Organized crime is running up the score, rigging professional football matches at the highest levels and pocketing billions from bets placed on the outcomes. And most of it is controlled from Asia, investigators say. The question is, what can be done to stop it?
Yoon Ki-won was two weeks from his 24th birthday when police say he killed himself rather than face charges that he’d taken gamblers’ money to throw matches in South Korea’s top football division, the K League. A promising goalkeeper, he’d been drafted by Incheon United out of college and started for the club at the beginning of the 2011 season before being benched early on following a series of lackluster performances—12 goals in six games, culminating in a 0-6 rout on 30th April at the hands of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. His body was found a week later behind the wheel of his car at a rest stop on the Gyeongbu Expressway near Seoul. Beside him was a half-burned briquette, the fumes from which killed him, and an envelope stuffed with 1 million won, the equivalent of about 700 US dollars. “You never can do it without a goalie,” says Mario Cizmek, an aging ex-midfielder sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment and banned from world football for life for organizing rigged games in 2010 while with FC Croatia Sesvete.
As in sports, so in the corrupting of it, there are rules, as Mr Cizmek explained in a February interview with The Associated Press:
• The goalie gets the most money because it’s his statistics on the line. Defenders get the next biggest share, then the midfielders. Forwards are of least value and often are left out of the conspiracy altogether.
• Croatia Sesvete was having a terrible season in 2010 and was going to be relegated anyway, making it a target for fixers who zero in on clubs that have nothing to lose. Bad teams that fail raise fewer red flags than good teams losing when they’re not supposed to. Other clubs are desperate to win, perhaps to ascend to a higher division and the immensely greater revenues that accrue from TV contracts, sponsorships and other sources.
• The successful fix is the one that defies detection—the team expected to win wins, the one expected to lose loses; or if it’s an unusual outcome it’s in a “friendly” that doesn’t count in the standings.
• The more players in on the fix the better, and the bad guys are equally careful in deciding which. Younger ones like Yoon Ki-won are cheaper and more malleable. Then there are the older ones nearing the end of their careers, like Mario Cizmek, 36 at the time of his fall with a wife and two young children to support and back taxes to pay.
• Any player in financial trouble is a mark. More than a few on Croatia Sesvete in 2010 were. Despite past successes, the club was on the skids. Mr Cizmek and his teammates hadn’t been paid a regular salary in months. It’s a grim reality for professional players in some countries, more than most fans know.
It was the transgressing of the rules that drove Wilson Raj Perumal, a dean among fixers, to break faith with his confederates and blow the cover off a global conspiracy financed and led from Singapore that makes untold millions every year betting on scores of football contests its operatives have rigged—this is “arrogantly happening daily,” in the words of one expert—in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, North and South America, in elite divisions and in the bushes, wherever players, managers, coaches, referees, team executives, owners, anyone capable of manipulating the action on the pitch, is willing to take a bribe.
Wilson Raj Perumal, a Singaporeannational and a wanted manin the city-state, says he wasone of six “shareholders”in a match-fixing syndicate basedin Singapore and known as the“Zingari” (the “Gypsies”). He was tryingto get out of Finlandon a forged passport when he wasarrested in February 2011.
Mr Perumal, a Singaporean national, says he was one of six “shareholders” in the organization, the “Zingari,” as they styled themselves (“Gypsies”). He was trying to get out of Finland on a forged passport when he was arrested at Helsinki Vantaa international airport in February 2011. At that point, he’d been in and out of jail in Singapore and was on the run, having fled the city-state the year before while appealing a five-year sentence for injuring a police officer. When he was picked up in Finland he had numbers on his phone for people in 34 countries. He was on Facebook, Twitter and Linked In, promoting a business he called Football4U, which investigators say was a front for his illegal activities. He was gambling heavily and in debt and pocketing money he was getting from his investors to fix games. This is according to Chris Eaton, who’d served with Interpol and was head of security for FIFA, the governing body of world football, at the time of Mr Perumal’s arrest. Mr Eaton is a director of the International Centre for Sport Security, a non-profit think tank based in Doha that advises governments, sports associations, event organizers, leagues and clubs on safety and integrity and is probably the most quoted expert on the soiling of the sport. He believes Mr Perumal had become a liability to the gang and its alleged leader, 48-year-old Tan Seet Eng—Dan Tan, as he is known. Mr Perumal believes he was set up and has spent the last two years exacting his revenge, first in Finland, where he served a year for bribing players in that country’s top league, then in Hungary, where he was wanted on a European warrant and taken to a secret location, presumably to assist authorities there as well (or so it would appear from a report later that year by a Hungarian newspaper that said all fixes in Hungary were decided in Singapore). Italian investigators also were eager to talk to the man they call their “primary source of evidence” and went to Finland to question him, as did a representative from Europol, the law enforcement arm of the European Union. News reports say his whereabouts are unknown, although it appears he is giving out enough to enable him to avoid extradition to Singapore.
