All the world is staged
Bribed players, fake games. Criminal syndicates can fix any match, anywhere.
- Illustration by Daniel Bejar The world's most popular game is also its most corrupt.
This story appears in the May 28 World Football Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
ON THE MORNING of Feb. 20, 2011, a man from Singapore walked into the central police station of Rovaniemi, Finland, a town that sits along the Arctic Circle. The man told officers that another Singaporean, Wilson Raj Perumal, was in Rovaniemi on a false passport. He offered no other information before leaving the station abruptly.
Though puzzled by the seemingly random tip, Rovaniemi police put Perumal under surveillance. Three days later, they followed him to a French restaurant near the soccer stadium, where the local club, Rovaniemen Palloseura, had just completed a 1-1 draw. Officers watched as Perumal sat down with three Palloseura players. They saw him scold the players, who cowered in fear. The next day, based on the false passport, the Finnish police detained Perumal. They phoned officials at the Finland Football Federation, who in turn contacted FIFA, soccer's international governing body.
One week later, Chris Eaton, FIFA's head of security, arrived in Rovaniemi. He knew exactly who Perumal was. Eaton informed Finnish investigators that they had just caught the world's most prolific criminal fixer of soccer matches, an elusive figure whom Eaton had been chasing for the past six months.
Perumal had rigged hundreds of games across five continents, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent gambling winnings for Asian and European syndicates. He was finally in custody. And he had been turned in by one of his own.
THE WORLD'S MOST popular game is also its most corrupt, with investigations into match fixing ongoing in more than 25 countries. Here's a mere sampling of events since the beginning of last year: Operation Last Bet rocked the Italian Football Federation, with 22 clubs and 52 players awaiting trial for fixing matches; the Zimbabwe Football Association banned 80 players from its national-team selection due to similar accusations; Lu Jun, the first Chinese referee of a World Cup match, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for taking more than $128,000 in bribes to fix outcomes in the Chinese Super League; prosecutors charged 57 people with match fixing in the South Korean K-League, four of whom later died in suspected suicides; the team director of second-division Hungarian club REAC Budapest jumped off a building after six of his players were arrested for fixing games; and in an under-21 friendly, Turkmenistan reportedly beat Maldives 3-2 in a "ghost match" -- neither country knew about the contest because it never actually happened, yet bookmakers still took action and fixers still profited.
Soccer match fixing has become a massive worldwide crime, on par with drug trafficking, prostitution and the trade in illegal weapons. As in those criminal enterprises, the match-fixing industry has been driven by opportunistic
greed. According to Interpol figures, sports betting has ballooned into a $1 trillion industry, 70 percent of which is gambled on soccer. The explosive growth reflects the rise of online gambling, which has turned local bookies into global merchants, flooded by money from every continent. Asian bookmakers alone see a $2 billion weekly turnover, according to Eaton. "It's now one huge liquid market," says David Forrest, an economics professor at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, who specializes in the study of sports gambling. "Liquidity is the friend of the fixer. You can put down big bets without notice and without changing the odds against yourself."
For the soccer gambler, the buffet of betting options is endless. FIFA recognizes 208 soccer federations, each governing its country's professional leagues and national teams, which are split into several age groups. The total number of pro and national soccer teams worldwide far exceeds 10,000. On sbobet.com, one of the largest legal books in Southeast Asia, a gambler can bet on dozens of matches daily, from the English Premier League to the Indonesian Super League to the Ukrainian youth championships. And the betting options climb exponentially when you consider the dramatic upsurge in real-time propositional bets. Gambling on soccer online now resembles the stock market, with constant fluctuations and instantaneous arbitrage.[+] EnlargeAdam Jan/AFP/Getty ImagesPlayers claiming to represent Togo for a friendly against Bahrain post for a pre-match team photo. Later, Togolese sports officials were quoted as saying their national team had not been sent to Bahrain.
All of these circumstances created a perfect storm for fixers. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Chinese criminal organizations, known as triads, seized on that opening to fund a global match-fixing operation and manipulate bookies around the world. Why was China ground zero? The country's booming economy and culture of risk-taking has fostered the world's most rabid gambling market. But to take advantage of soccer betting worldwide, Chinese triads needed emissaries to plant match-fixing schemes abroad -- men fluent in English who could travel on a trusted passport. So the triads
tapped criminal organizations in Singapore, Asia's westernized business hub and a country perceived as far less corrupt than China.
