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2/12/06 8:33 PM
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Oddessa
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Who put the fix in football?

Throughout Europe a whiff of corruption surrounds football, with players, managers and referees under suspicion of taking bribes. As gambling on the sport grows worldwide, Jason Burke tracks the twisting trails of the scandal that now threatens to destroy the game's credibility: match fixing

Sunday January 8, 2006


Let's start in a slightly unlikely location: a football ground on the outskirts of a small town in Belgium, 55km east of Brussels. It's Saturday 29 October 2005, and an 8pm kick off for an uninspiring game between Sint Truiden and La Louviere. If, by some perverse chance you are at all interested in the lower reaches of Belgian first division football, you would no doubt have been surprised when Sint Truiden, who were at home and had beaten stronger opposition 5-1 the week before, lost 3-1 to La Louviere, who had just changed their coach and had won only one game all season.
And now a second slightly unlikely location: a room in one of the Hilton hotels in Brussels. It is the day after the game at St Truiden, quite late in the evening, and there is what hotels call 'a disturbance' in one of the rooms where two ladies are finding that their friends are a little less congenial company than expected. The hotel call the police who arrive and find, in addition to two flustered and angry women, €9,000 (£6,000) in cash, a players' agent with a colourful past, a novice manager who is a former Belgian division one player and a Chinese businessman, Zheyun Ye, about whom nobody knows very much other than that he is about 40 years old, is possibly based in France, is somehow involved in textiles and drives a Porsche. The police interview all involved, seize Zheyun's computer and then, with no evidence of any crime, allow everyone to go free.

And finally some unlikely facts. A first division football match in Belgium usually attracts around €40,000 in bets. There was at least €400,000 wagered on the 29 October St Truiden-La Louviere game. One week later, €230,000 was staked on St Truiden's match away to Cercle Brugge. St Truiden lost 2-1. Two other Belgian first division games in September both had around €500,000 bet on them. Some of these games are now being investigated by the Brussels judicial authorities.

So what have we got? Not a lot. We have one country, four games, seven clubs, about a hundred players and around €1,630,000 in larger than usual bets. We have no more than a suspicious meeting and some heavy gambling. But we have only just started.

Given their sudden propensity for losing in games on which people have gambled large sums for them to do exactly that, St Truiden are under some pressure. Their president, Roland Duchatelet, is aware of this, as he told me when we met in his office in the town of Tessenderlo in mid-December. A lean, energetic man of 58, Duchatelet said he was astonished by the La Louviere defeat and decided to investigate the moment he heard of the high bets on the match.

Duchatelet spoke to his staff - none of whom had seen anything strange; he watched videos of the game - which did not show anything wrong; and he interviewed the players - who denied any wrongdoing. 'I called them in and explained the issue,' he said. 'I asked them all to sign an agreement not to bet on their own matches or give information to a third party. In one of the suspicious games a defender made a terrible mistake and gave away a goal, but when we looked at the videos there was no evidence that he did it on purpose.' An inquiry opened into the game by local police at Hasselt has been transferred to Brussels. 'So it is all very unclear,' says Duchatelet, rightly.

What is clearer, however, is that whatever the police are investigating extends far beyond St Truiden. There are about half a dozen investigations under way in Belgium. In recent weeks three players from one club have come forward and said that they were approached and offered money; two players in another side said that they had been approached by a third who has now been suspended for a year for trying to fix a game. The Belgian FA has decided that one second division side, Geel, will be relegated at the end of this season as a punishment.

What is clear is that, as Jan Houspie of Voetball magazine put it: 'There is something stinking here.' Jos Colpin, a spokesman for the judicial authorities in Brussels, said: 'We are looking into it. We are going through the Chinese businessman's computer [seized at the Hilton] and checking all his emails. We don't know where he is right now. He might be in Singapore.'

The trail from St Truiden leads beyond Belgium. Our Chinese businessman was in Finland last summer where in June he bought a large stake in FC Allianssi, league runners-up in 2004-05. He appointed a new coach and new players began to arrive at the club. In July, in one of the first games under the new regime, Allianssi lost 8-0 to FC Haka, the reigning champions. Nine players made their debut for the club in that game. There had been heavy betting both on the result - and on the 2-0 half-time scoreline. Allianssi have since been fined by the Finnish FA for 'poor preparation for a match'. The club is now trying to sever all ties with Zheyun Ye's company, citing breach of contract, and is not renewing the contracts of some of the players signed in the summer.

