Bet and Ball
On 27 November, the football world woke up to sensational news about match fixing allegations in the lower leagues of English football that was uncovered by The Telegraph. The English daily reported the arrest of six persons by the National Crime Agency (NCA), the UK’s equivalent to the FBI, who were suspected to be members of a betting syndicate from Asia, involved in rigging domestic club matches in England.
In the last couple of years, serious breakthroughs have been made into the epidemic of match fixing that has gripped world football. It is an industry that is fuelled by unregulated betting markets in Asia, especially in terms of the ease and speed with which bets can be placed via the internet and mobile phones. According to latest figures by Interpol, of the $1 trillion sports betting industry, 70 per cent of it goes into gambling on football matches. The temptations for a fix are clearly palpable. According to Chris Eaton, FIFA’s former head of security, who has closely investigated Asian betting syndicates, Asian bookmakers witness a weekly turnover of $2billion. East Asia, especially China and Singapore, have become hubs for these massive betting syndicates.
For anyone in the business of football betting, there are a plethora of options to choose from. FIFA recognises 208 national football federations. Each football federation has their own professional league and their national team, which is further divided under various age groups. In fact the choice grows exponentially, once real time propositional betting comes into the picture, where you’re betting on actual events during the match, such as which player receives the first yellow card of the match.
A turning point in the battle against match fixing, was the capture of a key figure in the Singapore betting syndicate, Wilson Raj Perumal, on charges of traveling with a fake passport and fixing local club matches, in February 2011. Perumal was in a remote Finnish town close to the Arctic Circle, called Rovaniemi, where he was out to fix a local club game. On a tip-off from some of his fellow syndicate members in Singapore, Perumal was nabbed by Finnish authorities. Perumal was the quintessential fluent and suave operator, whom the Chinese triads and members of the Singapore syndicate trusted. According to Eaton, operators like Perumal, went in with the idea of bribing not just players or referees but entire football federations. He would approach national federations using front companies like ‘Footy Media’ and ‘Football4U’, as a promoter, who would negotiate friendly matches with other countries. In a letter Perumal wrote to a Singaporean journalist from his Finnish jail cell, he said, ‘Most football associations are broke. 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’.
Accordingly, sums of about $1,00,000 would be raised, often pairing these teams with high profile sides for friendly matches. Perumal would promote these matches and pick the referees. Most friendlies go without FIFA’s sanctioning, as the selection of players and match officials were under the jurisdiction of local federations. All Perumal had to do was to choose a stadium and pay the day’s rent. FIFA paid its referees approximately $350 per game, which literally invited the fix, considering the paltry sum. The matches would inevitably capture the attention of bookmakers and the international betting market. However, in order to achieve, what bookmakers would call a ‘five-star fix’, players and coaches would also have to be brought into the picture. Perumal’s game plan was smart, as he would embed himself into professional leagues that were generally beyond the global eye, such as Syria or Zimbabwe.
The process of achieving a five-star fix, in professional leagues involved paying players and coaches sums of approximately $5,000 per fix, which was way beyond the standard salary they received. Syndicates placed runners or informants on the ground.These runners would provide the latest updates on whichever team they were onto for the fix. In certain cases, these runners would be paid into informing local bookies about matches set up by the syndicate and bets would be placed accordingly, irrespective of whether these matches occurred or not. Based on information received by Eaton’s team and Perumal’s testimony, it is understood that one of the major betting syndicates in Singapore is run by four bosses, headed by Dan Tan SeetEng, based out of Singapore, who was recently arrested by authorities in the city state, over fixing charges in their domestic leagues. On 18 September 2013, Interpol had announced that the Singapore police had arrested 14 members of an organised crime gang that were involved in global match fixing activities. Speaking to the Associated Press, on the basis of anonymity, a senior police official had informed them that Dan Tan was arrested along with the 14. Chris Eaton has deemed this arrest as ‘enormously significant’. In fact Dan Tan was also accused by Italian authorities of coordinating fixes and making millions of dollars from many domestic league and cup games, across various divisions of Italian club football between 2008 and 2011, through bribing players, referees and even club officials. Despite having an arrest warrant out for him, with no extradition treaty with Singapore, they’ve been unable to prosecute him.
Noted journalist Brett Forrest, who covered Perumal’s arrest in his article for ESPN titled ‘All the world is staged’, talks about the very process of betting that occurs: ‘The syndicate is run by four bosses – led by a man named Dan Tan SeetEng – 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’.With associates from various criminal organisations located in countries as far as Slovenia, Italy, Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria, the money is transferred across the globe via the hawala route.
Chris Eaton, the then FIFA’s head of security, on receiving the news of Perumal’s and subsequently Dan Tan’s arrest, knew the significance of such catches. Eaton had been after Perumalfor the last six months prior to his arrest. Unfortunately, working for an organisation that oversees national federations, teams and leagues, with no real policing powers, limits the impact of such a governing body. With annual revenue of $1billion, tax-free, there is clearly little incentive to look beneath the carpet.
Singapore police’s actions on Dan Tan are a step in the right direction. However, as noted Singapore-based journalist, Neil Humphreys has said that the arrest of Dan Tan in September, 2013, is one step in the right direction. He claims that there are five other syndicates working out of Singapore. He said, ‘The match-fixing hydra remains. A big ugly head appears to have been chopped off, but only one. This is a promising beginning, but the end is still nowhere in sight.’