From the ranks of the Singapore syndicate emerged the smoothest operator of them all: Wilson Raj Perumal. A handsome, charismatic former petty criminal and runner for the syndicate, Perumal found his calling as a globe-trotting fixer. He didn't have to look hard for targets: Take 10,000 teams and multiply by the number of players per squad -- then add referees, club officials and federation administrators. To a skilled fixer, almost anyone could be had for the right price.
Using agents like Perumal, Chinese and Singaporean syndicates were so successful at fixing matches, they called into doubt the very integrity of the game. To combat the problem, those who love the sport looked to the one organization that appeared to have the authority: FIFA.
ON MARCH 28. a little more than a year after identifying Perumal in Finland, Chris Eaton stepped onto a stage in Manchester, England, at SoccerEx, the industry's largest annual trade show. FIFA's top cop had been invited to discuss betting in the beautiful game. "You can't overstate the magnitude of the issue," he said in his Australian drawl. "We're talking massive money."
A policeman for more than 40 years, Eaton is dogged, antipolitical and rule-bound. And at age 60, he has the energy of a man half his age. His monthly itinerary is a checkerboard of international takeoffs and landings. When he sleeps is unclear. With a mustache that runs long and wide and out-of-date, Eaton resembles Wyatt Earp, the one man who could establish justice on the range. "I quite would have liked that," Eaton says. "There are a lot of people that need shooting on the edge of the corral."
After several decades with the Australian federal police, Eaton joined Interpol in 1999, bolstering his international reputation as its manager of
operations. He first worked with FIFA in 2009 as a security consultant for a youth tournament in Egypt. FIFA was so impressed with Eaton that it hired him away from Interpol to play a full-time role at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which officials feared could be derailed by a terrorist act or the fixing of the final game. When the tournament ended without a hitch, Eaton became FIFA's official head of security, tasked with creating a new division to address match fixing. "FIFA needed someone like Chris, who has credibility worldwide for speaking the truth and who isn't afraid to confront it," says Ronald Noble, secretary general of Interpol.
Beginning his new challenge, Eaton assembled a group of investigators, cops like himself, choosing his subordinates for their "high energy and high criminal hatred." He stationed them around the globe with free rein to operate in a "decentralized, bloody active way."
Eaton's operatives cultivated sources who eventually led them to a syndicate in Singapore. They slowly uncovered how deeply fixers like Perumal had infiltrated the game. "They had stopped fixing matches and started fixing people," says Eaton.
According to Eaton's investigators, Perumal had perfected his scheme in the late '90s in Ghana and Zimbabwe. His goal was not just to bribe individual players but to dupe entire federations. Representing front companies with names like Footy Media and Football4U, Perumal would approach federation officials as a promoter who negotiated friendlies between national teams. "Most football associations are broke," Perumal would later write to Singaporean journalist Zaihan Mohamed Yusof from Finnish prison. "When you go up to them with an opponent who is prepared to ... play a friendly, they welcome you with open arms. They don't realize what is hidden beneath."
As his network grew, Perumal signed legitimate contracts with national federations in countries unaware of who he really was, such as Bolivia and South Africa, paying them as much as $100,000 to arrange their friendlies,
often pairing them against higher-profile teams that were just looking for ready-made exhibitions. Perumal would set up the matches, promote them -- and select the referees. Many friendlies go off without FIFA sanctioning, so often all a fixer like Perumal needed to do to stage an international friendly was find a stadium and pay a day's rent.
The matchups would attract the attention of bookmakers and the international betting market -- if also a curious amount of red cards, penalty kicks and offside calls. FIFA paid refs only $350 per match, almost inviting the fix. "Every member association is responsible for organizing and supervising football in its country," says FIFA spokesman Wolfgang Resch. "The control of referees and officials falls into it."
Paying off refs was one way to manipulate results, but to achieve what fixers call a "five-star fix," Perumal also needed to compromise players and
coaches. In doing so, he styled himself as soccer's Robin Hood, paying upward of $5,000 per fix to players in Africa, Central America and the Middle East, whose salaries barely fed their families. "The players I knew were living in atrocious conditions," Perumal wrote. "Within six months their lives took a 360 [sic] turn." Perumal embedded himself in professional leagues outside the global eye, becoming so well connected that, according to a source in Singapore, he would field calls from coaches on the sidelines during games. Perumal boasted that he was "in better control of the Syrian football league than Assad was over his people."