Meanwhile, in France, Metz lost 4-0 to Lyon on 22 October last year. In November the chairman of Metz, Carlo Molinari, complained to police about an attempt to bribe players. One player and his agent informed the club that they had been approached but rejected a request to 'ease off' during this game. Molinari said: 'Metz have decided to lodge a complaint against persons unknown and we have urged the players to do the same.' The police have interviewed other players and club officials. According to bookmakers, a number of 'suspicious individuals' did bet on the match, though they all lost.

Fine, you may say, there are some suspect games in Belgium and France, and perhaps one in Finland. We now have - on our totaliser, our fixometer - nearly 20 games involving around 30 clubs in three countries since July 2005. It is still, you might argue, not that significant. Even if all the allegations stand up, it is still only an inky drop in a large sporting ocean.

This is where I could list all the investigations in countries around Europe to prove that match fixing, or at least the suspicion of it, appears to be a good deal more widespread than anyone actually thinks. If you join the dots between all the games in the past two years that look as if they might possibly have been manipulated, you end up with a web of connections from Poland to Portugal like one of those cat's cradles that children make with their fingers and string in school playgrounds.

2/12/06 8:33 PM
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Oddessa
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Last August the former president of Polish club GKS Katowice, Piotr Dziurowicz, declared that bribes for players and referees were common. His claims, accompanied by the admission that he had himself paid for matches to be fixed, led to the arrest of several first division referees. Dziurowicz did not want to repeat his statements when I contacted him last month, saying effectively that Poles should not wash their dirty linen in front of a European public. And Portugal? That was 'Operation Golden Whistle', in which 16 referees and senior club officials were arrested on the eve of Euro 2004. So far, 171 people have now been questioned by police.

So, why would you want to fix a match? Well, obviously you can place a substantial bet on it and make a very large amount of money. This is nothing new. Gambling is supposedly the third oldest profession - after prostitution and spying. The former, of course, involves money, the latter information. Match fixing is the use of information to make money. So, if you had happened to know that La Louviere were going to beat St Truiden, you could have put a euro on La Louviere to win at 4 to 1, meaning that your one euro (or €100,000) stake would have come back as five euros (or €500,000) when the favourites lost. The odds on Allianssi to lose 8-0 to Haka were 8,787-1. So for a £100 stake, the price of dinner in a not particularly spectacular London restaurant, a gambler could have netted enough to buy a Bugatti Veyron, currently the coolest sports car on the planet, which retails at £800,000 - and a few more dinners to celebrate. Even better, if you know in advance the result of several games, you can easily link them in accumulator bets. These could turn your initial euro stake into 50 or 100 euros without much difficulty. To increase your profits further, you could have tipped off other gamblers in return for a share of their inevitable winnings.

Naturally, you need to be subtle. It's best to pick a little-known league or a lower division of a big league. Also, you want to avoid abnormal scorelines. When Allianssi lost 8-0, there was widespread surprise, at least in Finland. Most of the games that have triggered the interest of authorities in recent months are ones in which the winners and losers are pretty much obvious in advance - Metz (bottom of table) against Lyon (top) being a good example. The trick is not to bet on the simple result but on the number of goals by which a side wins or loses or the half-time score. There is another reason why you focus on smaller teams who are going to lose anyway: it makes the actual business of rigging a game much easier.

So, how do you fix a football match?

First you need contacts. You need to be able to speak to players or match officials. A major scandal in Germany involving referee Thomas Hoyzer revealed one way of fixing games. Referees can give dubious penalties, allow free-kicks, play advantages, send people off or simply be almost imperceptibly partial. The problem for those fixing matches is that it is quite hard to buy a ref. Which means you usually need players.
2/12/06 8:34 PM
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Oddessa
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Ideally you have a goalkeeper, two central defenders and a midfielder who are all prepared to allow their team to lose. They can make mistakes, drift off those they are supposed to be marking, miskick, allow forwards to get goalside or onside or both, clumsily foul in the box or even, in extremis, score last-minute own goals. If you have these four paid off, then the team is almost guaranteed to lose and almost certainly by a substantial margin. So how do you pay off a player? First you need to talk to them, subtly, and for that you need intermediaries, people such as, for example, players' agents or managers and coaches. Then you need to convince them. This is in part why fixers favour the smaller leagues (a Belgian first division player earns €75,000 a year on average, a Pole far less, so a few thousands euros in cash is an incentive it wouldn't be to a Premiership star on £30,000 a week) and it is why they prefer games that are unlikely to be won ('you'll lose anyway' is a favourite way of getting a player hooked for the first time, subtle blackmail can be used thereafter). Players - or referees - at the end of their career are also more susceptible. And if you, or your intermediaries, know who has financial problems or a cocaine habit or a taste for fast cars or expensive restaurants, then so much the better.

