Asian investors are buying into European football clubs, bringing money, new players and hope along with them. But some are engaged in match-fixing, manipulating games and earning millions off crooked bets. They have already infiltrated a number of teams.
On April 29, at 10:01 p.m., soccer fans Simon Miller and Paul Langley lost their faith in the sport.
The Irish men were sitting in City Calling Stadium in Longford, Ireland, and their team, Athlone Town FC, was behind 1:2. In the 80th minute of play, a Facebook message alert popped up on their mobile phones. A man who had been monitoring football bets for years wrote to them that the odds had just shifted dramatically and it seemed likely that another goal would soon be scored.
They both sat motionless as they watched the drama unfold on the pitch. Athlone’s Portuguese coach, Ricardo Cravo, shifted Romanian midfielder Dragos Sfrijan to the defense, they say, and Latvian goalkeeper Igors Labuts suddenly began pressing forward on every corner kick, a potentially suicidal move that keepers generally only reserve for their team’s final attacks of the match. But the show reached its climax in injury time: When a long ball flew into Athlone’s half, Sfrijan clumsily jabbed at it, missing entirely, they say. And keeper Labuts, they continue, completely whiffed on the rather easy save.
“It looks like somebody made some money today,” a fan wrote on the internet. Hong Kong’s Asia Times newspaper would later write that winnings from the bets on the Athlone game had exceeded $600,000.
European football association UEFA expressed alarm over suspicions of “undue influence” during the game and Irish national football governing body FAI launched an investigation, with the police also looking into the case.
The appeal of football lies in the impossibility of predicting the outcome of the match. Champions League clubs can be eliminated by amateur teams in cup matches, there are surprise champions and lucky shots can decide a game. That thrill is what makes the game so exhilerating.
But what happens when a team plays not with the goal of winning but with that of executing illegal agreements? Or if mistakes take place deliberately and a game is intentionally lost? At that point, it becomes organized crime rather than a game.
The global betting market is extremely lucrative. Around the world, some 1 trillion euros in bets are placed annually on sporting events, a sum almost as high as that of all German exports. Around 70 percent of those bets are placed on football. The business keeps growing, with new bookmakers popping up all the time, frequently located in tax havens like Malta or Gibraltar. The big players are often based in the Philippines or China.
The world’s largest bookmakers allow you to bet on just about any aspect of football: on the result, of course, but also on goals, goal scorers, penalty kicks, throw-ins, yellow and red cards and even which player takes care of the kick-off. And the bets can be placed on matches all over the world. In the 2009 betting scandal in Germany, it emerged that attempts had been made to manipulate 32 different matches — from Germany’s second division right down to youth leagues — and those efforts actually succeeded in a number of instances.
When you install actors on a field, rather than football players or referees, who follow an invisible script that has been pre-arranged in secret, earning millions in fake bets can be remarkably easy.
Founded 130 years ago, Athlone Town is Ireland’s oldest football team and plays in the country’s second division. There was a time in the 1970s when the club would go up against teams like AC Milan in the UEFA Cup and fans in the town of 21,000 would love to see a return to those days of success. The UEFA Cup anthem, the floodlights, the global stars and the big money: This aspiration drove the club into the hands of people who turn the dreams of officials, players and fans into business.
In February, the Portuguese firm Pré Season, a business registered in the town of Amadora near Lisbon, became a part owner of Athlone Town FC. Investigators believe a man named Mao Xiaodong is behind the deal, one of the most notorious match-fixers around. Known in the scene simply as Eric Mao, he has achieved a certain amount of fame in the football underworld. His business model, experts believe, involves buying a stake in a time as an investor before then hiring new players or coaches. He then begins betting on a grand scale and the players instructed by his people ensure that the outcome of the game matches that of the betting slips.
Via the whistleblowing platform Football Leaks, DER SPIEGEL has obtained a confidential report originating from the Qatar-based sport security firm ICSS. The report notes that “Eric Mao is a high-ranking match-fixing organizer and the leader of a match-fixing syndicate in Singapore and also a key member of a global match-fixing network.” He’s a partner of the infamous match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal.
Perumal rigged countless football matches around the world before being caught by the authorities and turning into a key witness. He testified against the betting mafia and then wrote a book that offered a deep look into the world of match-fixing. Perumal lives in Hungary today and insiders believe he has kept up his contacts with other match-fixers. Most recently, he allegedly had telephone contact with a match-fixer in Australia and gave him instructions; Australian police are reported to have been monitoring the call. When contacted for a statement, Perumal denied having any current connection with match-fixing.
