THE HAGUE, Netherlands >> Organized crime gangs have fixed or tried to fix hundreds of soccer matches around the world in recent years, including World Cup and European Championship qualifiers and two Champions League games, Europol announced today.
The European Union’s police agency said an 18-month review found 380 suspicious matches in Europe and another 300 questionable games outside the continent, mainly in Africa, Asia and South and Central America. It also found evidence that a Singapore-based crime syndicate was involved in some of the match-fixing.
Europol refused to name any suspected matches, players, officials or match-fixers, saying that would compromise ongoing national investigations, so it remained unclear how much of the information divulged Monday was new or had already been revealed in trials across the continent.
Even so, the picture painted by Europol was the latest body blow for the credibility of sports in general, following cyclist Lance Armstrong’s admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs in all seven of his Tour de France wins.
“This is a sad day for European football (soccer),” Europol Director Rob Wainwright told reporters. He said criminals were cashing in on soccer corruption “on a scale and in a way that threatens the very fabric of the game.”
Europol said 425 match officials, club officials, players and criminals from at least 15 countries were involved in fixing European soccer games dating back to 2008.
Ralf Mutschke, director of security at FIFA, the world soccer body, said the report highlighted the need for soccer authorities and police to tackle corruption together.
“The support of law enforcement bodies, legal investigations, and ultimately tougher sanctions are required, as currently there is low risk and high gain potential for the fixers,” he said.
Mutschke said while FIFA can ban players, referees and club officials, it is powerless to sanction people not directly involved in the sport.
“For people outside of football, currently the custodial sentences imposed are too weak and offer little to deter someone from getting involved in match-fixing,” he said.
Europol is not a police force but provides expertise and helps coordinate national police across the 27-nation European Union. It said 13 European countries were involved in this match-fixing investigation, pouring through 13,000 emails, paper trails, phone records and computer records.
Its probe uncovered €8 million ($10.9 million) in betting profits and €2 million ($2.7 million) in bribes to players and officials and has already led to several prosecutions.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said German investigator Friedhelm Althans, who also said two World Cup qualification matches in Africa and one in Central America were among those under suspicion.
Wainwright said while many fixed soccer matches were already known from criminal trials in Europe, the Europol investigation lifted the lid on the widespread involvement of organized crime.
“(That) highlights a big problem for the integrity of football in Europe,” he said.
He said a Singapore-based criminal network was involved in the match-fixing, spending up to €100,000 ($136,500) per match to bribe players and officials.
“The ringleaders are of Asian origin, working closely together with European facilitators,” Europol said in a statement, but adding that “Russian-speaking” and other criminal gangs were also involved.
Wainwright said the soccer world needed a “concerted effort” to tackle the corruption.
UEFA, which oversees European soccer and organizes the Champions League, seemed surprised by the breadth of Europol’s accusations. It said it expected to get more information on their investigation shortly.
“Once the details of these investigations are in UEFA’s hands, then they will be reviewed by the appropriate disciplinary bodies in order that the necessary measures are taken,” UEFA said in a statement.
Previous investigations have found that a World Cup qualifier between Liechtenstein and Finland in September 2009 was fixed by a referee from Bosnia, who UEFA banned for life.
Last year, UEFA expelled a Malta player implicated in fixing a European Championship qualifier between Norway and Malta in June 2007.