Facing a criminal conspiracy that operated in African villages and Middle Eastern locker rooms, Eaton decided that he needed to take a proactive "counterterrorism approach." But when he introduced two initiatives -- a whistleblower's hotline and amnesty for anyone who confessed to rigging a game -- FIFA shelved them almost immediately.
Like the NCAA, FIFA is set up as a nonprofit organization that oversees teams, institutions and various leagues but has limited power to police them. The organization pays no taxes, and it earns $1 billion in annual revenue. There is little incentive to look below the surface. "Since FIFA has jurisdiction only over persons affiliated with FIFA, it will never be possible to control parties outside the current system," says FIFA's Resch.
At every opportunity, FIFA president Sepp Blatter professes a commitment to rooting out match fixing, and the organization has made positive strides, chiefly with its proprietary Early Warning System, which monitors live betting. But Eaton found his hands increasingly tied. "Chris' approach is holistic," says Noble, his former colleague at Interpol. "He wants a FIFA witness protection program and a FIFA jump team to be ready to fly to any location at any time to conduct intensive match-fixing investigations. But these things just aren't possible for nonpolice institutions like FIFA."
Says Eaton: "This is the average person's game worldwide, so it must be a
model. The issue is governance. Is this a business with a little governance? Or is it governance with a little bit of business?"
IN SINGAPORE, match fixing grew into its own tightly governed enterprise. Based on extensive interviews with Eaton's team and syndicate sources in Asia, this much is known: The syndicate is run by four bosses -- led by a man named Dan Tan Seet Eng -- whose legitimate businesses enable them to fund the payouts and travel expenses that fixers require to execute a scheme. Once the match is fixed, the Chinese triads use betting sweatshops across Southeast Asia in which rows of workers sit in front of computers placing $3,000 bets as fast as their fingers can type. The wagers are purposely small and spread on enough credit cards to avoid detection by bookmakers.
The bosses often work in concert, employing the hawala system, a clandestine credit structure that international organized crime groups use to move money among one another without a trace. As the syndicate's dealings have grown, so have its connections with criminal organizations in other countries, such as Italy, Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria.
Largely unpoliced, the Singapore syndicate became increasingly brazen, never more so than in the staging of ghost matches like the suspected one between the U21 teams from Turkmenistan and Maldives. Since federations, and not FIFA, announce friendlies, bookies employ local "spotters" to troll for information about upcoming matches. These spotters are corrupted by the syndicate to con bookies into listing fabricated matches. The spotters then supply the bookies with in-game dispatches -- on matches that aren't actually happening.
FOR WILSON RAJ PERUMAL fixing matches was getting a bit too easy. As he slipped in and out of locker rooms with impunity, he started to lose the thrill. So he developed a gambling habit of his own, laying bets on the Chicago
Bulls, on Manchester United -- clubs he knew were legitimate. But as it turned out, he wasn't nearly as good at betting games as he was at fixing them. In one three-month period, according to an investigator on Eaton's team, Perumal lost roughly $10 million.
To recover some of his losses, he decided to short the syndicate. Instead of fixing a match, he would keep the $500,000 that the bosses had forwarded to him to set it up, hoping the right team would win legitimately and by the proper score. Before long, Perumal was in deep, owing $1 million to one boss, $500,000 to another and $1.5 million to someone else, according to FIFA sources. He got desperate, and he became sloppy. He allowed impostors to pose as the Togo national team and play a friendly at Bahrain on Sept. 7, 2010. It was so obvious -- Bahrain's then-head coach, Josef Hickersberger, said afterward that the Togo team was "not fit enough to play 90 minutes" -- that the ensuing media coverage drew attention to a possible fix.
A few months later, Perumal was in Finland -- where he had been running fixes with the Rovaniemi team since at least 2009 -- overseeing a planned deal on behalf of Dan Tan. The club had generated so much cash flow over the years that Dan Tan decided to buy it to guarantee continued income. Still needing funds to cover his gambling, Perumal sabotaged the purchase. The Finnish owners agreed to sell the club for $500,000, but Perumal handed them only $200,000, keeping the rest for himself. Several angry phone calls between Rovaniemi officials and the Singapore bosses quickly revealed where the missing $300,000 had gone.
