Soccer took it on the chin this week with the announcement of yet more alleged cheating in the matches around the world. After years of not-so-whispered allegations of corruption in the ranks of the professional game, the European Union’s law enforcement agency has reported on its investigation of match-fixing in the world’s most popular sport. In light of the scope and breadth of this scandal, FIFA and its various other governing bodies should do a good bit of self-examination.
Europol is the EU’s law enforcement arm and, according to its mandate, it is tasked with investigating and supporting the investigations of EU member nations’ own police agencies in following areas:
• Trafficking in Drugs
• Trafficking in Human Beings
• Illegal Immigration
• Cyber Crime
• Intellectual Property Crime
• Cigarette Smuggling
• Value Added Tax (VAT) Fraud
• Money Laundering
• Mobile Organized Crime Groups
• Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs
Earlier this week, it announced that a major investigation involving the agency and police teams from thirteen European countries had uncovered an extensive criminal network involved in the widespread fixing of soccer matches. At the top end, these included World Cup and European Championship qualification matches, UEFA Champions League matches, and top-flight matches in European national leagues.
Overall, in excess of 380 professional matches – including 300 in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America – and a total of 425 match officials, club officials, players, and serious criminals, from more than 15 countries, are suspected of being involved in attempts to jockey the outcomes of these games. According to Europol, their activities formed part of a sophisticated organized crime operation, which generated over €8 million in betting profits and involved over €2 million in corrupt payments to those on the inside.
The agency’s Joint Investigation Team (JIT) named its investigation “Operation VETO” and conducted it between July 2011 and January 2013. It coordinated multiple police enquiries across Europe and was aided in large part by the analysis of over 13,000 e-mails and other materials that identified links between matches, suspects, and the organized crime network behind their illegal activities.
While the investigation has already led to several prosecutions and fourteen convictions in the countries involved, the head of the corruption snake seems to lay in Asia. The Wall Street Journal reported that Singapore police are helping European authorities investigate the international criminal syndicate alleged to have fixed these soccer matches from its base in there.
The focus of the Singapore investigation is Dan Tan Seet Eng, a man in his late 40s, who is thought to be the leader and financier of the syndicate. According to Chris Eaton, former head of security at FIFA, Tan has been on investigators’ radar for years and, according to Public Prosecutor Roberto di Martino, he is wanted by Italian authorities on a 2011 arrest warrant for suspected match-fixing offenses.
In a separate WSJ story, Michael Garcia – chairman of the investigative arm of FIFA’s ethics committee and a former vice president at Interpol – said this issue would fall under his purview, although this case hadn’t been formally directed to his office. Mr. Garcia said that FIFA could start ethics proceedings against national associations and officials involved in the alleged ring, but would have to wait until criminal charges are filed to obtain the names of the people under scrutiny.
It would be unwise for soccer’s ruling body to treat the matter as an external one limited to individual players and organizations. Any assumption that the corruption has not percolated into its own offices seems short-sighted and wishful. The possibility that the match-fixing may involve FIFA officials and those of its subordinate regional governing bodies – such as UEFA in Europe – ought to spur each to begin internal investigations of their own operations to ensure that they are not worthy of red cards and game misconducts.
Given his background, one would expect Garcia to move in this direction once FIFA has been brought completely up to speed on the Europol probe. Soccer fans around the globe deserve as much.