Soccer is known throughout much of the world as the beautiful game. But the sport's ugliest side - the scourge of match-fixing - will not soon go away.
With the 2014 World Cup in Brazil drawing closer, a European police intelligence agency said Monday that its 19-month investigation - code-named Operation Veto - revealed widespread occurrences of match-fixing in recent years, with 680 games globally deemed suspicious. The list of match types is staggering: some 150 international matches, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America; roughly 380 games in Europe, covering World Cup and European championship qualifiers as well as two Champions League games; and a slew of other games that run the gamut from lower-division semiprofessional matches to contests in top domestic leagues.
But officials at the news conference at The Hague repeatedly sidestepped questions from reporters on how many of the 680 matches cited had been previously reported, and, in some instances, previously prosecuted, and how many of them represented new information.
Nor would the officials identify any of the teams and individuals newly linked to match-fixing, citing the need to guard the confidentiality of police procedures.
Still, one new tantalizing detail did emerge: the revelation that one of the suspicious matches uncovered was a game in the Champions League - the most prestigious annual soccer tournament in the world - and that it was played in England over the last three or four years.
Even as the news conference continued, fans immediately took to social media to speculate on the match in question and, indeed, on which English team might have been involved. Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham are the only English teams that have participated in the Champions League during the time frame cited by officials. All six are iconic teams in England's Premier League, which is by far the world's most popular soccer league and has an unparalleled global following.
And while the lack of details left it unclear as to whether investigators believed an English team was culpable in fixing a Champions League game, or whether it was an opposing team from another country that had come to England for the match, the fact that match-fixing was now being linked to the country that represents the biggest international stage in soccer left many in the sport apprehensive.
"It would be naive and complacent of those in the U.K. to think such a criminal conspiracy does not involve the English game and all the football in Europe," Rob Wainwright, the director of the police intelligence agency, known as Europol, told reporters.
Most of the investigation's focus, however, was focused elsewhere. Europol described a wide-ranging network of fixing that struck at the sport's core: nearly $11 million in profits and nearly $3 million in bribes were discovered during the investigation, which uncovered "match-fixing activity on a scale we have not seen before," Wainwright said.
"This is a sad day for European football," he added.
Fixers typically seek to dictate a game's result by corrupting the players or the on-field officials, and the Europol officials said Monday that roughly 425 people were under suspicion because of the investigation, with 50 people having been arrested. The scope of the investigation covered games from roughly 2008 to 2011.
An organized crime syndicate based in Asia is believed to be the driving force behind the fixing activity, which stretches across at least 15 countries, Europol officials said. Individual bribes were, in some instances, higher than $136,000, and fixers would place bets on the tainted matches through bookmakers in Asia.
Various matches in Africa, Asia and South and Central America were identified as suspicious, and Declan Hill, a Canadian journalist and the author of "The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime," said his reporting on the subject - which was included in Europol's investigation - had not previously indicated such widespread fixing among national teams.
"That number, that 150 international games, says to me that it is not just players and officials that are being targeted," Hill said in an interview. "It is also team officials. With that many instances, it seems clear that there is more organization where a team official is guiding something."
Europol did not publicly identify the ringleader of the Asian syndicate, but several knowledgeable law enforcement officials later said on condition of anonymity that it was a man based in Singapore known as Dan Tan. They said Tan had been implicated in match-fixing cases dating to 1999. Interpol has issued an international arrest warrant for Tan, but Tan has not yet been detained.
The conclusion of Europol's investigation comes after a torrent of high-profile match-fixing incidents. Last month, FIFA, the sport's governing body, barred 41 players for fixing matches in South Korea; in December 2012 the president of the South African Football Association was suspended after FIFA determined that four exhibition matches before the 2010 World Cup had been fixed; and last summer, a complex match-fixing network was discovered in Italy, rocking that country's high-profile professional leagues for the second time in six years. Italy also endured a vast match-fixing scandal in 2006.
In addition, German prosecutors had previously cited dozens of cases, although it was not clear how many of those, or the ones also previously identified, were included in the tally of 680.
The country with the most cases identified by Europol was Turkey, with 79; Germany was next, with 70, followed by Switzerland, with 41. Cases were also cited in Belgium, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Canada.
Soccer, according to several bookmakers, has often been thought of as a sport ripe for fixing because it is so low-scoring, thus making it easier for one or two players to manipulate the outcome of a game.
Hill cautioned that North American fans of the game should not assume match-fixing is only a problem overseas. There have been instances of match-fixing in a lower-level league in Canada, and Hill said his reporting had indicated that several players in Major League Soccer have been approached by gamblers in recent years.
According to Hill, there have been no instances of fixed games in MLS, though there have been reported incidents in the Concacaf Champions League, a regional tournament in which MLS teams participate.
Dan Courtemanche, a spokesman for MLS, said that last year the league enrolled in an early-warning system that monitors betting worldwide for indicators of potential match-fixing and that this year the league will institute rules that ban the use of cellphones and electronic communication from the locker room beginning an hour before kickoff of games.
"While we have faith in the integrity of those associated with MLS, we will not ignore what has already transpired around the world," Courtemanche said. "We are not so naive as to think we are immune."
David Jolly contributed reporting from The Hague, Netherlands.
Copyright 2013 New York Times News Service
Story first published on: Monday, 04 February 2013 19:16 IST