Finally, you are probably not going to work alone. You need people to put up money for initial stakes, people to place bets under their own names to evade complicated vetting procedures introduced by many bookmakers for anyone making substantial wagers. You need lots of 'honest' bets to cover your tracks and semi-'honest' bets in which you have an edge from insider information or similar. You need runners, couriers, possibly protection if there are others who are also looking to get a slice of your operation, you need people who can get you 'intelligence', such as early lists of which referees will officiate which fixtures. In short, you need a complex criminal operation. Not an 'organisation' but a host of people who all know someone or can do something or have somebody's mobile phone number and a favour to call in. All these people need their cut.

Naturally, too, you need to avoid getting caught. Which was where Thomas Hoyzer, a young German referee, and the Sapina brothers, three Croat crooks based in Berlin, went wrong.

The Hoyzer scandal broke in January last year when a group of German referees told the German Football Association (DFB) that the 25-year-old lower-league referee had approached them about fixing matches. Hoyzer denied everything at first but within days of his confessions detectives had raided the homes of four referees from the Bundesliga, searched the houses of 14 players or former players from Germany's second division and arrested the Croat brothers - Milan, Filip and Ante Sapina - who owned a sports cafe in Berlin's Charlottenburg district. This was called the Cafe King, where they found betting receipts worth €2.4m (£1.6m) and a receipt for a newly purchased Ferrari.

It is very rare for a match-fixing case to reach court and the trial of Hoyzer, a second referee, the Sapina brothers and one player, Steffen Karl, provides one of the very few detailed, and legally publishable, case studies of the crime. It has been presented so far as a German scandal or as the story of a corrupt referee. In fact, most of the prosecution evidence dossier, 300 pages of close-typed German legalese, has been unreported. And those 300 pages reveal that Hoyzer was merely a tiny part of a far bigger operation that stretched from Ankara to Manchester and tells us far more about modern match fixing than a single bent man in black.

But let's start with Hoyzer. His lawyer, Thomas Hermes, says his client was the victim of a carefully planned operation that started when the Sapina brothers brought a Croat cousin, a referee, to Germany. The cousin invited Hoyzer to have a drink at the Cafe King where, amid the fake palm trees, the leatherette seats, the big screens and the framed shirt once worn by David Beckham, he was introduced to the proprietors. It was the youngest brother, 27-year-old Ante, with whom Hoyzer, who is 6ft 5in, perma-tanned with bleached blond hair and a stewardess girlfriend, would have most contact.

In an interview with a German newspaper, Hoyzer described his temptation and fall. 'I would party at Cafe King, drinking cocktails and Croatian schnapps. I would get through 10 cocktails sometimes. One night, one of the brothers showed me a betting receipt with a €47,000 win. I thought, "Man, so much money". He then asked, "Could we not do something here?" I drunkenly replied, "Of course, we could do everything". You do many things for money, things that you shouldn't do. I couldn't go running around with money - I spent it all on fashionable clothes, partying and eating out. I didn't save any of it.'

Hoyzer's first attempt at manipulating a result, in July last year, was a partial success. Middlesbrough were playing Hansa Rostock in a pre-season friendly and, according to German court documents, Ante Sapina offered Hoyzer €5,000 to ensure that the visitors were defeated with Rostock leading at half-time. Rostock won the game 3-1 after Hoyzer awarded them a dubious penalty, but the referee only received €1,000 because the first half was goalless.

