Everywhere but in America
Most people hold steadfast to the notion that today’s professional sports cannot be fixed. Everyone has their own theory as to why this should be true. Some claim athletes are paid too much in this modern age to be bribed to throw a game. Others state that if a particular game was fixed, so-called "unnatural money" would be spotted by bookmakers and gamblers alike, tipping off said fix. Still others simply cling to the false ideal that sports are pure and if a game was somehow rigged, those in control of the sport or authorities such as the FBI would catch the criminals involved.
Unfortunately for sports fans these are the unrealistic beliefs.
In October 2006, Bloomberg reported that online sports wagering was up over 20% from the year before to nearly $80 billion gambled yearly worldwide (a US Congressional estimate from 1999, however, put the amount of illegal sports wagering anywhere from $80 to $380 billion in the US alone) with online wagering sites numbering more than 2,500. To put the amount wagered into perspective, in 2012 the four major US sports leagues - NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB - earned a combined $25 billion. That means the conservative estimate of money being gambled on sports is at least three times the earnings of the major leagues.
American fans naively believe that though $80 billion is being wagered worldwide on sports – including the games of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB - game fixing does not exist. Their collective cry is: where are the headlines if these incidents are occurring?
Headlines are in fact being made. They simply exist in foreign newspapers. These stories are not propagated here in the United States, yet they have been occurring for decades. They include incidents in professional tennis, baseball, hockey, auto racing, and even the world’s most popular sport, soccer.
Athletes have not just been suspected of throwing games in these international cases, but have been caught, expelled from the sport, arrested, thrown in jail, and even murdered because of it.
What follows is a brief rundown of these recent events that have taken place across the globe.
1970s-80s – During the height of the Russian hockey program, its greatest team was known as the Moscow Red Army (TSKA). During this time, the team’s skate sharpener, the president of Sparta Moscow (TSKA’s chief rival), TSKA St. Petersburg team president, and the president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation were all murdered by the Russian mafia. Most believe all of these murders were linked to gambling and game fixes. It is suspected that the influx of Russian hockey players into the NHL in the late 1980s-early 1990s led to NHL games being fixed by Russian mobsters in control of these players.
1996 – 18 players, a team manager, and two bookies were arrested, convicted, and jailed for fixing games in the Chinese Professional Baseball League (the CPBL).
2003 – Belarus goalie Valery Shantolosov was arrested for attempting to fix two 2004 Euro qualifying matches. Though Shantolosov did not play in either game, he was connected to Russian gamblers and accused of attempting to bribe and otherwise influence the outcome of these games. His team lost both contests.
July 2005 – The Chinese Professional Baseball League (the CPBL) witnessed a player and a coach from its La New Bears arrested for game fixing. In total, police caught 10 people including gangsters and bookies in their sweep. This group, police claimed, collected over $3 million during this time.
It was revealed that coaches and players were often blackmailed, terrorized, and offered sex in exchange for throwing ball games. Favorite targets were foreign players from Panama and the Dominican Republic who were offered upwards of $5,000 to fix a game. As a result, a team translator who acted as a go-between for gangsters and players was arrested as well.
May 2006 – Juventus of Turin was the powerhouse of the Italian Serie A soccer league. The “Yankees of Italian soccer” had won 29 national championships. However in 2006, after winning their second national championship in as many years, the team fell apart due to accusations of game fixing, dragging much of the Italian soccer league with it.
As rumors swirled, Italian federal investigators conducted twenty months of wiretapping, attempting to sort out the twisted world of the soccer league. What they discovered was shocking. The revelations included players gambling on games in which they participated, coercion, physical threats, and even a possible kidnapping.
Juventus of Turin’s general manager Luciano Moggi was accused of being the mastermind of a system that appointed “favored” referees to his team’s key games. Moggi also held considerable sway over the sale and trade of players throughout the league. After winning the ’06 title, Moggi resigned his position with the team. When the Italian investigators got a hold of him soon afterwards, Moggi broke down during questioning, claiming he had to defend himself from the “real powers” that ran the game.
Moggi’s former team, Juventus of Turin, was owned by the Agnelli family who also own the Fiat Motor Corporation.
Investigators also discovered that Juventus’s goalie Gianluigi Buffon had a serious gambling habit. He gambled well over $2.5 million on various sporting events during their monitoring of Buffon. They could not however pin Buffon down on gambling upon soccer. Despite this, Buffon was later selected as the goalie for Italy’s World Cup team.
