Soccer faces epic fight against match-fixing
ZURICH (AP) — Soccer is falling under a cloud of suspicion as never before, sullied by a multibillion-dollar web of match-fixing that is corrupting increasingly larger parts of the world's most popular sport.
Internet betting, emboldened criminal gangs and even the economic downturn have created conditions that make soccer — or football, as the sport is called around the world — a lucrative target.
Known as "the beautiful game" for its grace, athleticism and traditions of fair play, soccer is under threat of becoming the dirty game.
"Football is in a disastrous state," said Chris Eaton, director of sport integrity at the International Centre for Sport Security. "Fixing of matches for criminal gambling fraud purposes is absolutely endemic worldwide ... arrogantly happening daily."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a six-month, multiformat AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through match-fixing.
At least 50 nations in 2012 had match-fixing investigations — almost a quarter of the 209 members of FIFA, soccer's governing body — involving hundreds of people.
Europol, the European Union's police body, announced last week that it had found 680 "suspicious" games worldwide since 2008, including 380 in Europe.
Yet experts interviewed by The Associated Press believe that figure may be low. Sportradar, a company in London that monitors global sports betting, estimates that about 300 soccer games a year in Europe alone could be rigged.
"We do not detect it better," Eaton said in an interview with the AP. "There's just more to detect."
Globalization has propelled the fortunes of popular soccer teams like Manchester United and showered millions in TV revenue on clubs that get into tournaments like Europe's Champions League. Criminals have realized that it can be vastly easier to shift gambling profits across borders than it is to move drugs or other contraband.
"These are real criminals — Italian mafia, Chinese gangs, Russian mafia," said Sylvia Schenk of corruption watchdog Transparency International.
Ralf Mutschke, FIFA's security chief, admits that soccer officials had underestimated the scope of match-fixing. He told the AP that "realistically, there is no way" FIFA can tackle organized crime by itself, saying it needs more help from national law enforcement agencies.
"The scale is such that no country can deal with the problem on its own," said EU Sport Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.
Gambling on sports generates hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and up to 90 percent of that is bet on soccer, Interpol chief Ronald Noble told the AP. Eaton, the former FIFA expert, has cited an estimated $500 billion a year.
Match-fixing — where the outcome of a game is determined in advance — is used by gambling rings to make money off bets they know they will win. Matches also are rigged to propel a team into a higher-ranking division where it can earn more revenue.
FIFA has estimated that organized crime takes in as much as $15 billion a year by fixing matches. In Italy alone, a recent rigging scandal is estimated to have produced $2.6 billion for the Camorra and the Mafia crime syndicates, Eaton said.
Soccer officials are well aware that repeated match-fixing will undermine the integrity of their sport, driving away sponsors and reducing the billion-dollar value of lucrative TV contracts. FIFA earned $2.4 billion in broadcast sales linked to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and already has agreed to $2.3 billion in deals tied to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter has proclaimed "zero tolerance" for match-fixing. Computer experts working for FIFA and UEFA — the European soccer body — monitor more than 31,000 European games and thousands of international matches every year, trying to sniff out the betting spikes that can reveal corruption.
So far, however, sports authorities are "proving to be particularly helpless in the face of the transnational resources" available to organized crime, according to a 2012 study on match-fixing. The report warned that the risk of soccer "falling into decay in the face of repeated scandals is genuine and must not be underestimated."
Match-fixing has been around for decades, of course, and is not limited to soccer. It has also infected sports like cricket, tennis, horse racing and even volleyball. The U.S. has its own sordid history of gambling scandals, from baseball's Black Sox in the 1919 World Series to a handful of point-shaving schemes in college basketball over the years, to an NBA referee taking money from a professional gambler for inside tips on basketball games, including some that he officiated in 2007.
Still, nothing approaches the scale of the allegations now hitting soccer because of the sheer number of games played and the enormous Asian betting interest in European games, according to David Forrest, an economist at the U.K.'s University of Salford Business School, one of the co-authors of the 2012 report.
In January alone, FIFA banned 41 players in South Korea from soccer for life due to match-fixing. That follows 51 worldwide bans last year — 22 of them for life.
Eaton attributes the surge in match-fixing to an exponential rise in online gambling — "at least 500 percent, and likely far more" — in the last decade.
Criminals have targeted every level of the game: the World Cup, regional tournaments such as the Champions League, high-powered divisions like England's Premier League and Italy's Serie A, "friendly" exhibition contests between national teams, all the way down to semipro games.
Match-fixing has also branched out from traditional hotbeds of corruption — Asia and the Balkans — to places like Canada, Finland and Norway, among the least corrupt nations in the world.
Sports Photo Galleriesview all
- 12576OKC Thunder: Thunder trio praise fans before potential departures
- 8415Oklahoma weather: Crews work to clear storm damage in Oklahoma City as the state braces for severe weather Sunday.
- 6843Student shot dead during botched home invasion
- 6546Oklahoma State football: Todd Monken thinks Wes Lunt should've stayed in Stillwater
- 5838Oklahoma medical examiner reports cause of deaths in Grand Lake boat crash
- 4955Oklahoma football: Sooners get pair of commitments
- 4777Soaring gasoline prices hurt Oklahoma City area retailers