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.
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.