It was one of the biggest soccer matches on the planet: the third-place game of the 1994 FIFA World Cup. It took place at the end of a seemingly successful tournament played in the United States. The weather had been mostly hot and sunny; the stadiums largely full. The games exciting and broadcast to billions of people around the world. There were hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorship deals.
Yet there was a gang of match-fixers at the tournament who targeted the third-place match between Bulgaria and Sweden, offering hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to players to throw the game. Some of those players suspect they may have succeeded.
The World Cup in Brazil, which begins June 12, will be a $4-billion extravaganza of television rights, sponsorship deals, sold-out stadiums and exciting soccer. However, its credibility is under threat from Asian match-fixers linked to a sports gambling market worth hundreds of billions dollars.
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The fixers linked to the people who targeted the 1994 tournament have returned many times and to almost every international soccer tournament in the last 20 years.
As an investigative journalist, I was able to go to Asia and infiltrate the gang of fixers and hear their stories of fixing top-level matches. Now in this Toronto Star investigation based on corroborating interviews with players, coaches, referees, gamblers and some of the highest officials in the soccer world, we report that the gang of match-fixers, who successfully fixed soccer leagues around the world, have been at the Under-17 World Cup, the Under-20 World Cup, the Olympic soccer tournament, and the women’s and men’s World Cups.
The fixers are helped by a largely unspoken dilemma at the heart of international soccer: some of the players at the big tournaments do not get paid.
Despite all the fans, all the sponsorship deals, all the television broadcasts — there will be players in Brazil who won’t be paid a penny. Some of them may look around the sold-out ground and probably think something like, “Someone around here is making an awful lot of money, and it ain’t me!”
FIFA, the international football federation that organizes the tournament, pays each participating country’s soccer federation $9 million (U.S.) to cover tournament expenses. Most deals are arranged so that $1 million covers hotels, airfares, etc.; the remaining $8 million is supposed to be divided between the players, coaches and the federations.
In many countries, agreements between the players and their federation are concluded in advance of the tournament. However, in some countries there are long rounds of haggling that do not always end well.
During the last World Cup in 2010, host nation South Africa agreed on players’ salaries and bonuses just days before the opening game.
After the tournament, the Nigerian government was so disappointed in its team’s performance, and over the allegations of corruption around it, that it launched an official inquiry into its soccer officials. The government discovered that the entourage of coaches and physiotherapists had swelled by dozens of unrelated hangers-on. As well, the team’s hotel had been cancelled, flight plans disrupted and there had been an argument over players’ bonuses.
Clive Mason / GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
Host nation South Africa agreed on players’ salaries and bonuses just days before the opening game of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the entire Togo team threatened to strike in the middle of the tournament. The players refused to play their final game, claiming their officials were withholding their bonuses. High-ranking FIFA officials had to intervene and pay the players directly before Togo would take the field.
Throughout international soccer there are examples of badly organized financial scandals relating to player payments. Even players from the United States went on strike in 2005 to hammer out a pay deal. The Honduran team at the 2010 World Cup — which had qualified out of Canada’s CONCAFF group — had a months-long argument over the nonpayment of a $1-million bonus scheme to their players and coach.
For years, match-fixers based in Malaysia and Singapore have been going to international soccer events in Africa, Australia, Asia, North America, Latin America and Europe. The fixers corrupted international games played in Singapore, including four players on the Canadian national team who were charged with taking money in a game against North Korea in 1986.
In the early 1990s, they gathered in the stadiums where illegal bookmakers would take bets on the joint Malaysian and Singaporean soccer league. The fixers destroyed the league. A Royal Malaysian Police Force investigation discovered there were cartels of players fixing on almost every team. One former player said the corruption was so bad that during one game there was a fight at halftime in the dressing room between players working for different fixers.
The fixers use associates — called “runners” — to approach players or referees to get them to fix. The fixers organize the game and then, like brokers, sell the fix to high-level gamblers. Above the fixers are influential businessmen who back the more expensive fixes and pay the muscle to make the network run smoothly.
These men are mostly Asian, however, a group of Russian criminals has joined the syndicate in the last few years. Little is known about this group as they generate such fear. One of the European fixers told a police officer who interrogated him, “I will tell you everything, except the Russians (sic). If I talk about the Russians I will die.”
Yet in the early days of the match-fixers, there was one king. In interviews, fixers or their associates have spoken about “Uncle Frankie,” an Indonesian-Chinese businessman who figured out the global expansion of soccer meant lots of fixing opportunities.
At the 1994 World Cup, four Swedish players, days before the bronze medal match, were approached by a man who called himself “Frankie Chung” with a business proposition: lose the tournament’s second most important game and get lots of cash.
Years later, four Swedish star players spoke out about the approach. Tomas Brolin, Lars Eriksson, Klas Ingesson and Anders Limpar say they were too frightened to say anything at the time. They told the Swedish magazine Offside that Chung, whose identity has never been confirmed, was staying at the same hotel. He was very confident and friendly. He gave them his business card and invited them to his room. There, Chung pulled out wads of $100 bills and got on a mobile phone to another fixer who was, allegedly, approaching some of the Bulgarian players.
The Swedes said they immediately refused and left. Yet, in the Offside article, the goalkeeper Eriksson said he had wondered about the game, saying some of the Bulgarian team appeared listless for long periods at the end of the first half when Sweden scored three unanswered goals.
Wilson Raj Perumal, a convicted Singaporean fixer who has confessed in court to fixing games across the world, writes about “Frankie Chung,” whom he calls “Uncle Frankie,” in his recently self-published autobiography, Kelong Kings (Kelong is a slang Malay word for fixing).
