“Mortal danger”
 of match fixing

After organised crime and sports betting have already destroyed sports in Asia, betting rings have now set their sights on European football, investigative journalist and author Declan Hill told the Journal in an interview at Global Compliance Solutions’ Anti Money Laundering and White Collar Crime conference.   

“Arschloch,” grumbles Emile Mpenza. “Arschloch!” he shouts again, repeating the insult.

The Belgian soccer player for German Bundesliga team Hamburger SV looks at the towering referee who immediately shows him a red card and then points with an outstretched arm to the changing rooms, telling him to leave the pitch. Mpenza has been sent off, leaving his team with a player down for the remainder of the match.

His face shows no emotion, but inside he is still boiling with anger. 

Just a minute earlier Thijs Waterink, a Dutch player for third division side SC Paderborn, ran into the back of a Hamburg player and to the joy of some, dismay of others and general astonishment of everyone in the stadium had been awarded a penalty.  

It is only one of many bizarre decisions the referee is going to make during the first round German Cup match this afternoon, including another equally preposterous penalty against Hamburg. At the end of his working day the referee has ensured that the semiprofessionals of Paderborn overcome heavily favoured first division side Hamburg 4:2 after having trailed 0:2 only 20 minutes into the match. 

What Mpenza does not know on this 21 August, 2004, is that Waterink had earlier that day received 10,000 Euros in cash from an unknown Croatian man, who suggested that, given the opportunity, Waterink should just fall over in the area around Hamburg’s goal.  

The Croatian man Filip Sapina then joined his brother Ante Sapina and 7,000 fans in the stadium to nervously watch the outcome of the game. Before the match both men had diligently filled in 175 betting slips wagering a total of 83,000 Euros on the win of the underdog team. 

Paderborn’s win nets them 778,502 Euros and 10 cents, minus 20,000 Euros they pay to the referee, whose name Robert Hoyzer will subsequently become synonymous with corruption in Germany. 

Hoyzer later admits the manipulation of a number of matches, is convicted and serves 14 months of his two year and four month sentence in prison. Ante Sapina is equally convicted and sentenced to a prison sentence of two years and 11 months after Hoyzer cooperates as the main prosecution witness. 

Investigative journalist Declan Hill, author of the book The Fix, a text inspired by his Oxford Phd thesis on match fixing in football, met with Hoyzer and the Sapina brothers for his book. 

Hill, who admits Hoyzer has become a friend, says he can completely understand how the former referee could fall for the Croatian betting mafia. 

“I met both Milan and Ante Sapina and they are very charming men.” Whenever he is in Berlin, Hill goes to Cafe King, where Hoyzer met with the members of the gambling ring, and when he meets with Milan, the oldest of the three Sapina brothers, even his translator finds the man likeable, he says.

“They are deeply charming men and I would caution everyone not to be too quick to judge someone like Hoyzer.” 

Although Hoyzer did something that was very wrong, Hill says, he did come forward and told German investigators that he was not the only referee involved in the fixing of football matches, that in fact it was a problem spreading all over Europe. 

“I believe that the German authorities, because it was the year before the World Cup, shut down their investigation and would not let that investigation go to its natural conclusion, because at the end of the case the only person of the football world that ended up in jail was their main prosecution witness, the guy who started this.” 

He says not only is it profoundly unfair but it also sends a message to everyone in football: Shut up or you will end up in jail. 

“The reason I am so passionate about this is not because he is a friend, but we now know he was telling the truth,” says Hill. 

 

A cancer in the game  

As a matter of fact investigators in Germany announced in 2009 that during that year alone they found concrete evidence of match fixing in over 200 matches in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, Turkey, Hungary, Bosnia and Austria, in addition to at least 12 matches of the Europa League and three matches of Champions League – the most prestigious club competition in Europe. 

In 2011 match fixing and corruption scandals rocked the biggest leagues in Italy, Israel, Finland and Greece; and in Turkey, champions Fenerbahce were embroiled in a match fixing scandal that among others allegedly affected the Turkish Cup final and saw the club withdraw its participation from the currently ongoing Champions League competition. 

Even international friendly matches have been targeted by match fixers. All seven goals in the matches between Bolivia and Latvia and Estonia and Bulgaria at a tournament played in Antalya, Turkey, on 9 February 2011 were penalties. Huge bets had been placed on that outcome in Asian betting markets. The match officials in charge have been banned for life. 

When the father and uncle of Wayne Rooney, England international and one of football’s biggest international stars, were arrested last month on suspicion of manipulating a match in Scotland the issue received attention that extended beyond the football world. 

The sheer volume of investigations and arrests across Europe indicates that the proliferation of online gambling and sports betting and the corresponding growing potential for corruption represents a very real risk to football and many other sports. So much so that Michel Platini, president of European football association UEFA, says match fixing is a “mortal danger” to the sport. 

