Europol's match-fixing revelations provide more questions than answers

Match fixing in football is not a new thing. For as long as there has been organised football, there have been players willing to influence the result of games for personal financial gain.

The type of fixing has changed throughout the years. In the early days, it was purely done for the personal gain of individual players, usually in the form of one team, or a group of players from one team, accepting a bribe from another team to throw a match. As gambling on football became more widespread, match-fixing started to involve third parties with bookmakers being involved, and players were partaking in ‘spot fixing’ bets, such as time of first throw-in, for the benefit of both themselves and friends.

Since the explosion of internet gambling has made betting on pretty much any game, from any league anywhere in the world, extremely easy, the amount of money bet on football, both legally and illegally, has mushroomed. It is known that there are large gambling syndicates all over the world, but particularly in South-East Asia, that make enormous sums of money out of gambling on football.

FIFA and UEFA have been aware for years that these syndicates can take matters into their own hands and directly influence results in their favour by bribing players, referees and club officials. After a few high-profile match-fixing cases in several European countries, including Germany and Italy, UEFA and FIFA launched an investigation into match-fixing.

As FIFA and UEFA are regulatory bodies with no judicial powers; they called in Europol, which is an intelligence-sharing agency between European Union countries, to investigate and Operation Veto was launched with the aim of collecting information that could then be passed onto the relevant police force.

On Monday, Europol called a press conference and announced with great fanfare that they had found evidence of match-fixing in 680 games, with 380 of those games having been played in Europe. They also teased that those games included European Championship and World Cup qualifiers. The really juicy bit of information they provided was that two Champions League games were included, with one of those games having been played in England.

Europol said that they’d analysed over 13,000 emails, which had led them to suspect 425 players, referee and club officials involved in the suspect matches, which were spread over 15 European countries. Europol suggested that Singaporean syndicates invested €16m to make €8.5m profit, by making payments of €2.7m.

This prompted a flurry of headlines about the ‘widespread nature of fixing’ with Europol’s Rob Wainwright being quoted describing “match-fixing activity on a scale we’ve never seen before” When the dust settled a bit, a few journalists began to see that things may not actually be as they appear, and started to question these findings.

The problem was though that Europol announced these headline-grabbing revelations; they weren’t forthcoming with any additional information in support of their claims. They didn’t name any of the games in question, didn’t produce any evidence, or provide us with any explanations as to how their suspicions were aroused or how they concluded that match-fixing had happened in a particular game. They also were curiously evasive when asked how many of those 680 games had been previously reported.

It wasn’t just football fans and observers of the game who were left wanting more information. UEFA seemed totally bemused and in the dark by Europol’s announcement and similarly, the FA responded to the announcement of a match played in England as being under suspicion by saying “The FA is not aware of any credible reports into suspicious Champions League fixtures in England, nor has any information been shared with us."

Saying a Champions League game in England was subject to a fix was too tantalising a statement for the media not to do some digging to find out what game it was. Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet were quickest off the mark saying that the game in question was the Champions League game between Liverpool and Hungarian side Debrecen in 2009.

The newspaper alleged that Debrecen’s goalkeeper, Vuckasin Poleksic, was paid to concede three or more goals that evening. Liverpool did win that game, but it was by a margin of 1-0. A month later, Poleksic was approached to fix Debrecen’s Champions League game against Italian side Fiorentina. Poleksic was subsequently fined and then banned for two years by UEFA in 2010 for failing to report that approach, but was never charged nor disciplined for match fixing and has always maintained his innocence. Neither Liverpool nor Fiorentina were implicated in any way in connection with possible match-fixing.

As this story broke, a few red flags came up which made people start to question the credibility of this story, and in turn Europol’s press conference.

Firstly, if there has been an investigation into a crime, the local police force would expect to be notified, not only out of professional courtesy, but as the force with the jurisdiction they would expect to play some part in the investigation, even if they were not the primary investigators. Merseyside Police, the police force for Liverpool and the surrounding area, said they had no knowledge of any sort of investigation into an alleged fixed match at Anfield.

Secondly, Debrecen made a statement saying that there had indeed been investigations into their games against Liverpool and Fiorentina, but those investigations were conducted and completed in 2010, and as far as they were concerned, the matter had been dealt with then.

On Thursday, published an article stating that far from being the earth-shattering revelations that people thought, Europol’s statements about match-fixing in Europe were, intentionally or not, slightly misleading.

Europol’s lead investigator, Freidhelm Althans, confirmed that the 380 possibly fixed games in Europe announced were all old cases that have already been dealt with by the relevant authorities. It was in the course of investigating those cases that Operation Veto found evidence of a further 300 cases relating to games played in Africa, Latin America and Asia, the majority of which were internationals played between 2009-11.

Althans also confirmed it is believed that a massive syndicate, based in Singapore, is the major player behind these allegedly fixed matches. It is believed that this syndicate is the one headed by Dan Tan, a Singaporean national who is the subject of an international arrest warrant and is suspected of being the head of the criminal network responsible for fixing 33 games in Serie A and Serie B. Declan Hill, the Canadian journalist who has been investigating match-fixing in football for years, has tracked Tan to a suburb of Singapore. The Singaporean government say that they are unwilling to extradite Tan until more evidence is presented to them.

While it looks like it may be the case that Europol have presented old facts as ‘news’ and that it their findings may not be the doomsday for football that the media declared, it’s equally the case that match-fixing is a serious problem, that requires serious measures to try to combat it, though as Sepp Blatter recently stated, football may be powerless to stop it entirely.

There’s only so much the football authorities can do. Punishments for players is one thing; the fact that a player got banned for two years just for failing to report an approach is a significant deterrent to others. Perhaps a better whistleblowing system for players to report when they’ve been approached, or if they suspect a team-mate of being involved in a fix, could be implemented.

Chris Eaton, FIFA’s former head of security, reckons that regulating gambling on a global scale is the answer. He said "The real issue is betting fraud, without that there would be no money to fix matches. So governments have to regulate international gambling at a global and collective level. Not a national level or regional level.

"The amount of money gambled on sport every week runs into billions; it's a pot of gold for organised crime, particularly in south-east Asia, where it is very under-regulated.

"Governments around the world need to realise the massive amount of money that is available for organised crime through manipulating sports results. And criminals use this money for all kinds of other nefarious activities."