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Just how corrupt is football?

Lee Wellings delves into the work of Europol and considers how worried we should be about the purity of football.
Last modified: 6 Feb 2013 17:35

The figures released this week by Europol painted a shocking picture.

380 matches suspected of being fixed in Europe alone. 300 more worldwide. 30 countries investigated, evidence of involvement in 15 countries.

An apparent epidemic of match fixing in Germany. Over 22 million dollars gambled. Over TEN million dollars of apparent profit for a syndicate based in Singapore.

425 people including match officials and players suspected of involvement. 50 arrests.

The biggest ever investigation into the problem in Europe has detailed a problem that will make everyone - mo matter what country they watch football in - question whether what they are seeing on the field of play can actually be believed. And that's perhaps the biggest shame of this organised crime.

But to understand the depth of the problem we must seek more context.

Europol are not doing this for a favour. They have budgets, a reputation and further investigations to do. It therefore has to be said that some of the cases that were highlighted were already not only public knowledge - but had resulted in arrests.

It's not only what the european police actually do that matters, it's what they are SEEN to have done. Their report does football a great service but the good news is that football's governing bodies and international police have at least started fighting back.

The most alarming revelation was the mention of the European Champions League. If the most prestigious competition in club football has been tainted, what's sacred?

In my broadcasts for Al Jazeera I have explained the vulnerability of certain matches. A vital game is unlikely to be targeted, far less a final. The fixers are more clever and sophisticated than that. Therefore it was no surprise to discover the match in England involved Debrecen, a club not expected to progress to the knockout stage, and a Liverpool team unwittingly involved in the attempted corruption.

Debrecen's goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksic, an international for Montenegro, has strongly denied any involvement in match fixing and continues to play for his country.

But the tactic of using ONE player or one team only reminds me of the high-profile cricket case I covered in London, where England's players took on Pakistan, unaware that some of their opponents were 'spot fixing', affecting small parts of the game so criminals on the subcontinent could win big money through illegal bets.

It only takes a handful, or even one corrupt player, to throw a game. But the more people complicit, the better their chance.

Clearly in the minor leagues of Germany, Hungary, Finland, Slovenia and there have been dozens of people 'at it' to use the term of the high court judge who jailed those Pakistan cricketers in 2011.

With match fixing in sport as with all organised crime it's crucial to get to the ringleaders, the epicentre of the corruption.

So the spotlight has very much shifted to Singapore itself.

"The authorities in Singapore are assisting the European authorities in their investigations into an international match-fixing syndicate that purportedly involves Singaporeans," the Southeast Asian city-state's police said in a statement.

"Singapore takes a strong stance against match-fixing and is committed to working with international enforcement agencies to bring down transnational criminal syndicates, including those that involve the acts of Singaporeans overseas, and protect the integrity of the sport."

If only it was one country and one betting ring though. Europol insist it's the tip of the iceberg.

Sport is being targeted like never before by organised crime. The phenomenal increase in sports betting, including all facets of events, means patterns become more difficult to spot and gives the criminals crucial space to manoeuvre.

Helping the police to shut down that space is one of the biggest battles football has ever faced.