Sabotage, conspiracy theories, unfair advantages are just some of the controversial accusations aimed at this year’s Super Bowl. An unexpected power outage lasting 34 minutes brought the nation’s biggest game to a standstill and created a controversy that is still being fiercely debated. But just imagine the reaction if the problem was not merely a disruption of play, but game fixing.
All of Europe’s biggest football competitions are being investigated for corruption, bribes, money extortion and widespread game fixing. Could this ever happen in America to the Super Bowl?
International soccer has been rocked to the core by this scandal. It has left fans bitter and unsure of the sport they love and the sports stars they revere. One angry Spanish supporter said: “How much more money do these footballers need? To think that footballers can deliberately throw a game and get paid on top of the millions they already earn, makes me sick.”
For the last 18 months, Europol has conducted a global investigation which uncovered 380 suspicious soccer games in Europe and another 300 questionable games mainly in Africa, Asia and South and Central America. Games under the spotlight include World Cup qualifiers and Champions League soccer games.
Europol worked with other partners to form a Joint Investigation Team, code named Operation VETO. Led by Europol, Germany, Finland, Hungary, Austria and Slovenian police, authorities and Interpol investigators coordinated multiple police inquiries across Europe that analyzed 13,000 emails and other material, which identified links between matches and suspects, and uncovered the nature of the organized crime network behind the illegal activities.
This ongoing investigation has led to several prosecutions, including in Germany where 14 persons have already been convicted and sentenced to a total of 39 years in prison. But this is just the tip of this “corrupt iceberg’ as Europol is looking to break down the biggest illegal betting syndicate in the Far East.
At the center of these allegations of corruption is Singapore’s Crimelord Tan Seet Eng, more commonly known as Dan Tan, and other Far Eastern illegal betting syndicates. And according to Europol director Rob Wainwright: “We believe that Far Eastern illegal betting syndicates have made over $11 million dollars for match fixing and bribes. Much of the money that is generated by these illegal betting syndicates goes straight back into organized crime activities of drugs and prostitution.”
After months of investigation, Europol warns that global football corruption has fueled the criminal underworld’s domination of prostitution, drug-trafficking and gun-running. Europol director Wainwright added that “the problem is global; there are many levels of corruption to examine from referees and players being bribed to allegations of live match video feeds being delayed. To investigate the each of these allegations means we need the cooperation international governments and policing bodies dealing with organized crime.”
Europol is currently targeting its investigation of 425 referees, players and other officials who are under suspicion of rigging matches where large sums of money could be won through betting. Most of the allegedly fixed matches were played in the Turkish, German and Swiss championships, but there are other matches around the world that are also being examined.
Organized crime stranglehold over sport
Law enforcement officials are struggling to combat rampant game fixing by what they describe as sprawling networks of organized crime and illegal betting syndicates. Organized crime and betting syndicates in Singapore are the most active and are believe to be responsible for most of European game fixing.
Dave Courtney, former UK gangster and associate of criminal underworld leaders Kray Brother, said: “Asians have taken over this scene. There are very sophisticated and well connected. Every time you see an Asian businessman talking to Premiership clubs, beware. That’s how it works, they will bribe ground keepers to cut the floodlights to games, or bribe a defender or a goalkeeper and referees. And it doesn’t stop there, there are so many illegal broadcasts of live English games that they control. They will delay the streaming so they can put on huge bets on everything from who is first to score (a goal) to how many times a player kicks the ball. You’ll be a mug (idiot) if you ever bet money on a European game.”
“Probably 90 percent of the legal and illegal gambling on football around the world takes place in Southeast Asia,” said Chris Eaton, a former Interpol official who is currently advising FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. “There they bet on all kinds of matches, particularly European football. So it makes sense that criminal activity would arise in their own games.”
Concerned about the amount of allegations, FIFA created a $20 million unit to work with Interpol in Singapore, so that they can root out game rigging in Asia. But many have criticized the minimal impact the agency is having on crime.
Dubbed as a criminal mastermind of the largest illegal betting syndicate, Tan Seet Eng has managed to evade the Criminal Investigations Bureau in Rome and the Singapore Police force for several months. Until recently, Tan Seet Eng or Tan Dan, seemed to have a get-out-of-jail card whenever police authorities came close to arresting him. Critics have claimed that this problem is not receiving the attention it warrants. Authorities haven’t shown any urgency to arrest Tan, despite multiple agencies in Singapore potentially having jurisdiction in the case.
But Tan Dan isn’t the only alleged criminal rigging games in Asia; the problems are far more widespread, involving many people and officials being bribed.
Singapore authorities charged a top referee and a former Malaysian international with conspiring to fix a Malaysian Super League match. In another closely-watched case, Singapore national Wilson Raj Perumal, who had ties to Asian and Eastern European gambling syndicates, was jailed in Finland for match-fixing.
“The problem of match-fixing is not just confined to Asia,” said Ridzal Saat, deputy director of development and planning at the Football Association of Singapore. “It is a global problem and we will continue to work closely with the relevant authorities, both at the domestic and international levels to combat match-fixing and football corruption aggressively.
“We take a serious view of allegations pertaining to match-fixing and football corruption activities and the authorities and we will spare no effort in minimizing the possibility of such activities taking place within the local football scene.”
So why Europe and not the U.S.?
U.S. sports stars have had their share of bad publicity with strikes about wages and sexual scandals, but for most Americans, there is a belief that the game is clean. When this year’s Super Bowl had a power outage, commentators questioned whether the 49ers had an unfair advantage, not whether it was a possible game fixing incident. In Europe an incident like that would have raised a suspicious thought both from fans and match officials.
So why is the U.S. sport less likely to be bought by Asian betting syndicates?
It appears the broadcasting rights of U.S. football, basketball and baseball are so expensive to screen outside of the U.S. that many foreign countries can’t afford to screen them. This year American television networks were paying in excess $3 billion for broadcast rights of the Super Bowl. With billions of dollars at stake, Network and the NFL are largely protective of broadcasts, especially illegal broadcasts.
Director of Europol Wainwright said: “For these criminals it’s all about access. In the Far East they get live games of English Premiership soccer, European and local Asian football games, not American football, so there is no interest. If they did screen U.S. football, then perhaps they would find ways to corrupt the sport. But so far we’ve no reports of any corruption.”
As the Super Bowl is the most expensive game to be broadcast, it is free from corruption and game fixing which has plagued European soccer and the World Cup. Illegal Asian betting syndicates are ineffective in these sports, as they can’t get access to illegal live broadcast or bribe players.
Sports in America has had its problems, with corruption in industries like boxing, horse racing and cheating sport stars like Lance Armstrong. The U.S. may be clean of betting corruption for now, but as organized crime continues to grow, the Super Bowl may prove to be a lucrative target for illicit business. For most U.S. football fans, they believe the game is mostly clean.
One U.S. football fan said: “I would like to think that the game is free, but I can’t totally rule out the possibility.”