This danger is spreading from Asia, the region with most of the world’s sports bettors. Organised crime and corruption have already totally destroyed sport in Asia, including Japanese sumo wrestling, Taiwanese baseball and Chinese football, says Hill.  

German match fixers told Hill that they had a star rating that would inform their bookies. One star would mean that they might get the referee or one or two players all the way up to five stars which would indicate players on both teams are fixing the outcome of the match. The Asian fixers in contrast have both teams, the coaches, the referee and the linesmen.

“They have everything and the level of fixing in Asian leagues is truly extraordinary,” notes Hill, who adds that these are not only his words but also those of Hu Jintao, the Chinese president. 

Jintao said in 2010 that corruption in the Chinese football league is so bad that it is a national embarrassment. To address the problem Chinese authorities arrested 200 people including the head of the Chinese football association, who was thrown in jail and replaced with a party official. Some months later the party official had to be arrested on corruption charges as well. 

“The scale of corruption in Asia is just appalling and that is the danger that is coming to European, American and Latin American football,” Hill says. 

“What is going on now is the Asian gamblers are turning their attention to European football and they are not just turning their attention to the Bundesliga [Germany’s elite division]. Because there is such big demographic, they are betting on third division, semi-professional teams.“ 

He says it is naturally much easier to bribe a player in the third division regional league than a star from Bayern Munich because those players make a lot less money. The ideal circumstances for match fixing are matches that involve a huge amount of gambling and where players do not get paid a lot of money, such as World Cups and other international football tournaments. Teams from Africa and the former Soviet Union are particularly affected.  

 

What can be done?  

Hill’s message to international sports organisations is not to pay the national sports associations but to pay the players instead.

“It is not that they are receiving bad wages, it is that they are receiving bad wages compared to their own football officials, who are getting the millions that FIFA are giving to their organisations and putting them into their own pockets.”  

This results in a situation where some players can trust the fixers more than they can trust their own officials.  

“So you have these gangs that are going around and they have been at these international soccer tournaments for the last 20 years, prospecting these guys.”  

Hill, concerned that the issue could be turned into hyperbole, adds that not every single team is concerned but there is a significant minority that is affected. In general football’s greatest defence is that it is a very difficult game to fix, he says, much more difficult to fix than other sports such as tennis, cricket, boxing, snooker or horseracing, all disciplines that had their own match fixing and corruption scandals. 

Because football by its very nature is very difficult to fix, Hill believes, it is really easy to stop most of this activity. In reaction to his book, published in 2008, Hill says people have gone from denial to resignation without going through combat. “But we can fight this, we are not corrupt societies.” 

An organisation like FIFA needs to understand that they are effectively a Fortune 500 company, which needs a security department, something that was only launched last year. 

“You need an anti corruption hotline where a player can pick up the phone and talk anonymously to an independent agency and say: Look I am a player for a Turkish team and I am supposed to fix against such and such a team.” 

These are not difficult things to do and football associations should learn from North American professional sports, where in the National Basketball Association for example a security department exists and players are educated about being a potential target for organised criminals. “That is fanatastic and should be done for European football,” Hill says. 

UEFA is taking this message on board. Earlier this year, UEFA’s Executive Committee approved a report by its betting/match-fixing working group, which proposed measures that European football should take to address the threat of match-fixing – including the setting up of a network of Integrity Officers at European level. In September 2011 the first-ever UEFA Integrity Officers’ workshop took place at UEFA headquarters with a stark warning from UEFA President Michel Platini about the dangers of match-fixing in football. 

“Football, like most sporting disciplines, is in mortal danger,” Mr Platini said. “The very essence of our sport is based on the integrity of results, from school sport up to the World Cup. If the dice are loaded, what is the point of taking part or getting enthusiastic?” he said. 

“Today, there is not a week that goes by without newspaper headlines which speak of a suspicion, an inquiry or an arrest linked to the integrity of our competitions. Nevertheless, I refuse to resign myself vis-a-vis this mortal danger, and I know that the entire football family is ready to counterattack.” 

As well as acting as liaison officers for cooperation between the football authorities and state law enforcement agencies in relation to suspected match-fixing, Integrity Officers will exchange information and experience with the UEFA administration regarding the prosecution of corrupt or criminal practices affecting football.

They will monitor disciplinary proceedings and coordinate relevant action, as well as organising educational programmes for players, referees and coaches as part of an effective preventative strategy. 

UEFA will make annual funds available to each national member association to help finance the position of Integrity Officer. Even FIFA is starting to make the right noises, after having ignored the issue for some time, by pledging money to Interpol and announcing financial rewards and an amnesty for whistleblowers. 

But UEFA’s Platini has already emphasised that football authorities will not be able to stop match fixing on their own with sporting sanctions alone. He called on European countries to make sports fraud a criminal offense.  

Declan Hill 1

Declan Hill

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