Place your bets
Place your bets
Pierre Demoux

PARIS – Between 2004 and 2005, Zheyun Ye knocked on the door of almost every professional soccer club in Belgium. By introducing himself as a timely investor, this Chinese expat managed to convince the board of the penniless Lierse SK club to accept a check worth 370,000 euros ($500,000). Except that Zheyun Ye was not investing in the hopes the team would do well. On the contrary, what he wanted was for the players to lose, so that he could hit the jackpot by betting against the club.

Cliff Mardulier, who was Lierse SK’s goalkeeper at the time, described how this “director” got the players to cooperate. “He gave a gun to a guy, who then pointed it at me. Then he told me, ‘If we don’t lose tonight, you’ll be in big trouble.’ That evening, we lost 5-1, but he still wasn’t satisfied. After each game, we had to hand back the money he had given us.”

In just a few months, Zheyun thus managed to fix dozens of matches in Belgium, bribing players, managers or directors of different clubs. The man, who also bought a Finnish club in 2005, has disappeared into thin air and was not among the 31 people charged in Brussels court when a massive match-fixing trial opened Sept. 13.

“This whole affair showed how easy it is for an investor to buy a club and do whatever he wants with it,” explains Pim Verschuuren, researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) and co-author of the white paper “Sports betting and corruption.” There are many examples of soccer clubs being used for criminal purposes. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) underlined in a 2009 report the opaqueness of the transfer market, with money often passing through offshore accounts and common practices of overbilling, which open the door to money laundering.

Regulatory havens

Sport betting among crime organizations is nothing new. In the 18th century, the rules of golf and cricket were codified so as to end betting-related corruption. But the Internet allowed for a global market for sport betting to emerge with a profusion of operators.

“Bets were often used to launder money, but with online betting this has now become common practice,” says Christian Kalb, director of CK Consulting and former marketing manager of sport betting at Française des Jeux, which operates France’s national lottery games. “Contrary to popular belief, the Internet doesn’t make it easier to trace money flows. If you take into account the gambler, the operator, the Internet servers and the bank accounts, the money can pass through several countries, which complicates judicial proceedings.”

The criminals were quick to realize that if they could control the random factor of match results, betting could become very profitable. “A drug trafficker can hope to earn a million euros ($1.3 million) a year, with all the risks it implies and the logistics it requires,” Kalb says. “But it’s possible to earn that same amount in a single fixed game in a first division match. The higher odds are on the number of goals scored. By giving 30,000 euros ($40,000) to four players of a poorly ranked team to secure a big defeat against a favorite, and by splitting up the bet so as not to attract too much attention of the operator and the regulators, they win every time. And there’s little risk too: If a gambler gets caught playing on an illegal website, it’s the operator who’s exposed.”

Over the past few years, several organizations acting in Europe were broken up. Between 2008 and 2011, a network based in Singapore succeeded in fixing hundreds of matches all over the world. Dan Tan, one of its main figures, had set up an international “cooperation” system with mafias from the Balkans and Italian henchmen to infiltrate the Italian soccer league. This Calcio scommesse ("soccer bet") scandal was revealed in 2011. More than a hundred people were accused of having fixed games from the second, third and fourth leagues. On top of the usual threats and financial promises, the middlemen, some of whom were former national teams players, went as far as drugging players before matches. Other members from this Singaporean network even organized friendlies with fake national teams or crooked referees who would award as many penalties as they were told.

The circle Ante Sapina and his associates established pushed match fixing even further. Before his arrest in 2009, he spent 2.7 millions euros ($3.6 million) in nine different European leagues as well as in European competitions and international games. Sapina, a 35-year-old Croatian expat living in Germany, is suspected of having fixed some 300 games. He was sentenced to five years in jail but appealed the decision. Thanks to a well-stocked address book, he would contact soccer players and officials and meet them — sometimes in a bar, at other times in a parking lot — like in a bad movie. That's how the referee for Liechtenstein-Finland, a qualifying game for the World Cup, was recruited: in a Sarajevo parking lot for 40,000 euros ($33,000).

Swiss company Sportradar, along with several betting operators, has developed a system that watches the evolution of odds to track suspicious moves. According to its estimates, 300 games are potentially fixed every year in Europe. Target matches include the most obscure competitions as well as the Champions League and even the World Cup.

During the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, 5,000 people were arrested in connection with sport betting in China, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and more than $10 million was seized. According to CK Consulting, 320 billion euros ($430 billion) was gambled globally last year, 80% of which passing through illegal operators.

“A vicious circle”

Although soccer accounts for two-thirds of this money, it’s possible to bet on virtually any sport via websites. Several tennis players were banned for life after losing sets or matches while abnormally high bets were being made. There are also numerous players who have admitted to being approached for this kind of arrangement. “The top 10 French female tennis players were all contacted at least once,” says one observer. “These cheats get in touch with them via Facebook or during competitions.”

Some sports, such as cricket, have lost a measure of credibility because of recurring scandals. It is said that in Eastern Europe and in some countries of southeast Asia, some soccer competitions are so corrupt that even betting operators refuse to cover them. In a diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks, the American ambassador to Bulgaria said, for example, that “Bulgarian soccer clubs are widely believed to be directly or indirectly controlled by organized crime figures who use their teams as a way to legitimize themselves, launder money and make a fast buck.”

“It’s a vicious circle,” says Pim Verschuuren. “As the sporting stake disappears, the public and the sponsors lose interest in the competition, so the clubs end up with even less financial resources to survive.” Some clubs then have no choice but to “sell” games to the mafia. This is what happened to Macedonian team Pobeda when it exchanged a defeat in the qualifying round for the Champions League against 300,000 euros ($400,000) in 2004 so it could pay its players’ wages.

The fact that such large-scale scandals have been revealed over the past few years has led to a general awareness. Some sport federations have set up units to fight betting-related corruption. The Tennis Integrity Unit is one example. Others, like the FIFA and UEFA, work hand in hand with legal operators and companies specialized in watching the betting market, while Interpol and Europol have special units in charge of sport integrity.

Most illegal operators are not accessible from France, and the country is considered to be relatively well protected from such abuses thanks to its legislation and an efficient regulator (ARJEL). Since online gambling was legalized in 2010, three games have triggered its alert system. But the only way to fight against this phenomenon on a large scale is for states, police and sport authorities to join their forces. In 2014, the Council of Europe is supposed to ratify a convention to standardize legislation and penal measures with regards to betting. This could be the first step toward a global fight.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli


• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.


“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.


Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA

London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.


Dottoré! is a weekly column on by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."


• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days

Keep reading... Show less
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in