“He’d be in prison for five years, and perhaps he wouldn’t come out of that prison,” Mr Eaton told AP. “He has realized that his only way forward is to become an informant and to cooperate.”
From his cell in Finland, Mr Perumal began writing letters. “Seeking police assistance is a violation of code No. 1 in any criminal business,” one went. “Dan Tan broke this code. And now he has to face the consequences. I hold the key to the Pandora’s Box and I will not hesitate to unlock it.”
“Football is in a disastrous state,” says Chris Eaton ofthe International Centre for Sport Security.
Mr Eaton believes he has yet to tell all he knows.
Spurred into action by Mr Perumal’s revelations, in July 2011 Europol launched an investigation, and on 4th February of this year called a press conference at their headquarters at The Hague to announce its findings on what Europol Director Rob Wainwright called “a sad day for European football”. Nineteen months of legwork conducted in partnership with Interpol and police from 13 EU states had uncovered 680 “suspicious” games worldwide dating back to 2008, 380 of them in Europe, including World Cup and European Championship qualification matches, two UEFA Champions League matches and matches in several top intrastate leagues. More than 400 players, referees, club officials and “serious criminals” had been involved. This was corruption “on a scale and in a way that threatens the very fabric of the game,” Mr Wainwright said.
It was, he added, “the biggest investigation ever into suspected match fixing,” and it only scratched the surface. Last year saw at least 50 nations conduct probes into corruption in football, almost one-fourth of FIFA’s total membership. The computer watchdogs at Sportradar, a private Londonbased company that monitors sports betting around the world, say that in Europe alone maybe 300 crooked games or more are played every year. (UEFA disputes this. Gianni Infantino, who heads the governing body of European professional football, says their monitoring turns up about 200 matches a year containing elements that might be questionable, “which does not mean they are fixed”.) Globally match-fixing rakes in upwards of US$15 billion annually, according to FIFA’s estimate. It is “absolutely endemic worldwide,” Mr Eaton told reporters covering the Europol press conference. Last year, 51 players, officials and coaches around the world were banned by FIFA, 22 for life. So far this year, 74 people associated with football in Italy and South Korea— players, refs, team officials—have been banished.
Rob Wainwright elaborates on the findings of Europol’s probe into soccer match fixing during a pressconference in The Hague, Netherlands, on 4th February.
“Football,” says Mr Eaton, “is in a disastrous state.”
Four-time World Cup champions Italy has been so mired in scandals at the highest levels that outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti has gone as far as to recommend shutting down the professional game for two to three years to clean it up. This season alone, 13 clubs in the top two divisions have been punished in the standings with points deductions. And Italy’s betting industry is considered one of the best-regulated in Europe. The problem is that licensed bookmakers comprise only 30% of it. The lion’s share of the action is funneled through unregulated Internet black markets, most of them operating out of Asia.
Similarly, in South Korea, where only one bookmaker, Sports Toto, is licensed to accept bets, something like 1,000 illegal Web sites do a flourishing trade, according to the Korean Institute of Criminology. South Korean police estimate its value at 3.5 trillion won annually (US$3.1 billion).
