The 2011 Champions League Final showcased everything that is good about the modern game. As images of Lionel Messi and his victorious Barcelona team-mates were beamed around the world from Wembley Stadium, few people had the time or the inclination to reflect on a far darker side of the game that had been highlighted in a German courtroom.
A few days earlier, in Bochum, north-western Germany, Ante Sapina was being sent back to prison. Football’s most notorious match fixer had been sentenced to five-and-a-half years after Europe’s biggest match-fixing trial.
The Croatian is no stranger to the dark world of rigging football games. In 2005 he was jailed for three years, along with his brother Milan, for masterminding the scandal that engulfed Robert Hoyzer, the disgraced referee who was banned for life in Germany.
On his release from prison, Sapina, 33, vowed to go straight, but Cafe King, his Berlin coffee bar where he met with Hoyzer, would once again be the epicentre of a criminal network with links to illegal gambling rings in Asia.
The Bochum police who initiated the latest inquiry stumbled across Sapina’s new criminal network almost by accident while installing phone taps during a routine case of extortion in Dortmund.
But whereas the Hoyzer scandal centred on lower leagues in Germany, Sapina’s new network was far more ambitious. The Bochum court heard evidence of 47 suspicious matches, but police suspect that more than 300 across Europe may have been fixed by Sapina’s gang.
Sapina was jailed after confessing to a role in fixing around 20 matches between 2008 and 2009. He targeted leagues outside Germany where players were modestly paid and where large bets from Asia would go unnoticed.
Sapina’s co-defendant Marijo Cvrtak, another Croatian, was also sentenced to five-and-a-half years. A third man, Dragan Mihelic of Slovenia, was given a suspended sentence.
Judge Wolfgang Mittrup said Sapina and his co-defendants had “shamefully destroyed the enthusiasm of many fans”.
Sapina revealed in court that they used a rating system to analyse matches, with five stars ensuring that the result was almost certain thanks to payments to players and officials.
Crucially, they did not try to fix the final result of matches. Instead, they concentrated on the “in-play” betting market, where internet bets can be placed in real time on events such as the number of goals scored in injury time.
World Cup qualifier
Sapina and Cvrtak admitted to manipulating more than 20 games, including the 2010 World Cup qualifier between Liechtenstein and Finland in September 2009.
Sapina testified that he had met Bosnian referee Novo Panic in a Sarajevo car park. He agreed to pay Panic €40,000 to fix the result of the otherwise meaningless World Cup qualifier by ensuring that two goals would be scored in the second half. The match ended in a 1-1 draw with both goals indeed coming in the second half – one the result of a clearly questionable penalty decision.
Other manipulated games included a Champions League qualifier between Debrecen of Hungary and Fiorentina – in which the Italians took a four-goal lead by half-time only for the Hungarians to score three times after the break – and several Europa League matches, as well as league games in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Turkey, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Canada.
“We know about 300 matches in 20 countries where we have the suspicion that they may have been manipulated,” said Friedhelm Althans, head of the Bochum inquiry. “The matches concerned involve mainly lower-ranking leagues, but it goes all the way up to national teams, Champions League and Europa League matches.
“The money involved for players, referees and officials amounts to €1.7m, but we don’t know how much has been paid beyond our knowledge.”
The Sapina case came to a close as FIFA was concluding an agreement with Interpol aimed at tackling the Asia-based illegal gambling market. Over a 10-year period, Interpol will receive about £17million from FIFA to fund an anti-corruption unit at its Singapore headquarters.
FIFA also announced the creation of an internal Betting Integrity Investigation Task Force, which will comprise members of its legal and security departments, as well as experts from Early Warning System GmbH, a Zurich company that monitors betting patterns.
“Match fixing shakes the very foundations of sport,” said FIFA president Sepp Blatter. “We are committed to doing everything in our power to tackle this threat. We have to try to put an end to these activities
“Fans will no longer go to football matches if they know they are fixed. And if that happens, everything that has been created in FIFA will count for nothing.”
Interpol secretary general Ronald Noble said that his organisation has already had some notable successes. At last year’s World Cup, a joint operation involving police forces across China, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand resulted in the arrest of more than 5,000 people. Nearly 800 illegal gambling dens, handling around £100m worth of bets, were raided.
FIFA is currently investigating two international friendlies played in Turkey in which seven penalties were awarded, one of them taken twice. The six match officials involved have been suspended pending the outcome.
Argentina’s recent 4-1 friendly defeat by Nigeria in Abuja is also being investigated after suspicious betting patterns were reported. Although Argentina fielded a B team, it is by far the highest profile game to come under the microscope.
Referee Ibrahim Chaibou, from Niger, awarded a controversial penalty deep into stoppage time from which Mauro Boselli scored for Argentina with the last kick of the match.
FIFA is also coming under pressure to investigate results involving Zimbabwe’s national team after they recorded heavy losses during a tour of Asia in 2009.
A key witness in the Zimbabwe investigation is likely to be Raj Perumal, a Singaporean national who organised the matches on behalf of the Zimbabwe FA. Perumal was also responsible for the fake Togo team that played a friendly against Bahrain last year.
Perumal was also a central figure in the recent scandal in Finland. As the reports on the following pages indicate, Sapina may be behind bars but match fixing remains a growing threat to the integrity of the global game.