By Luke Balleny
BRASILIA (TrustLaw) – The fixing of professional soccer matches by organised crime groups and betting syndicates is a challenge that will not be overcome without the creation of global standards and better cooperation between soccer officials, players, fans and police, a panel of experts said this week.
Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, has increased the resources that it dedicates to tackling match fixing but says that it cannot do it alone. The organisation relies heavily on betting regulators, officials, players and fans to tip it off about suspect betting patterns and games.
“It is obvious that if we don’t set some general common standards at the international level, then we won’t achieve much,” Drago Kos, an anti-corruption expert and former soccer referee told the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Brasilia that ended on Nov. 10.
But while FIFA has the power to ban players and officials from all aspects of professional soccer, it cannot touch the organised crime groups and betting syndicates that are behind the fixing of soccer matches. Police do not regard match fixing as a serious crime even though it is estimated to be a multi-billion dollar business which destroys the integrity of the game and can lead to blackmail, assault and even murder, experts said.
Fifteen Bulgarian soccer club directors have been killed by organised criminals in the last ten years, John Abbott of the international police organisation INTERPOL told the conference.
“FIFA has established a zero tolerance policy (for match fixing) within football but FIFA is not a police agency and our investigations are fully focused on the football community. The fight against organised crime is for law enforcement,” Ralf Mutschke, director of security at FIFA told the conference.
Match fixing, in which either the score of a match or an incident within a match is prearranged and bet upon, can potentially earn millions of dollars for an individual or syndicate that placed the bet.
The match is usually fixed by organised criminals who have either threatened or paid off a player or match official to ensure the desired result.
Corruption in sport was a hot topic at the IACC in Brazil, a country that is grappling with public sector corruption ahead of its hosting of the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
TONE AT THE TOP
Critics say the sport is unlikely to be able to foster greater cooperation until the governing bodies themselves are seen to be transparent and willing to improve their own governance structures.
Almost half of FIFA's all-powerful 24-man executive committee have been subject to allegations of corruption in the last two years and the organisation drew strong criticism from transparency campaigners when, in June 2011, long-time FIFA president Sepp Blatter ran for re-election unopposed.
“If the international public, the international football fan is going to be engaged, is going to assist effectively, if they’re going to be whistleblowers ... then the authorities have to be trusted and they have to be trusted to treat the information that they receive with all integrity,” INTERPOL’s Abbott said.
A GROWING CHALLENGE
In the past year, 60 different countries have opened investigations into soccer-related match fixing, Abbott said.
In possibly the most high profile match-fixing conviction to date, Singaporean match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal was sentenced in July 2011 to two years in prison for attempting to fix Finnish club soccer matches by bribing players.
Most country rankings of corruption consider Finland to be one of the least corrupt countries in the world.
Experts in the betting organisations that INTERPOL work with estimate that the legal betting market is worth roughly $400 billion and the illegal market is about $200 billion, Abbott said.
However, the experts emphasise that the figure for illegal betting “is really just a stab in the dark”, he said.
“What they can say is that of the betting market on sports, 92 percent of the market is on football,” Abbott added.
While experts agree that there needs to be global standards to tackle match fixing in soccer and better cooperation between the different stakeholders in the game, they disagree as to how best to do it.
Kos said that a few months ago he had attended a conference in which a group of experts discussed the possibility of a creating an international anti-corruption agency to govern all sports. But Dimitiri Vlassis, the head of anti-corruption at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said that he doubted that such an agency would be feasible.
“I don’t know whether there is appetite for a new international agency, probably not. I think the sporting world is still studying the costs and effects of the doping agency. I think the jury is still out. I don’t think they have a clear view as to whether this was an investment worth their effort,” Vlassis said.
Abbott said a sports anti-corruption agency was a good idea but it should be a national agency, not an international one.
“Some of the good practice that is around is that there is a central body which is a sort of national information unit for sports information and intelligence,” Abbott said.
“(The unit) collates it, pulls people in and asks them to decide, well, should this be investigated by the Football Association as a disciplinary matter or is it so serious that law enforcement should be involved and make a collective decision from there,” Abbott added.
NOT A POLICE PRIORITY
While FIFA recognises that it has no hold over organised criminals, the police do not take the issue of match fixing seriously enough, FIFA’s Mutschke said.
“It is not a top priority for them. Normally, leads of match manipulation are a by-product of other investigations and often end up being neglected since it is considered as a minor crime or very difficult to prove. But the threat from organised crime is quite real,” Mutscke said.
Mutscke said that organised crime groups see match fixing as “low risk and high profit” and that one Eastern European crime group that he knew of gave up drug trafficking to switch to match fixing.