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Oct 17, 2005

German match-fixing scandal comes to court

BERLIN, Oct 17 (Reuters) - German match-fixing referee Robert Hoyzer and five others face fraud charges from Tuesday in a trial that an embarrassed German soccer establishment hopes will be as brief as possible.

Hoyzer, another referee Dominik Marks and former top flight player Steffen Karl are charged with seeking to rig a series of matches from April to December 2004 on the instruction of three Croatian brothers who betted on the results.

One of the brothers, alleged gambling ringleader Ante Sapina, made over 1 million euros ($1.20 million) on two fixed games alone, prosecutors say.

The scandal, uncovered at the start of 2005, rocked Germany's football authorities a year ahead of the nation's hosting of the World Cup.

Full and partial confessions from all but one of the defendants - Marks - means guilty verdicts are likely in those cases, according to defence lawyers, although there will be a debate about the relative importance of the defendants' roles.

Defence lawyers are also questioning whether the accused were bound together like an organised gang as the indictment alleges.

'I expect guilty verdicts,' said Nicholas Becker, representing Ante Sapina, who faces the most charges - 42.

The offences could bring jail terms of up to 10 years, although defence lawyers appear hopeful that the confessions and a lack of previous convictions will lead to sentences nearer the one year minimum.

Becker reckoned the trial, initially scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays, may be over within six to seven sessions. Hoyzer's lawyer, Thomas Hermes, said that 10 to 12 days was more likely.

'A lot depends on Marks,' Hermes said. 'The others will go much quicker.'

The trial, which starts on Tuesday, may then not be settled before the most powerful figures in world soccer gather in Leipzig on December 9 for the World Cup finals gala draw.

Football, the world's most popular sport, has also been hit by a match-fixing case that recently came to light in Brazil, home of the world champions.

FIFA, world soccer's governing body, set up a Task Force last month with a view to creating early warning systems with bookmakers to track unusual betting patterns and detect any future match-fixing attempts.

Tuesday's opening session in Berlin's superior court of justice will begin with a reading of the indictment before the defendants are given the chance to speak.

Unlike in a U.S. or British trial, the accused are not required to plead guilty or not guilty.

Lawyers for Hoyzer and Ante Sapina say their clients will address the court. The two other brothers are expected to make written submissions. It is not clear what Karl or Marks will do.

Witnesses from state-sponsored betting agency Oddset could appear in court in the second or third week.