Belgian football is riddled with match fixing, retracted confessions and the accused suing those making the allegations, as John Chapman explains

Belgian football is in despair. Not only are the national team at their lowest ebb for 30 years, but the clubs regularly get thumped in Europe. Crowds have declined and a lack of investment in infrastructure means that watching a match such as La Louvière v Lierse on a wet winter night will be an experience you won’t forget and probably won’t repeat. Most top-flight clubs are run on annual budgets of £1.5 million. If they’re lucky, players receive contracts offering them around £1,400 per month. If they’re really lucky, they get paid. Chairmen try to keep the smaller clubs afloat by bringing in high-rolling sponsors, a risky business at best. Despite this background, money is being made in Belgian football. Unfortunately it’s going to a bunch of characters seemingly straight out of a Damon Runyon novel.

After months of rumour, the scandal broke open on February 5, when TV channel VRT broadcast a documentary alleging close links between Chinese betting syndicates and the management and players of some top-flight clubs. In November 2004 Ye Zheyun, a Chinese businessman, travelled from Paris to Ostend in a chauffeur-driven limo. Ye wanted to buy the relegation-threatened club and offered £3.5m, but was sent packing by club chairman Eddy Vergeylen. Rebuffed, Ye is said to have developed links, as yet unproven, with then coach Gilbert Bodart. Ostend proceeded to lose the majority of their games, Bodart was sacked and Vergeylen is now threatening to sue if it emerges that they went down due to match fixing.

It appears that Ye visited at least three other minnows, St Truiden, Lierse and La Louvière. Last November, UK betting exchange Betfair noticed that a staggering £400,000 had been placed on the match between St Truiden and La Louvière, and some £150,000 on St Truiden’s visit to Cercle Bruges. Normally such matches attract at most around £10,000. Betfair wrote to the Belgian FA revealing these strange betting pattern, though the FA claim that they never received the letter.

Brussels police then got lucky in December, when they were called to an altercation in a room at a five-star hotel, when two women objected to the way they were being treated and called for help. Police found Ye, an unregistered football agent named Pietro Allatta and Olivier Suray, a former Anderlecht defender. Also in the room were £6,000 in cash, a computer and a few mobile phones. Ye was arrested and released, then disappeared. But little is clear: Allatta is reported to be taking legal action against the broadcasters for claims made against him.

The plan, it is alleged, was to approach poorly (and rarely) paid players at small clubs and find someone with a weakness – gambling, women, alcohol, any addiction would do. Money would be provided to the man on the inside and he would spread it around four or five players who were willing “to take it easy”. Some refused and were either dropped or forced out of their club. Others agreed, some just for the money but it was not unknown for threats to be made against wives and children. With the result known in advance, Ye’s contacts in China bet extremely large amounts.

One coach in the frame is Paul Put. Sacked by Lierse last year, allegedly for footballing reasons, he joined Mouscron but was recently sacked again, after making a confession, since retracted, that he had fixed several games at Lierse after receiving threats to his family. Lierse themselves, acting on leaks from the investigation, sacked two players and a goalkeeping coach, Patrick Deman. Deman has since been pardoned in return for giving the authorities a helping hand. Anderlecht sacked ex-Lierse players Marius Mitu and Laurent Delorge. Several players are now suing their new clubs for wrongful dismissal.

Under the pressure of accusations in the media, many relating to his love of gambling, Bodart resigned as coach of La Louvière on February 22. The investigation there is just beginning, though the response from the club and their lawyer has been to sue VRT.

The result is confusion. Ye has tried, sometimes successfully, to become involved in clubs in Finland, France and Greece. There are reports of 50 Belgian league players being involved in match fixing, with up to 20 games being suspect. Even the Ukraine v Belgium European Under-21 Championship play-off has been mentioned. Everyone waits for the next day’s papers. And the authorities are keeping quiet. Anyone want a pair of tickets for La Louvière v Lierse?

From WSC 230 April 2006. What was happening this month

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