In Naples it was believed that an “elite group” at the very top of the Italian soccer world formed a criminal organization with the aims of influencing the outcome of several games. Investigators pinpointed 19 specific games which were in question, and investigated 41 people involved in those contests.
Three teams – Lazio of Rome, Fiorentina of Florence, and AC Milan (which was owned by the Italian Prime Minister) – were targeted for game fixing in these incidents.
When all was said and done, Juventus of Turin’s entire board of directors were forced to resign. The Italian soccer federation’s President and Deputy resigned as well. Two top officers in the league’s referee’s association also quit in disgrace.
In 2011, the "Last Bet" scandal erupted in Italian soccer. One banned player, Carlo Gervasoni, revealed his role in the affair in 2015 in which he explained how he corrupted as many as 60 fellow players.
The league continues to operate today despite these revelations.
July 2006 – It was alleged that France paid Brazil $25 million to throw its quarterfinals match in the World Cup. An email was supposedly leaked reading in part “The Brazilians have taken compensation from the French that exceeds the winners’ trophy prize, so they’re now very cautious.” Suspiciously after the loss, none of the Brazilian star players would speak with the press.
2007 – Russian tennis star Nikolay Davydenko had one of his matches declared "null and void" in European sports books because he may have taken a dive during his match. The 4th ranked Davydenko lost to the 87th ranked Martin Vassallo Arguello due to an “injury” Davydenko sustained in the match.
Since then, others in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) have stepped forward with claims of bribes that were offered to them. At the end of 2007, two players, 31st ranked Potito Starace and the 258th ranked Daniele Bracciali, were subsequently fined and suspended for gambling on tennis matches. Starace reportedly just bet on five matches with a total of $130 wagered.
December 2007 – European soccer’s governing body, the UEFA, called Interpol to investigate game fixing within the sport. Five UEFA officials handed police a 96 page document with suspicions regarding 26 games, including three in the 3rd preliminary round of the 2008 championships, two in the UEFA Cup, and one in the qualifying round of the 2008 Euro.
Millions of dollars were involved, much of which was supplied by Asian syndicates which are very active in both gambling and game fixing. Teams from Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Croatia were suspected in cooperating.
2008 – The UK newspaper the Independent ran an investigative article into players gambling. Substantiated by the nation’s foremost clinic for treating athletes with addictions, the Independent claimed there was an “epidemic” of players gambling which had undoubtedly led to on-field incidents due to players needing to pay off debts with bookies.
March 2008 – A writer posted the outcome of a Japanese soccer league game prior to the game taking place. This was not a prediction, but a warning that the game was fixed for a particular outcome (a 2-2 tie which would be won by a certain team during the penalty kick shootout). The game’s result was exacted as described.
July 2008 - The ATP suspended doubles titlists Frantisek Cermak and Michal Mertinak for gambling on tennis matches. Neither bet upon their own matches and according to investigators, neither attempted to affect the outcome of a match. Cermak was suspended for 10 weeks and a $15,000 fine while Mertinak received a two week suspension with a $3,000 fine.
September 2008 - It was in a Formula One race in Singapore that Nelson Piquet Jr followed orders from Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, the Renault team’s managing director and director of engineering respectively, to intentionally crash his car. Piquet’s teammate Fernando Alonso ultimately won the race. While this investigation by FIA continues, Piquet and the Renault team is still allowed to compete.
December 2008 – China’s professional baseball league (CPBL) saw one of its teams, the T-Rex, completely disband due to game fixing revelations.
February 2009 - British writer Nick Harris writes in the UK Independent that two 2008 soccer matches were closely examined by the FA (Football Association) for possible match fixing. The FA, of course, found nothing. Read his highly interesting article here.
February 2009 - Another British writer, Lawrence Donegan, also tackled the question of match fixing in an article in the UK paper the Guardian. Donegan went one step further than Nick Harris, documenting not just soccer games that may have been fixed, but snooker and cricket matches as well. It's a recommended read here.
March 2009 – Three players in the Italian soccer league Serie A, Franco Brienza, Salvatore Aronica, and Vincenzo Montalbano, were under federal investigation for match rigging in 2003. The three players were reportedly paid $270,000 by the mafia to throw a particular game which their team lost 2-1 on a late goal.
April 2009 – It was revealed that since 2005, Polish police have detained nearly 200 people for suspected soccer game fixing. This included members of the Polish Football Federation, coaches, referees, and players. In early 2009, 17 people associated with the league were found guilty of fixing games and sentenced to prison. The harshest sentence was 4 years.
