In The Hague on Monday when the director of Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency, announced the preliminary findings of an investigation into the rigging of soccer matches, many observers were shocked. Nearly 700 fixed games. Several on UK soil. A transnational criminal conspiracy with an Asian syndicate pulling the strings.
How could such a thing be happening? I knew how easily it was done.
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In April of last year, I traveled to Singapore to report for ESPN The Magazine on this very issue. The most accomplished match-fixers in the world are from Singapore. It was there that I learned how simple it is to fix a game, how boldly and imaginatively these fixers operate on every continent, and how wildly a fixer and his backers can profit in the massive business of Internet sports betting. Over coffee in a cafe in one of Singapore's shopping districts, a prolific fixer explained to me that he had already arranged to rig the entirety of this July's CONCACAF Gold Cup in the U.S. He wouldn't touch the championship game, he said, because that wouldn't be right. It may sound inflammatory to the uninformed, but I returned from Singapore convinced that even the World Cup championship match was fair game.
Now many in the general public are learning for the first time the scope of match-fixing. Credit goes to the world's most effective fixer. Europol's recent announcement is linked to the arrest of Wilson Perumal, the biggest name in the game. Two years ago, Finnish police apprehended Perumal on a tip engineered by his boss in Singapore. The relationship between the two men had ruptured, typically, over money and mistrust. Stewing in jail and facing a lengthy term, Perumal felt betrayed. Embittered, he wrote a letter to a reporter. “I hold the key to the Pandora's Box,” he wrote. “And I will not hesitate to unlock it.”
Hesitancy is not a quality that much profits the match-fixer. The Perumal case highlights what officials have thought all along: The permissiveness of international soccer officials created a setting in which it is acceptable to bend the outcome of a match. Fixing was happening everywhere, all the time, and nobody in a position of authority in the soccer hierarchy was terribly interested in taking responsibility for its ouster from the game.
This attitude has allowed fixing to evolve. One source I spoke with Thursday noted that fixers are now focusing on club friendlies. These are routine games played between teams from leagues in different countries. A Scandinavian club, for example, signs to play a match in a sunny climate during the winter, when snow covers the ground in its own country and the players are in need of a workout. Unbeknownst to the Scandinavian club, its opponent, a team from an Eastern European domestic league, has a motive other than exercise. The two teams meet on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, and the fix ensues.
Although club officials have denied involvement, some people who are combating match-fixing have pointed to Skenderbeu, a team in Albania's top division, as a prime offender in this regard. According to a source I contacted this week, between 90 and 95 percent of the betting on some of Skenderbeu's matches have been on the money, a sure sign of the fix.
Match-fixers continue to exploit new opportunities, despite increased publicity and law enforcement's proactive response to it. Can this problem ever be solved?
I called Chris Eaton. At the time of my reporting last year, Eaton, a longtime Interpol cop, was the head of FIFA security. By my own estimation, Eaton was shackled by FIFA's bureaucracy, hamstrung by the organization's reluctance to address the problem of match fixing effectively. Famous for its own internal corruption and stultifying corpulence, FIFA has preferred to Band-Aid the disease of match-fixing rather than cut out the tumor. Eaton has since moved on. He is now the head of integrity for the International Center for Sports Security, an organization based in Doha, Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup. Eaton knows more about match-fixing than anyone besides the fixers themselves. It is therefore enlightening that he is now focusing his efforts where he believes they will injure fixers the most: Manila.
Eaton claims that the three largest gray sports books in the world are located in the Philippines: SBOBET, IBCBET and 188BET. He says they are gray because they are legal, yet they have little to no regulatory oversight. Eaton says their status as legal books enables them to generate the large handles that fixers need to cloak their bets, and that their lack of supervision allows criminals to infiltrate their ranks in order to manipulate and defraud. I asked Eaton why all this was so important.
“This is the source of the criminal profits that are then reinvested back into match-fixing,” he said. “It's a circle of activity. Betting fraud is the father of match-fixing. Without betting fraud, there's no child of match-fixing.”
Eaton and his subordinates are currently engaged in a 12-month investigation in Manila, intelligence mapping the structure and the method of operation of the criminal groups active in Filipino sports books. “These are operating very much like international commodities houses and currency exchanges,” he says. “They are young, highly educated, highly qualified people who act as traders, who sell and buy bets in enormous quantities. It's very much Wall Street. Except it's betting Wall Street in Manila.”
Eaton maintains that if match-fixers and their sponsors no longer have easy access to these sports books, the funds needed to bribe players, coaches, referees, and club officials will vanish, returning integrity to the game of soccer.
“We need to see sport regulations and sport controls that make the public confident that sport is clean,” he says. “But betting has to be clean too. We have to apply business principles to the gambling houses, the same business principles we're demanding of sport. Because if you don't cure both sides of this problem -- the betting fraud and the match-fixing -- then the problem will persist.”
Brett Forrest is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. You can check out his work here at brettforrest.com.