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Apr 5, 2013

South Africa eyes match-fixing

JOHANNESBURG -- Three years after the first World Cup in Africa, the South African government will investigate allegations of match-fixing leading to the showcase tournament.

The South African sports ministry, FIFA and the South African Football Association said Friday there was a "concrete conclusion" from the three parties on a long-awaited commission to look into possible corruption in games involving South Africa's national team just weeks before the World Cup.

"This long-standing open case is harming South African football," FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said after a meeting with South Africa sports minister Fikile Mbalula and SAFA president Kirsten Nematandani in Zurich.

FIFA would provide "advice and support" to the South African investigation, Valcke said.

No players have been implicated in fixing, with suspicions centered on the involvement of now-convicted match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal and his bogus company, which appointed referees for games and who may have manipulated them to feed illegal betting scams. Perumal has been identified as a central figure in match-fixing in other parts of the world.

A FIFA report last year found "compelling" evidence that some of the national team's warm-up games were fixed. The South African Football Association conceded there was evidence it had been infiltrated by match-fixers ahead of the games and some of its own officials are under suspicion.

Nematandani was one of five SAFA officials briefly suspended in the federation's initial response to FIFA's report. They were reinstated pending any hearings, but an investigation was tied down after the South African government and the country's Olympic committee became involved.

After months of little or no progress, it was agreed Friday that an independent commission would be set up by the government with its mandate limited to only investigating any irregularities in South Africa's exhibition games ahead of the World Cup, the three bodies said in a joint statement.

FIFA has strict rules regarding government involvement in soccer, but also says it needs the help of governments to fight the widespread problem of match-fixing.

"The rise of match manipulation globally has become one of the most pressing issues facing football today," said Mbalula, the sports minister. "Therefore it is vitally important that national authorities such as ourselves play a full role."

FIFA also proposed that its own ethics committee be part of the commission, but this was subject to approval by the South African government.

The exact matches that might have been fixed haven't been identified, but South Africa's 5-0 win over Guatemala and 2-1 win over Colombia in late May 2010 have long been under suspicion.

Three penalties for handball were awarded by Niger referee Ibrahim Chaibou in the South Africa-Guatemala game, which is the match that raised the most concern. FIFA also wants to question Chaibou for his handling of other exhibition games in Africa, Asia and South America, where a high number of penalties were awarded, apparently to feed illegal betting.

The South Africa-Colombia game was the official opening of the Soccer City stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg, the venue for Spain's victory over Netherlands in the World Cup final a little over a month later. All three goals in that game, which was refereed by Kenyan official Samuel Langat, came from penalty kicks. Langat was dropped from FIFA's list of referees authorized for international matches at the end of 2010, while Chaibou reached the mandatory retirement age of 45 in 2011.

Other warm-up games might be investigated. South Africa beat Thailand 4-0 and drew with Bulgaria 1-1 ahead of the World Cup, which was widely accepted as a success despite initial doubts that the country could organize the tournament.

"It is vital that this matter which dates back to 2010 is concluded soon, with the culprits to be sanctioned in accordance with the zero-tolerance policy," Valcke said. "FIFA will provide any advice and support possible both at investigatory and disciplinary level."

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