April 2009 – Bulgarian bookies stopped taking bets on several games in the nation’s soccer championship for fears of games being fixed. A game that had already taken place was suspected of being fixed when a specific result (a 3-1 victory) was heavily bet upon. The game ended in that exact score.
May 2009 - The 119th ranked tennis player Mathieu Montcourt was suspended for five weeks and fined $12,000 for gambling on tennis. Supposedly, he only gambled $3 per match, ringing up a grand total of $192 bet in 36 matches. Whether true or not, in early July 2009, Montcourt was found dead in his Paris apartment building's stairwell. Investigators are still looking into the suspicious death of the 24-year old tennis player.
June 2009 – Author Marc Bennetts wrote a book titled Football Dynamo – Modern Russia and the People’s Game in which he claims at least one to two games each season in Russian soccer are “suspicious.” One game in particular involving a 3-2 loss by the team Krylya Sovietov was accompanied by irregular betting. The president of the nation’s soccer union later stated he was “ashamed” of the team for the game in question.
October 2009 - The WTA looked in to suspicious ending of a tennis match between U.S. Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki after she unexpectedly retired from a match winning 7-5, 5-0 (meaning she was a single game away from winning). Wozniacki claimed afterwords that she was injured early in the first set and her father instructed her to quit when she did, afraid of her further injuring herself. Betting on the match had swung heavily to her opponent prior to Wozniacki quitting.
May 2010 - Lord Triesman, who was the head of the English Football Association, resigned his post due to being secretly recorded speaking about how Spanish football authorities were attempting to bribe referees in then upcoming 2010 World Cup. (By the way, it was a Spanish referee that red carded a German player, costing the heavily favored team a 1-0 loss to Serbia in the 2010 World Cup)
July 2010 - Interpol conducted raids on nearly 800 illegal gambling dens spread across Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and China (including Hong Kong and Macau). All told, over 5,000 people were arrested and $10 million seized. In the one month operation, over $155 million in illegal soccer bets were booked by these organized crime rings. Prior to this series of raids, Hong Kong police reported that they destroyed a vast, international bookmaking operation that had booked over $1.3 billion in illegal World Cup soccer bets.
Despite these numbers, it is likely that these arrests were merely a show put on to prove to citizens that Asia was "getting tough on crime." In truth, most of these arrests were of low-level operators who were back on the streets (and at work booking bets) in a few days.
October 2010 - Four men went on trial in Germany accused of fixing perhaps as many as 270 soccer matches across Europe and Asia by bribing both players and referees. According to police sources, the amount of the bribes totalled over $2 million, with the amount bet on the matches much more than that. The matches potentially influenced spanned from 2009 through 2010.
Nearly 50 raids were conducted in Switzerland, Germany, and Britian in an attempt to shut down this illegal operation. So far 15 from Germany and 2 from Switzerland have been arrested, with the four Germans on trip likely being the tip of this dirty iceberg.
October 2010 - The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is involved in an investigation with both Interpol and Major League Baseball looking into a potential connection between steroid dealers and game fixing. No word on the results of this investigation has been relesed yet.
Author and investigator Declan Hill, whose own website digs into the treacherous world of soccer game fixing, wrote a book on the subject titled The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime. In his 2008 book, Hill exposed soccer games that were fixed in the 2004 Olympics, the 2006 World Cup, and the 2007 Women’s World Cup among others.
Declan traveled the globe and witnessed soccer matches being fixed first-hand.
Since the book's release, he has worked non-stop in an attempt to clean up a sport that doesn't seem to want to be clean. Just look at the corruption and controversy surrounding FIFA's awarding of the next two World Cup sites.
He also issued a warning about the 2010 World Cup.
February 2011 - Three Pakistan cricket team members and an agent were arrested for match fixing after a sting operation conducted by The News of the World (prior to the scandal that destroyed the paper). The Pakistani team was paid to foul at three specific times in their match against England which they did. The four faced charges of conspiracy to obtain and accept payments as well as conspiracy to cheat. In October 2011, two of the three players were convicted with more to come in this case.
March 2011 - A federal judge upheld a lawsuit brought against the ATP by five suspended Italian tennis players who were suspended in 2007. The players claim that the ATP withheld evidence that other, higher ranked players were also gambling and that the five were simply scapegoats for a league attempting to look cleaner than it actually is. Read more on this case here.