But Hoyzer had crossed a barrier. He went on to fix six games in the German regional league and the second division. The most high-profile was a cup match in August between Bundesliga club Hamburg and minnows Paderborn. Paderborn won 4-2 after Hoyzer inexplicably sent off Hamburg's best striker, Emile Mpenza, and awarded Paderborn two dubious penalties. According to the German magazine Spiegel, the Sapina brothers liked to attend the games they had bought, turning up in Hoyzer's hotel room shortly before the Paderborn match and even giving him a lift back to Berlin afterwards where he was handed €20,000 in cash.

Last month Hoyzer was sentenced to two years and five months in prison, but remains free until his appeal against the sentence has been heard. Ante Sapina was given two years and 11 months. The prosecutors seized around €2m in assets and say they are relatively pleased with the way the case went. They are also happy with the conviction of Steffen Karl, a lower league defender at the end of his career who agreed to play badly for his side Chemnitz in return for €8,000 from Sapina, largely because he had major financial problems following a divorce. In the event, his lawyer says, he did not play badly, did not take the money and received a short suspended sentence as a result. Twenty other connected people and charges are pending.

2/12/06 8:34 PM
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Oddessa
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Yet Hoyzer and the German games were only part of what the Sapinas were doing. They are about to boost our total of fixed games, suspicious games or games under investigation - now running at around 50 matches in six countries, all since the summer of 2004 - quite dramatically.

Hoyzer claimed that a Uefa Cup match in December 2004, when the Greek side Panionios beat Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia 5-2 after trailing 1-0 at the interval, was fixed too. Bookmakers had reported unusually heavy betting on exactly such an outcome. Warren Lush, a spokesman for Ladbrokes, said that they stopped taking bets on the game six hours before kick-off. 'We saw the big gamble coming. There was a lot of talk about it in internet chatrooms and on websites,' he explained. 'There were a lot of sizeable bets on half-time/full-time outcomes which you don't usually get. We have no evidence that the game was fixed but there was enough evidence of a big gamble for us to act.' Though of a higher profile than those games usually favoured by fixers, the match had one substantial advantage that would have made it theoretically easier to rig: Tbilisi had no chance of qualifying for the next stage. According to the prosecution evidence dossier, the Sapina brothers, 'knew of the game's outcome [in advance] though they had not manipulated the game themselves'. In other words, someone else had fixed the game and tipped them off.

Then there are three players in Austria under investigation, the Czech scandal, an attempt to rig a major game in Turkey (see panel below) and clear evidence that the Sapinas had connections in Italy (where Genoa were relegated from Serie A for bribing their opponents to lose their final match of last season.) An address of someone who is believed to be their Roman agent was pinned to the wall of the office at the Cafe King - a connection that is supposed to have made the Sapinas at least €750,000.

And then there is the fact that, according to the dossier, Ante Sapina 'had contacts' in Britain. Quite who these contacts are is not known - though the German authorities have asked their British counterparts to investigate. There is at least 'Chris/Great Britain', as he was listed in Ante Sapina's mobile phone directory. 'Chris', whose name and address in Berlin is listed in the dossier, made several trips to London and Manchester in late 2003 and 2004, the last on 2 December of that year, to place bets. While in the UK, he cashed betting slips for winnings worth €800,000. No one has successfully been able to explain why a Croat crook operating out of Germany would send someone to bet in Britain unless there was some pressing reason to do so.

So, especially if we add in two other German investigations, both independent from the Sapina-Hoyzer connection, our running total of matches under suspicion or definitely rigged is now at anywhere between several score and several hundred games in 10 countries, not including the UK, since the summer of 2005. Nor, by any means, are all the games in minor leagues. So what is happening to European football?

The headquarters of the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa) is in the small Swiss town of Nyon in a modern building with huge plate glass windows that look out on to the waters of Lake Geneva, choppy and grey in mid-December. William Gaillard, the official I have come to see, is talking to Michel Platini, a member of the Uefa executive committee when I arrive. Platini leaves. What, I ask Gaillard, is happening to European football?

2/12/06 8:34 PM
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Oddessa
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Gaillard's answer comes in three chunks. First, and somewhat to my surprise, he dismisses the German scandal and the rigging of lower-division games as something that has been going on for decades. 'In Germany it was primitive,' Gaillard says. 'It is a cause for concern of course but it is not new. A few years ago no one ever heard anything about what was happening in Poland or elsewhere. Now we know and the problem looks much bigger as a result.'