Corruption in South Korean sports had been a thinly veiled secret for years before Yoon Ki-won’s death lifted it away. Three weeks after his body was found, four players from the K League’s Daejeon Citizen were arrested. A few days after that, a second player under investigation was dead, also apparently by his own hand. He was a lowlevel midfielder named Jeong Jong-kwan, 29 years old, who once had played for Jeonbuk Hyundai. His body was found in a hotel room in Seoul. In June 2011, an investigation by the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office concluded with lifetime bans for 10 players. Thirty-one more would be blacklisted as a result of a second, broader investigation launched that summer in which 57 were charged: 46 current and former players, managers, coaches and team officials and 11 bookmakers, fixers and their associates and backers. Three clubs had their Sports Toto dividends slashed. Thirty-nine individuals received jail time. One of them, Lee Soo-Cheol, a former K League coach with Sangju Sangmu Phoenix, was found later that year hanging in his apartment south of Seoul. He’d been sentenced to two years in prison for blackmailing the parents of a player implicated in the investigation. Last year, two banned players were charged in a carjacking and kidnapping in the affluent Gangnam section of Seoul. One had made a handful of appearances with the national team. The other, a talented winger, had been working as a hospital receptionist after FIFA blocked his move to a club in Macedonia. Last April, the scandal claimed its fourth fatality, Lee Gyeong-hwan, a midfielder who’d played for Daejeon and Suwon Samsung before he was banned for life. He jumped off the roof of his apartment building in Incheon. He was 24.
In one of his letters from prison, Wilson Perumal recalls “players thanking me for giving them this opportunity and telling me how much this money will change their lives.” In any event, he continued, they are all “like whores who will walk with the highest bidder.” His is not a world that countenances victims. Except maybe the bookmakers. “And they dissolve their losses in the massive turnover of profits.”
‘Bigger than Coca-Cola’
In the statement Europol issued from The Hague it said, “The organised criminal group behind most of these activities has been betting primarily on the Asian market. The ringleaders are of Asian origin, working closely together with European facilitators.” Its investigation tied at least 150 cases directly to fixers in Singapore, to operatives with the kind of backing that enabled them to spread bribes of up of €100,000 per match.
If this wasn’t a reference to the “Zingari,” it certainly sounded like one.
In February 2012, Italian authorities went through Interpol to obtain an international arrest warrant for Dan Tan, whom they accuse in court documents of running a syndicate that made millions fixing dozens of league and cup games in their country between 2008 and 2011. Indeed, their wide-ranging investigation identifies him as the “common thread” tying all the gangs together, an allegation reflected also in Europol’s findings, bolstered, no doubt, by information provided by Mr Perumal.
Italy has no extradition treaty with Singapore, however, and relations between the two on the match-fixing issue “have not been great,” according to the lead prosecutor on the Italian side. “We had hoped for more,” he told AP.
Under mounting international pressure, authorities in the city-state finally acted in February. They announced they were sending four senior police officers to Europe to join Interpol’s Global Anti-Match-Fixing Task Force. To further show their good will they offered up a European, a Slovenian named Admir Suljic, a suspected member of the “Zingari” who news reports say had taken it on the lam in the aftermath of Mr Perumal’s arrest. They notified Italian police of his arrival in Milan on 21st February on a one-way ticket from Singapore and he was arrested at the airport on an Interpol warrant on charges including “sporting fraud committed by a criminal association”. He had been one of several people whom police in the city-state had summoned for questioning earlier that month, according to a story in The Straits Times, which identified them all as associates of Mr Tan’s. All were released within hours, and none where charged, the paper said.
Admir Suljic was arrested at the Milan airport on21st February on an Interpol warrant on chargesincluding “sporting fraud committed by a criminalassociation”.
The day Mr Suljic was arrested, Interpol General Secretary Ron Noble was in Kuala Lumpur playing the diplomat for a seminar on match-fixing hosted by Interpol and the Asian Football Federation. He complimented Singapore police on the Suljic bust, and in a nod to the delicate situation with European investigators emphasized that Singapore and Italy “remain two of Interpol’s most active and effective members”. It was also a show of support for Malaysian authorities, who are in the midst of an investigation of their own into corruption in the country’s Super League, some of the matches in question involving Singapore teams. Last May, Singapore authorities charged a referee and a player with conspiring to fix a Super League contest.
