where 35 matches are under investigation, the Swiss Football Association suspended nine players in May for up to three years, including three from second-division champions FC Thun. But this created a different problem. FC Lugano, who finished runners-up to Thun in May, are now taking legal action to be given Thun’s promotion place – even though the new season has already started.
Yet the belated willingness of officials throughout Europe to work together to combat match-fixing can only be applauded. Political aspirations may have played a role. Croatia, where 22 suspects are currently in custody, needs to step up its fight against corruption as a key condition of its EU accession talks. Similar considerations may have inspired Turkish sports minister Faruk Nafiz Ozak to draft a law punishing match-fixing with 12 years in prison.
Regardless of motivations, however, the joint investigation has been a welcome reinforcement of UEFA president Michel Platini’s tougher stance against match-rigging. In May, Platini proposed the creation of a “European sports police” to “concentrate exclusively on the fight against corruption and manipulation”. In the same month, UEFA suspended two Debrecen players for attempting to fix their 4-3 home defeat to Fiorentina in the Champions League group stages last October.
FIFA, on the other hand, seems unwilling to confront the issue. When Nigerian players expressed fears during the World Cup finals that their squad might be vulnerable to corruption, FIFA merely observed that their early warning system had found “no indication whatsoever of any match-fixing situations”. Yet Declan Hill, whose book The Fix exposed the spread of match-rigging worldwide, dismissed this system as “a joke”. Arguing that few of FIFA’s network of informants actually know what they are talking about, Hill instead urged FIFA to follow UEFA’s lead: “Create an integrity unit. A proper one. One with high-ranking former police officers with take-charge attitudes.” Not many punters, however, would bet on this happening in the near future.
From WSC 283 September 2010