It’s not particularly difficult for betting cheats who have elbowed their way into the football industry disguised as investors to make quick money. In his book, Perumal describes just how devoid of morals football clubs can be in their grab for money, especially those teams that are short on cash. Often, such clubs don’t even ask how an investor earns his or her money — they’re just happy to get it. And they’re frequently willing to make all sorts of concessions to make it happen.
A Repeating Pattern
It appears that Athlone granted Mao’s people many of the kinds of concessions that he needs for his business. In no time at all, the outsiders had transformed the club into a kind of hand puppet: Their control was invisible, but the center of the club had been hollowed out. Fans in town have begun comparing their club with a team in Portugal that Mao took over a few years ago: Atlético Clube de Portugal, or CP for short.
CP had been on the verge of bankruptcy in 2013 and its board transformed its first team into a publicly traded company on the search for investors. That’s when Mao showed up. The 34-year-old from Beijing is a player’s agent and the owner of Anping, a conglomerate of firms.
Anping acquired 70 percent of the shares in CP, with the club retaining 30 percent ownership. Shortly thereafter, the club made a number of new hires, including Igors Labuts from the Latvian club Jurmala, a team that was already widely suspected of engaging in match-fixing at that time.
UEFA issued a “high risk warning,” about possible manipulation and corrupt betting activity involving Atlético Clube de Portugal. In addition to Mao, the UEFA warning also mentioned goalkeeper Labuts, describing him as a “suspicious individual.” The football body said he had played in 17 suspicious matches.
“All we had were conflicts. We lost complete control,” CP President Ricardo Delgado says today. This season, the first squad got relegated to the fourth division. When asked if that was the product of manipulated matches, Delgado responds, “I don’t know what is happening here.”
Pré Season invested in Athlone in Ireland at the beginning of this year and the company also brought along several new players including, once again, Igors Labuts. Midfielders José Viegas and Dery Hernandez, likewise new additions to Athlone, had also played previously at Atlético. The career of Athlone’s new operations director Marc Fourmeaux is also noteworthy: Three years ago, the Frenchman led the team DFK Dainava in Lithuania’s first division to last place, with a goal differential of minus 131. It was a rather odd season.
Goalkeeper Labuts refused to comment to SPIEGEL. After the Longford match, he claimed he was innocent and argued: “If I’m a top class keeper, I’m playing for Real Madrid.” Soon afterward, he was back on the field. In fact, nobody has even been suspended. All the players who have been under suspicion of match manipulation for months are still playing. And all players under suspicion continue to insist that they are innocent.
DER SPIEGEL tried to speak with club president John Hayden, but he beat a hasty retreat from the playing field when the DER SPIEGEL reporter paid a visit and jumped into his Mercedes sedan. He also didn’t respond to subsequent texts and calls to his mobile phone. Responding to a request from DER SPIEGEL, club officials said they were not aware if Mao is the true investor or not and that they first learned about him through the media.
“We said from the very beginning that something wasn’t right here, but nobody listened to us,” says Langley, the fan. His buddy Miller had already noticed at the first test match that, “Some of the new players look as though they have never played football before.” They mention the portly Uruguayan, the unskilled Romanian and the many technical and conditional shortcomings displayed by the new players.
Both fans, who ask that their real names not be used out of fear of retaliation from the match-fixers, became private detectives. They found out that the new team members had also played together previously at clubs where matches had been manipulated. “Any time the coach ordered the Romanian from the midfield into the defense, it was clear that the opponent should score a goal,” Miller says. They expressed their suspicion on Facebook and they contacted the club, but no one believed them. “We were told to keep our mouths shut — and not just once.”
The two haven’t entered the stadium again since the Longford match. They’ve had enough. And Athlone is now second to last in the league.
For European investigators, the Asian investment in the second-division Irish team is a standard strategy used by match-fixers. For one, it’s easier to manipulate teams in smaller leagues because there is less oversight. Plus, smaller, more financially vulnerable clubs are easier victims because they can often be lured with relatively modest amounts.
