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Dec 13, 2013

Match-fixing a threat to football's integrity

It couldn't happen here? Following the exposure of betting scams in Spain, Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe, recent events suggest that match-fixing's teeth have bitten deeply into English football.

This week saw the arrest of six men, including former Premier League players Sam Sodje and DJ Campbell, after The Sun newspaper pulled off an undercover sting. That followed last month's Daily Telegraph investigation into betting irregularities in lower league football. Six were arrested as part of that earlier case, with two Conference South League players charged with fraud this month.

Betting scandals are hardly new to the English game, considering the 1915 fixing of a First Division match between Manchester United and Liverpool, and the 1964 scandal that led to the banning and imprisonment of England international Tony Kay, among others.

Furthermore, British sport has hardly proved itself immune in recent years. Horse racing fights a constant battle against scammers, while cricket, a sport devilled by gambling scandals, had its English county scene rocked by the jailing of Essex bowler Mervyn Westfield and the life ban given to Pakistani bowler Danish Kaneria in 2010. Stephen Lee, formerly the fifth-ranked snooker player in the world, received a 12-year ban in September for influencing the outcome of seven pro matches.

British football was never likely to be any different. The sport certainly is not in other countries, as Nick Garlick, Europol's senior specialist in organised crime networks, explains. Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency that handles criminal intelligence, has been conducting investigations into fixing across five member nations -- Finland, Hungary, Germany, Austria and Slovenia, and with close links to Italian law enforcement -- while providing information exchange and analysis with EU member nations' police forces.

"Firstly, it's sad that it's occurring in the UK, but we shouldn't be surprised," says Garlick. "These people are in many, many countries. Finland was one of the main countries in Europol's investigations into match-fixing, and if you look at any corruption index you'll know that Finland is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. If match-fixing can take place in Finland, then it can take place anywhere.

"It's a nasty surprise but I am not totally surprised because there are links to everywhere. The UK has a vibrant betting culture and it's going to be attractive to criminals."

A glance at football websites, TV programmes, radio broadcasts or even sponsors on shirts suggests the deep association that football and betting have in the UK. This season, the Football League struck a 15 million-pound sponsorship with Sky Bet. Nineteen different betting firms have official partnerships with the 92 clubs of English league football.

Those are just the legal bookmakers; football's danger comes from illegal bookmakers operating from Southeast Asia, and the organised criminal associates trying to turn matches to their favour. Both the recent UK cases include bets made on Asian gambling markets.

"It's orchestrated from South East Asia because that's close to where the Asian betting markets are, both legal and illegal," says Garlick. Europol's investigation had focused initially on the activities of Singaporean criminals. In September, Singapore police arrested Tan Seet Eng, better known as Dan Tan, accused, among other things, of being the head of the network behind the 2012 Cremona scandal that took in 22 Italian clubs, 33 matches and 61 people. Former Atalanta captain Cristiano and Lazio legend Giuseppe Signori were among those arrested and eventually banned from involvement in football activities, while a later part of the enquiry saw Juventus coach Antonio Conte banned for 12 months from football activity, later reduced to four months on appeal.

"There are tentacles all over the world, but all reporting back to Asia," says Garlick. "People are literally travelling the world with suitcases full of money and making arrangements."

Investigative journalist Declan Hill, a leading authority on fixing whose 2008 book “The Fix” is a vital text on the subject, explained why Asian gangsters have targeted Europe in a blog on the BBC website earlier this year.

"The Asian gambling market, which is far, far bigger than the European and North American market, has a huge amount of cash to bet on small matches,” he wrote. “The Asian gambling market is measured in billions of dollars. Fixers working inside the Asian gambling market have destroyed much of the sport on that continent, so now they are turning their attention to other countries.”

In February, Europol announced findings that criminal syndicates had tried to fix 380 professional matches in Europe, from the German fourth division to European championship and World Cup qualifiers, plus a Champions League tie played in England, later identified as a 2009 qualifier between Liverpool and Hungarian club Debrecen. A total of 425 individuals, from match and club officials to players and serious criminals hailing from 15 countries, were under suspicion.

No English matches were pinpointed then -- UK police were not partners in the investigation -- but recent revelations suggest the epidemic has spread across from the continent.

Last month, Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore asked that “Anyone with allegations, information or evidence should report it to the Police. We would of course assist any such investigation.”

Thus far, no cases that have come to light are related to Premier League matches or current players. The recent incidences exposed derive from lower league football, and players of lesser financial means.

The Sodje accusation, like many in cricket, centres on spot-fixing, where fixers have money on individual events rather than a match’s outcome. Sodje was recorded telling The Sun's undercover reporters that he had got himself deliberately sent off to claim 70,000 pounds. Garlick, however, sees spot-fixing as a gateway to more serious and lucrative fixes.

"If you look at the amounts of money actually placed on such novelty bets, it's really small compared to bets placed on the outcome and in-play betting where the fixers are looking at lots of late goals changing the outcome.

"Spot-fixing is a way to recruit people. If you give someone 70K to get sent off, then they will think it's easy money. However, the person involved will remember this and will say: 'Next time I want you to concede a penalty or not mark the central defender at the set piece,' and the player is now in no position to say 'I didn't sign up for this'."

Once a player is within the sphere of the fixers, they are dealing with highly dangerous operators. "These are professional organised criminals," says Garlick. "We've got plenty of examples of match-fixers going into other areas of crime. You are not talking of boy scouts, gentlemen match-fixers."

The aims of fixing extend far beyond the mere winning of wagers.

"The early reports we had is that the original money is dirty money from serious crimes, and a way to launder is through betting companies,” says Garlick.

“If you have so many bets coming in and out, it's quite difficult to work out what the original source of the money was. If you can get into the match-fixing side of these bets, a normal money launderer will charge you commission, but if you do it through a betting company you actually make money out of laundering your cash.

"The kingpins are in Asia, but they have many different lieutenants who are all over Europe from many different nationalities. It operates on almost a franchise basis.”

Simon Barker, senior executive of the English Professional Footballers' Association, says that players are frequently reminded via training initiatives and leaflet campaigns of the dangers of such temptations.

"There's been an education programme in place, on not only betting integrity and inside information but match-fixing too," he says. The PFA recently carried out a survey among its members. No members admitted being approached by fixers.

"I don't think anybody is arrogant enough to say that it wouldn't happen here,” says Barker. “We've been very aware and been speaking to players on a regular basis about being approached and what to do if you are approached."

In the wake of the UK National Crime Agency arrests this week, the Football Association's general secretary, Alex Horne, was among representatives from five sports -- football, cricket, tennis and the two rugby codes -- who attended a summit with UK ministers on Tuesday morning for talks on tackling fixing.

"I think the general consensus around the room was this isn't a big issue," said Horne's statement following the summit. "The intelligence that we have says this isn't a wide-scale issue at the moment but, again, we don't want to be complacent."

Complacency and individual greed are the greatest weak points that fixers can target, but Garlick is confident that European football authorities are now recognising the gravity of the situation.

"If people refuse to believe what is going on in front of them then there's a huge commercial impact," he says. "The two cases going on in the UK I don't see as a negative, I think it's good that something is being done about it."