“Guys like Uncle were the bigger crooks: what I do now, they were already doing back then. I grew up watching these big fish fix matches under everybody’s noses. I learnt from them: they were my masters . . . I thought if they could do it, then so could I.”
Uncle Frankie used the same techniques the next year at the Under-20 World Cup in Qatar. Two Portuguese players were approached by a young woman from Thailand. She invited them to her room with “an interesting proposition.” There, they discovered a table covered with money, several Cameroonian players and Uncle Frankie. The Portuguese players immediately left and reported the incident. Top Asian soccer officials would later confirm that the fixers had approached players from Cameroon, Portugal, Honduras and Chile.
Years later, Kwesi Nyantakyi, the president of the Ghana football federation, was unsurprised when it was discovered there had been an attempt to fix an international match featuring his team. He said in an interview, “In every competition, you find gamblers around. Yes, every competition, every competition, they are there. In all the major tournaments, World Cup, Cup of Nations. The gamblers are not Africans, they are Europeans and Asians. So, they have a lot of money to bet on these things.”
Ghana players, including their former international captains Stephen Appiah and Yussif Chibsah, said in interviews that match-fixers approached their team at the 1997 Under-17 World Cup in Malaysia, the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The Ghanaian women’s team at the World Cup in China in 2007 was also approached. The players said they turned down all offers but were never surprised to receive them.
FIFA knows about this problem. During an interview in February 2008, its president Sepp Blatter began by saying, “You want to speak to me about the Asian match-fixers? I have known about this problem for years.”
Andre Penner/AP PHOTO
The World Cup in Brazil, which begins June 12, will be a $4-billion extravaganza of television rights, sponsorship deals and sold-out stadiums. However, its credibility is under threat from Asian match-fixers linked to a sports gambling market worth hundreds of billions dollars.
FIFA’s attitude seemed to have been that these fixers were the unluckiest tourists in the world. The fixers went to all these tournaments around the world, where they approached players, coaches and officials — but, FIFA insisted, they never succeeded in bribing anyone. Yet they kept returning.
However, in January of this year, Ralf Mutschke, a former German police officer who is FIFA’s head of security, told the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that fixers may attend the World Cup in Brazil and may approach players and teams. Certain key matches (third games in the opening round, for example) would be in serious jeopardy. He outlined measures FIFA will take to protect soccer’s credibility. Guaranteeing players a minimum salary and bonuses, however, was not one of the FIFA measures.
The German Organized Crime Task Force, based in the small city of Bochum, has been investigating match-fixing gangs since 2008. The Bochum detectives now estimate that fixers succeeded in corrupting at least 150 games between 2009 and 2011 — about one international game a week.
“These games we have found are simply the tip of the iceberg,” Friedhelm Althans, a Bochum police detective, told a Europol press conference in 2013.
Even top international matches in Europe have been fixed, according to the judge presiding at the trial of Croatian brothers Ante and Milan Sapina.
The trial was the first, real spotlight into the world of match-rigging. The investigation started in October 2008, when German police officers heard on a wiretap a mobster threatening the life of a daughter of a prominent prosecutor.
The police moved fast and the investigation eventually involved hundreds of police officers across Europe. They discovered an independent link to a global match-fixing network run out of a small Berlin café — Cafe King. At its heart were the Sapina brothers.
At the end of their trial, in a dramatic confession, Ante Sapina read a list of 47 games that he helped fix, including World Cup qualifying matches and European nations Championship games. Both Sapinas are serving lengthy prison terms in German jails.
20 years of match-fixing in soccer
International soccer tournaments with the confirmed presence of match-fixers:
1994 - World Cup (USA)
1995 - Under-20 World Cup (Qatar)
1996 - Olympics (Atlanta, USA)
1997 - Under-17 World Cup (Malaysia)
2004 - Olympics (Athens)
2006 - World Cup (Germany)
2007 - Women’s World Cup (China)
2008 - African Nations Cup (Ghana)
2010 - World Cup (South Africa)
2011 - Gold Cup (Mexico)
The Sapinas would link up with Singaporean match-fixers who placed bets on the crooked games on the sports gambling market in Asia. This market is huge. Patrick Jay, a senior executive for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, one of the most profitable sports gambling companies in the world, says, “FIFA likes to talk about $4 billion at the World Cup. We have a word for the day when the Asian sports gambling market clears $4 billion. We call it — ‘Thursday.’ ”
For soccer fans it gets worse. Much worse. According to a confidential FIFA investigation report obtained by the Star, the Asian match-fixer who was so inspired by the man who approached the Swedish players — Wilson Raj Perumal — was fixing games in South Africa days before the start of the last World Cup.
He had help from some — as yet unknown — South African football official. According to the FIFA investigators, some of the same people who were helping organize the last World Cup were, “complicit in a criminal conspiracy to manipulate these matches” and “Were the listed matches fixed? On the balance of probabilities, yes!”
In these circumstances, it is difficult to think that the match-fixers will not be in Brazil trying their luck.
Declan Hill, an investigative reporter based in Ottawa, is the authoritative voice in journalism about/on match-fixing in soccer. His book, “The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime” (2008), is a best seller in 21 languages, and his journalism on the fixing scandals can be found in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Toronto Star. He obtained his doctorate on the study of match-fixing from the University of Oxford and, following his infiltration of the Asian gangs he has testified before the Council of Europe and the International Olympic Committee. His latest book, “The Insider's Guide to Match-Fixing in Football,” was published in November.