But the main reason is that match-fixers often take advantage of talented young players in these lower leagues to manipulate a match or two in exchange for a small amount of money or other favors. Afterward, these talents are sold to stronger clubs. “It’s a little like the stock market,” says one experienced police official. He says he has frequently observed how the match-fixers often leave such talented players alone for a few years. But once they make their breakthrough and begin playing for a higher profile club, the match-fixers from their past suddenly return to remind them of their earlier fraud. They point out to them what the consequences would be if their past transgressions were revealed. It would destroy their careers. “The match-fixers also deliver an immediate solution to the problem: They want the players to manipulate games for them in the higher league just a few more times. Commit a penalty, lose a footrace, cause a throw-in, convince a couple of teammates on their behalf – and it is suggested that something like that would never be exposed, anyway,” the police official says.
In this way, a virus is planted at the highest levels of football – one that starts spreading faster and faster. Bit by bit, it is also taints football’s credibility as a sport.
Graham Peaker, 61, is sitting at UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland wearing a white short-sleeve shirt. The title given on his business card is “intelligence coordinator.” He has spent 25 years investigating the manipulation of football matches in Europe and during this time, and under his watch, several clubs have been banned because of match-fixing, including teams in Turkey, Albania and Macedonia. Together with his staff, Peaker provides seminars to young players to educate them about match-fixing. “We want to protect the next generation from the influence of match-fixers,” he says. And with a partner firm, Peaker reviews 32,000 European football matches per year in an effort to track suspicious shifts on the betting market. If they find conspicuous features as they did in the Athlone match in Longford, they sound the alarm.
But a sports organization like UEFA doesn’t have access to the kinds of instruments that are available to state authorities for collecting evidence of wrongdoing – such as police raids and telephone surveillance, for example. “Sometimes, it’s frustrating,” Peaker says.
And Peaker only receives limited support from state investigating authorities. No country in the world has specialized public prosecutors for sports betting and many state agencies are wary of confronting bet rigging. Investigations are too costly and spread out and they are often unsuccessful. Italy, for example, has been pursuing such an investigation since 2011, but public prosecutors have yet to deliver any concrete results. And in Bochum, where match-fixers have been sentenced to a total of more than 50 years behind bars recently, the police task force looking into match-fixing has essentially been disbanded because the cases have no connection to the Bochum region. The expertise that police officers and prosecutors there have amassed will be lost.
Francesco Baranca has transformed these problems with investigating match-fixing into a business idea. The Italian is sitting in a restaurant overlooking the roofs of Barcelona and laughing. He was the one who wrote to Athlone fans on Facebook that April evening that Longford would soon score a third goal. Baranca is not a clairvoyant — he’s the founder of Federbet, one of the largest betting surveillance systems in existence. His people sound the alarm when spreads begin shifting unusually and produce profiles of big-name gamblers like Eric Mao and players like Igors Labuts. They draw the links between individuals in the global match-fixing business. His clients are leagues, teams and associations who consult him when an alleged investor suddenly turns up. In such cases, Baranca takes a look at his database before granting his approval – or not.
Baranca has seen some extraordinary things in the years he has spent examining professional soccer. In one instance, he investigated an alleged case of match-fixing in Portugal only to discover that the match had never actually been played. It was a so-called “ghost match,” a match that never took place but for which bookmakers nevertheless receive statistics and accept bets.
These days, Baranca says, there are even agencies that maintain lists of (mostly) players who are willing to manipulate matches. If a prolific better needs someone to fix a match, they contact these agencies. In the case of Athlone, Federbet completed a report, which SPIEGEL has seen, following the match in Langford. The report made it clear to investigators that the betting odds shifted toward the end of the game and that a significant amount of money was bet on a fourth goal being scored. Among gamblers, such a bet is referred to as an “over”: bets are placed on a specified minimum number of goals being scored in a given match. In the game in question, that minimum was four – and then in injury time, Longford did go on to score that fourth goal thanks to Athlone’s defensive lapse.
Putting an End to the Nightmare
In Portugal, meanwhile, Atlético CP has had enough of its investor. The parent team is trying to get rid of the 30 percent stake it still has in its first team in favor of developing its reserve team, which currently plays in the sixth division, into its main attraction. The club also wants exclusive rights to its coat of arms. “We don’t have anything more to do with this team,” says President Delgado. On Facebook, fans have long since begun venting, writing “Get Out!” and “Idiots!” to the Asian investors.
And at Athlone Town in Ireland, Tony Connaughton, an active 63-year-old who has already done a stint in club leadership, would like to put an end to the nightmare. The club’s annual general meeting is scheduled to take place in late June and critics are insisting that incumbent club leader John Hayden call new elections. If Connaughton wins, he plans to clean house, saying he will get rid of all the newcomers. “They should go back to where they came from,” he says. “And then, after 130 years, we’ll start from scratch.”