The problem prosecutors face is that Internet betting is simply too big (“bigger than Coca-Cola” is how Chis Eaton describes it), too vast in its global reach, the technological opportunities for subverting it too tempting to resist and extremely difficult to track. As Mr Eaton has observed, “Gone are the images of people entering smoke-filled rooms with bags of money and betting slips. Today’s gambling institutions most closely resemble international finance, with its banking, derivatives trading and commodities trading.”
Online sports betting is somewhere around a US$500 billion industry, according to estimates, and FIFA says football comprises 90% of it, its popularity solidified by such digital age marvels as those that allow bettors to wager live in real time on the ebb and flow of action on the pitch as it plays out in front of them on TV. This “in-play” or “in-running” betting, as it’s called, is “particularly advantageous for criminals,” according to a 2012 report by Britain’s University of Salford, and it is especially popular in Asia, where most Web gambling takes place.
Which only magnifies the problem because few Asian markets are regulated with any stringency, and many not at all. The result is a frustrating dearth of transparency. Vital data—on who is betting and where and on what and how much—is simply not available.
“It’s made for corruption,” said economist David Forrest, author of the Salford report.
An Interpol-led crackdown launched during the 2010 World Cup resulted in more than 5,000 arrests in some 800 illegal gambling dens in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. It made hardly a dent in the legions of kids and poor people said to be employed in Internet “sweatshops” by organizations like Mr Perumal’s to place thousands of small bets designed to evade the monitoring software of FIFA and private companies like Sportradar.
For the Europeans the problem is compounded further by the popularity in Asia of the European game—many Asians having lost interest in their own contests, which are perceived as too crooked to bother with—because this means the illicit profits flowing West for the dirty work keep getting larger. The Salford study describes sports bodies and law enforcement as “particularly helpless” in the face of the “transnational resources” available to the fixers, and Mr Eaton believes the good guys haven’t helped their cause by spending too much time and resources targeting corruption in sports and not enough battling corruption in betting.
“This is a global economy, a growing global economy,” he has said, “and it needs to be regulated and supervised.”
The Philippines is of major concern because it is home to Asia’s largest known bookmakers, but regulation there is so lax operators are under no obligation to file accounts or to share information with sports organizations and investigators or ensure that proper know-your-customer systems are in place and maintained. Mr Eaton calls it a “gray-area betting business” where “it’s almost impossible to measure how they do business and what weaknesses they have that allow organised crime to take advantage of this.”
It was to the Philippines that Vietnamese authorities traced a gambling ring they busted in January that was moving millions out of their country on a daily basis. One seized account contained the equivalent of about US$470 million. Under duress (the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force has threatened to blacklist the country), the Philippines Congress voted in February to tighten its anti-money laundering laws. But Internet and landbased gambling were specifically omitted from the reporting requirements, the argument being that it would scare away investment.
China, where Mr Perumal says his syndicate places most of its bets, is another black hole. The country’s Super League has become a byword for corruption. Match fixing is so widespread the country’s largest television network has in the past refused to broadcast its games. Two former heads of the China Football Association are serving lengthy prison sentences, as are four former national team players and a 2002 World Cup referee. They are among 33 Chinese recently expelled for life from world football. Twenty-five others have been slapped with partial bans. “It’s definitely beyond and above the world of sport, above and beyond FIFA,” says Interpol’s Ron Noble. “It’s fair to say we haven’t caught up to the scale of the problem.”
As for the elusive Mr Tan, he “is currently assisting Singapore authorities in their investigations,” according to a statement issued by police there. He remains a free man, and to date, the city-state’s powers have not been inclined to interfere with that. Italian authorities say if they can’t get their hands on him they may try him in absentia.
China’s Super League has in the past been deemedtoo corrupt to televise.
Of what value this would be beyond the “symbolic importance” attributed to it by FIFA’s current head of security, Ralf Mutschke, is impossible to say.
“You give him a name, so everyone is talking about Dan Tan and Dan Tan syndicates and Dan Tan here and Dan Tan there,” he told AP. “If we kill Dan Tan then you will have no match-fixing? No, I think it’s not as easy as this.”