By Brian Homewood
ZURICH, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Organised criminal gangs are targeting around 50 national soccer leagues for possible match-fixing and any country is vulnerable regardless of its record on corruption, according to FIFA head of security Ralf Mutschke.
Mutschke said a convicted match-fixer had personally told him at a secret meeting that the activity was preferred by many criminals to the drugs trade.
"I met a match-fixer, a convicted match-fixer, here in Zurich next to the zoo and he told me organised crime is moving out of the drug trade and getting involved in match-fixing because of low risk and high profit," he said.
"He told me straight to my face," added Mutschke who worked for the German federal police for 33 years before joining FIFA in 2012.
"I would say there are about 50 different national leagues outside Europe which are targeted by organised crime on the betting market," he told reporters at FIFA headquarters.
Match-fixing has become a huge concern for soccer's authorities recently as criminal gambling rings pay players, referees or officials to manipulate matches and make enormous amounts of money by betting on the outcome.
Mutschke said that in some cases national leagues and confederations had been infiltrated to the point where referees were able to boost their careers by taking part in manipulation.
"We have seen them trying to take over an entire club and use it for match manipulation, we see it in other parts of the world," he said.
"If they manage to take over the club, they pay the salaries for the players but they are also transferring players to other clubs.
"We also see infiltration on an association level and on a confederation level.
"I know as well that referees are being lured by fixers who promise them a boost in their career when they get involved in match manipulation, because this fixer has good contacts in the federation."
Mutschke pointed out that all countries were vulnerable, not just those with a reputation for corruption. One of the most notorious cases, which led to a two-year prison sentence for Singaporean national Wilson Raj Perumal for masterminding a match-fixing scheme, was in Finland.
"There is always the question about which is the most vulnerable region in the world," said Mutschke.
"My answer is there is none. Perumal went to Finland and manipulated matches there and tried to infiltrate a club there. Finland is rated as number two on the transparency index, so it's not corrupt at all."
Mutschke said match-fixers would sometimes approach players, referees or officials out of the blue.
"You have a 50 percent chance of acceptance and what upsets me is that it demonstrates to me that they have no fear of us because nobody is reporting these approaches," he said.
On other occasions, they groom their victims over time.
"You follow the target over a certain time period, you assess his attitude, whether he is satisfied, happy, is he paid, or lacking payment from the club, or is he betting."
Sometimes, they even managed to get access to the players tunnel.
"The fixers are in the stadiums and are looking at the targets and sometimes they get access to the tunnel which is strange," he said.
Another tactic by match-fixers is to organise international friendlies and change the referee at the last minute.
"If you don't have pictures from the match, it is difficult to find out if this really was the referee who supposedly controlled the match."
On one occasion, FIFA only discovered the change because the listed referee was black and they saw on Youtube that a white official was in charge of the game.
Mutschke said FIFA had set up a hotline for players and referees to report approaches and he wanted each of FIFA's 209 member associations to appoint integrity officers to collaborate.
"I try to impress our members and involve them in the future in the fight against corruption. We have 209 members and several confederations and this is really a challenge. I might fail but at least I'd like to say I tried."
"My goal is that the entire football community has to be strengthened in the fight against corruption and match manipulation."
Mutschke said there had been some good news.
"Last autumn, three referees were approached by a fixer on their way to a stadium (and asked) to fix a match. They reported it to FIFA. We could identify the guy, he is part of a football federation, he is under investigation and he will be kicked out," said Mutschke.
He did not believe that any matches in the qualifying competition for the 2014 World Cup had been affected because of the prestige at stake and high profile of the games.
He also praised the Guatemalan squad who recently denounced three team mates for trying to persuade them to fix a friendly. The three were banned for life last year.
"Guatemala is a good example for me, they were really eager to do something. We appreciated it very much," he said.
However, Mutschke admitted that FIFA could not provide protection for witnesses and that sanctions for players were often tougher than for the fixers.
"There are legal loopholes, I know that most of the sentences of one or two years, or sometimes just a fine. Can you threaten and organised criminal with a fine?"
"I feel it is unfair as well. The players lose their profession immediately and the fixer is paying a fine. This is a strange situation. We have certain rules for good reasons, but sometimes those rules are against us." (Editing by Ed Osmond)