Second, he talks about technology and internet betting. 'New technology allows you to bet worldwide, to move huge amounts of money very quickly and to hide if you want to. There can be a whole series of firewalls so you never get to those behind this thing. The schemes are sophisticated. A lot of the money is coming from the Far East now. People there have the information and resources and are interested in European games. A tip can spread by word of mouth and suddenly bets on a game go right up. You can see the money coming in.'

Others, such as Roland Duchatelet, the president of the Belgian club St Truiden who himself had invested in an internet betting company, had said similar things. The fixing might be done by Europeans but the cash depends on millions of punters in Asia, punters free to bet on games on the other side of the planet in real time.

Third, Gaillard outlines what is actually a far greater threat than anything I have seen or heard about so far.

'Now the problem is predominantly in the lower divisions or first divisions of peripheral leagues like Finland and fairly amateurish, but eventually it might involve the whole sport with a far more systematic approach. You can have a network of clubs, some of which might be owned clandestinely, developing something like a cartel agreement. You could have a network of 20 or 30 clubs across different continents all of which have a corrupt element. It sounds a bit like science fiction. It would involve agents, owners, sponsors. If they were in positions of sufficient responsibility they could bring in people to work with them, resting key players, picking teams that would lose. They would not just rig the results of one or two games but 15 matches or a series of results.'

So what can be done about it all? Gaillard talks about Europol and Interpol. The world governing body, Fifa, has just launched its own task force on corruption. Uefa has some resources, though they are limited, Gaillard says. It has concluded agreements with a number of the big bookmakers, particularly those who trade on the net, who will warn Uefa of suspicious betting patterns, so it can talk to the clubs, referees, players and the local football authorities. That has happened six times in the past year. Occasionally, where allegations concern a Uefa-run competition, Uefa will investigate itself. So far that has happened once. Uefa officials have interviewed all the players and match and club officials involved in the Panionios-Dinamo game, flying all over the Balkans and the Caucasus to do so. That investigation is 'still open', Gaillard says. 'We have not made much progress. Unless someone talks or we can find a smoking gun it is difficult to put two and two together.'

And if the problem gets worse?

Gaillard pauses. It is getting dark and the lights are going on around Lake Geneva's shores. 'If the problem gets worse then it could put the whole credibility of the game in doubt,' he says, carefully, and then he says something that I underline several times in my notebook. 'You can buy European football if you want.'

It is now the winter break in Belgium, when the soil in the rich flat agricultural lands around St Truiden freezes solid and everyone drinks beer and eats sausages or does whatever is traditional at a Belgian New Year. On 21 January, 11 players in the bright blue-and-yellow strip of the home side will run out on to the torn-up mid-season pitch at their home ground. The stadium, a mix of old and new stands that holds a little less than 12,000, is hardly Old Trafford and the game, against Lierse, is unlikely to be very special. The ground certainly won't be full. Indeed, St Truiden will be watched by perhaps 4,000 people at the most. There will probably be as much as €20,000 bet on the game. Probably.

The incriminating text messages

During their investigations into the Sapina brothers, German authorities discovered text messages on a phone belonging to them which appeared to reveal an attempt to fix a game in Turkey. Because an inquiry has yet to be launched in Turkey, the names of those allegedly involved cannot be disclosed for legal reasons; however, we can reveal the content of the messages.

In April 2004, six days before two top Turkish clubs played, Milan Sapina received this text, apparently sent by one of the players: 'Milan, I'll give you the number of the [other] player tomorrow. He is called X. He's on. He wants to know his price.'

The next day he received another: 'Wait before coming here. I don't know if X is playing or not.' And then a third: 'We are in the training camp from 10am on. Just call me and I'll give you the number. Tell X we agreed on 15[000].' Milan Sapina then flew to Turkey with €15,000, where he received two texts from one of his brothers: '[team name deleted] wins 210[000], [draws] 430,000,' said the first. 'Only tell him what he really needs to know!!! Please!' said the second. According to the German investigation, the attempted manipulation was not successful because the second player pulled out and the first was unwilling to go ahead alone.

Three other text messages on the phone interested the investigators. 'My arse is still sore from the shafting I got from Bavaria,' said one. 'Amigo, yesterday I got 2,500 for the goals,' said another. 'Total money for you €97,000,' said the third.

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,6903,1677743,00.html

2/15/06 2:10 PM
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caleb
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