Perumal was too intertwined with Rovaniemi, which was a cash cow, for Dan Tan to completely cut him loose. But even before the sale fell through, the bosses had called meetings with Perumal's principal lieutenants, Danny Jay Prakash and Anthony Santia Raj. They said Perumal's ego was out of control. He had even created a Facebook page, which included pictures of himself with players and contact information of European criminal colleagues. In a
business based on betting, Perumal's own gambling had compromised his credibility.
While Perumal's reputation was rapidly deteriorating, his lieutenant Santia Raj was staging the biggest fix of his career, two friendlies in the seaside resort town of Antalya, Turkey: Latvia vs. Bolivia and Estonia vs. Bulgaria. What Santia Raj didn't know was that the games were under suspicion before they began. Janis Mezeckis, the general secretary of the Latvian Football Federation, was concerned about the way Santia Raj had assigned the referees; the inexperienced fixer had refused to name the refs before the day of the match. Mezeckis contacted FIFA. Chris Eaton in turn alerted Sportradar, a gambling watchdog group based in London whose clientele includes FIFA, UEFA and the national federations of Germany, France and the Czech Republic. The noose was tightening.
Sportradar monitors 300 gambling sites worldwide, using proprietary algorithms to identify abnormal activity in the market. As the Sportradar staff watched events in Antalya, the in-game betting for each game behaved identically. "There was severe support for more than three goals in both games," says Darren Small, COO of Sportradar. "It was nowhere near logical, with about 5 million euros bet per match."
The fix in Antalya revealed the artless contempt that the Singapore syndicate had for international soccer. The games generated seven goals in total, all scored on penalty kicks. After a Latvian player missed one penalty, the referee ordered that it be retaken.
Following the Antalya matches, FIFA contacted Santia Raj by email through his front company. Dan Tan and the bosses started to believe that Perumal had tipped off FIFA. That's when Dan Tan authorized Santia Raj to hand Perumal over to the police. Santia Raj sent a low-level runner to Rovaniemi, where he walked into the police station and ended Perumal's match-fixing career.
With evidence mounting in Finnish court and with his anger building over his treatment by the syndicate, Perumal began cooperating with authorities. He provided match-fixing secrets that prompted an Italian court to indict Dan Tan in December 2011. Perumal served one year in Finnish prison and was released in February. But he was promptly turned over to authorities in Hungary, the next in a line of EU countries that want Perumal on match-fixing charges. Perumal is now in protective custody in a safe house in Budapest, where, sources say, he is delineating the syndicate's operation and its connections with European criminal groups.
Eaton, meanwhile, won't be at FIFA to see how it all plays out. After two years at his post, he officially left FIFA on May 1 to take a similar job with the International Centre for Sport Security, a well-funded Qatar-based watchdog group.
At the bar in Manchester's Radisson Edwardian Hotel after a day at SoccerEx, Eaton looks relieved to be moving on. "FIFA is on a steep learning curve about the realities of the infiltration of organized crime for the purpose of betting fraud," he says.
Eaton leans over the bar and orders another pint. Scattered about the room are various influential figures of the soccer world, also in town for SoccerEx. Periodically they turn in Eaton's direction, the Australian cowboy in their midst, then turn back toward one another with wry smiles. Eaton either doesn't see or doesn't care. He latches onto his beer. "The business of football has become so large, it drowns the sportsmanship," he says. "That's why when you dig deeply into the football world, you make people uncomfortable."
Perumal is not one of those people. "I would have admired if the enemy had brought the sword to my heart instead of my back," he wrote after his arrest.
He still may get his wish. After all, Perumal has a whole new list of enemies.
Back in Singapore, a former colleague issues a warning. "Protective custody," sneers one of the biggest match fixers in the world. "Fifteen minutes alone, he walks to the bathroom, he's dead. It's easy. They offered to pay me $300,000 to go to Hungary and sit on a roof with the sniper to identify him."
Yet Perumal is still a gambler. As he wrote from prison: "I hold the key to the Pandora's box. And I will not hesitate to unlock it."
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ESPN The Magazine: May 28, 2012