‘This is,” suggested Friedhelm Althans, the chief investigator of the Bochum police in Germany, “the tip of the iceberg.”
It may only have been the tip of that iceberg exposed this week, but it still made it a day to savour for Althans, a tall, chatty man with immaculate English, who has driven his investigation into football match-fixing from his offices in a small Ruhr city to global attention.
What began as an inquiry into the fixing of fourth-tier domestic matches is now an international inquiry, taking in 15 countries around the world and more than 400 suspects. His lonely crusade has now found an international following.
It is Althans who speaks for Europol’s Operation Veto, a well-meaning co-operation among five European countries to try to combat what they – and many others – regard as a growing threat to the integrity of football in Europe and abroad, and at levels from regional leagues in Europe’s lesser footballing nations up to the Champions League and international football.
The bread and butter is what Althans began with, the fixing of three German fourth-division games. It earned – according to the German authorities – those who arranged it a profit of E250 000 (R3 million). From there it has mushroomed: 79 suspect games in Turkey, 70 in Germany, 41 in Switzerland, 20 in Hungary, 19 in Belgium and all the way down to one in England. It represents, as Rob Wainwright, the head of Europol, pointed out, a small percentage of professional matches played in the time frame under investigation, roughly since 2009, but it is there and it is growing.
“We recognise the problem continues,” said Wainwright. “Criminal syndicates see this as a high-profit, low-risk area for criminal activity.”
It fell to Althans to outline the task that confronts the authorities, be they footballing or law enforcement. “One fixed match involves up to 50 suspects in 10 countries,” he explained. “Police co-ordination is nearly impossible and it is difficult to collect evidence.”
There are many other difficulties facing Althans and his associates. Where he is checked by borders and boundaries, the fixers, in particular one syndicate believed to operate out of Singapore and the Far East, are not. Evidence is difficult to obtain – wire-tapping has been the most productive source – and even more difficult to turn into a case strong enough to persuade prosecutors to go to court. Criminal liability differs widely from country to country. It is as expensive a business to police as it is a profitable one for the fixers to arrange.
On Monday, on a grey day at Europol’s uber-modern HQ in The Hague, Althans and Wainwright were joined by policemen from Finland, Slovenia and Hungary, the roll call from Europe’s outer nations in itself significant. This is the way in for the fixers, on the fringes. Take Hungary: four referees were arrested in 2011 and E320 000 in cash was discovered on accompanying raids. Referees are an easy target, particularly in countries where they are poorly paid. The sums the Hungarians believe were offered to officials range from E40 000 to E600 000 to fix a match. The highest bribe uncovered by Althans’s investigation was E140 000 paid to fix an Austrian Bundesliga match between Kapfenburg and Austria Wien – the maximum profit they found on one game is E700 000, again in the Austrian league. It is a healthy return.
The Hungarians currently have in custody Wilson Raj Perumal, a Singaporean already convicted of match-fixing by a Finnish court. Perumal is believed to have helped fix games via Hungarian organisers, including an Under-20 match between Argentina and Bolivia that was settled by a dubious penalty awarded in the 12th minute of injury time.
The trail from Perumal leads to a man called Tan Seet Eng, also known as Dan Tan, another Singaporean. An international arrest warrant has been issued for Tan – he is wanted in Italy and Hungary – but the Singaporean authorities are yet to act on it. Gianni Baldi, Interpol’s head of criminal organisations and part of Operation Veto, said: “This is not a quick matter – these are complicated investigations. We are working with the Singapore authorities.”
Interpol has its own match-fixing task force, of which the UK is a member, but it is Operation Veto that has given dramatic fresh impetus to what is widely regarded as a deep-rooted threat to the game’s integrity. Althans said there was evidence that Tan was involved with attempts to fix a Premier League game as far back as 1999.
It remains a threat that will largely flirt around the edges of the top leagues – although Serie A has not proved immune and Tan is suspected of involvement in the latest fixing scandal that led to the Juventus coach Antonio Conte, among others, serving a ban for not passing on information to the authorities (he continues to deny any wrongdoing).
It will, to an extent, be a relief to the likes of Althans that two such high-profile fixtures – those two from the Champions League, one in England – have been discovered as it raises the profile of their cause. It is down among the makeweights, the roots of the European game, that the widest threat lies; but it is spreading – 41 suspicious matches in the Swiss league, 18 in Croatia, the list gets longer each year.
At junior level too it is a broadening problem through the increasing number of under-age international fixtures now played. Fifa’s former head of security, Chris Eaton, told The Independent two years ago that he had evidence of young players being caught up in the fixers’ webs early in their careers. They are paid small sums at first, then helped to find clubs in Europe, at first in Europe’s peripheral leagues, and then it’s payback time. Eaton described it as, in effect, “trafficking”. Player awareness is a key feature of attempts by football authorities to combat the spread of such practices.
The numbers revealed by Europol are striking – and also difficult to break down. Some of the matches have already involved prosecutions and convictions, others are still at the suspicious stage. There was an element of smoke and mirrors in The Hague, but this is a real and present danger to football. Althans expects more countries to become involved. This week he suggested the Netherlands as a likely addition to a lengthening list.
“This is an integrity issue,” said Wainwright. “It goes to the very heart of the game.” Or as Altans put it: “We can’t let citizens, the public, athletes lose trust in sport.” – The Independent