May 2011 - Match fixing "kingpin" Ante Sapina was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison in Germany. Sapina admitted to fixing 20 soccer matches between 2008 and 2009, including games in the German Oberliga, the Champions League, and World Cup qualifying matches. In some of these games, Sapina and his cohorts were able to get entire teams to participate in their fixing plots.
June 2011 - Daniel Koellerer of Austria, the 385th ranked tennis player in the world, was banned for life for attempted match fixing. He is currently appealing the ruling of the Tennis Integrity Unit.
August 2011 - While under an internal investigation of its own corruption, FIFA suspended six match officials for life and a seventh for a year on charges of corruption and match-fixing. Of the six suspended for life, three were from Hungary and the others were from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
October 2011 - Another tennis player is suspended for life for attempting to fix matches. Serbian player David Savic, the 659th-ranked player, was also fined by the Tennis Integrity Unit $100,000 for three violations. The highest Savic was ever ranked was 363rd.
More in October 2011 - Get ready for the 2012 Olympics in London as the corruption has already started. According to the UK's Daily Mail, the country of Azerbaijan was involved in a scheme to pay 6 million Pounds to the Amatuer International Boxing Association in exchange for two boxing gold medals. An investigation is currently ongoing.
July 2012 - The London Olympics was rife with fixing, cheating and overall poor sportsmanship. Of course, NBC tried to ignore it all and put on a happy face. However, not all were fooled by this "amateur" competition that has become big business and big money as some of these stories of corruption made minor headlines.
October 2012 - Three Guatemalan players were banned for life by FIFA for their role in fixing three matches - two friendlies (against Venezuela and Costa Rica) and a 6-1 loss in the CONCACAF Champions League. The latter game bears closer scrutiny due to teams in America's MLS trying to legitimize the league by winning at CONCACAF...and now we know these games can be fixed.
January 2013 - FIFA banned 41 players from the Korean soccer K-League and Football Association for game fixing. There's hope for half of those players to return to soccer after a few requirements are met.
May 2013 - It is announced that the Spanish football league is investigating Deportivo La Coruna's 4-0 win over Levante on April 13, 2013 due to the game possibly being fixed. Interestingly, Deportivo La Coruna president Augusto Cesar Lendoiro stated his team was innocent of the charges, but added that match fixing is rampant in Spain nonetheless.
June 2013 - Russian tennis player Sergei Krotiouk has been banned from the sport for life and fined $60,000 after being found guilty of offenses under the Uniform Tennis Anti-Corruption Program (UTACP). Krotiouk was found guilty of 41 charges including violations of the UTACP's Article D.1.d (No Covered Person shall, directly or indirectly, contrive or attempt to contrive the outcome or any other aspect of any Event), Article D.1.e (No Covered Person shall, directly or indirectly, solicit or facilitate any Player to not use his or her best efforts in any Event), and Article D.1.g (No Covered Person shall, directly or indirectly, offer or provide any money, benefit or Consideration to any other Covered Person with the intention of negatively influencing a Covered Person’s best efforts in any Event).
June 2013 - Andros Townsend who plays for Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League was suspended for four months for "breaches of FA Rule E8(b) for misconduct in relation to betting, which he admitted." Three months of his four month suspension is suspended until 2016.
June 2013 - Even Japanese baseball isn't immune to manipulation. Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) admitted to "tinkering" with their baseballs to increase offense and thus "make the game more exciting" for fans. But MLB would never stoop so low, would they?
June 2013 - Two Turkish soccer teams were banned from the Champions League and Europa League over match fixing allegations. One team, Fenerbahce, received a three year ban as this was not the first time the team came under such suspicions (the team was banned from the 2011-12 Champions League as well). The other team, Besiktas, was banished from the 2013-14 UEFA Europa League.
July 2013 - Teams usually don't score 67 goals in a single soccer match (let alone a single soccer season), but in Nigeria pretty much anything goes. Needless to say, this has led to an investigation.
July 2013 - The unusual "near fix": Members of the Belize soccer team admitted to being approached prior to a match versus the United States team, and were asked to lose a game they were already expected to lose. As one player was quoted as saying, "He started talking that we don’t really stand a chance to beat the U.S so he wanted us to promise him that we would lose the game and that he would give us a large amount of money to change our lives in Belize and to help our families." But the Belize players stood firm and didn't take the bribe...then lost 6-1.
August 2013 - El Salvador suspended 22 players suspected of being involved in match fixing in soccer games involving both the United States and Mexico dating back to 2010. El Salvador's national team will not play until the investigation into these allegations is complete. In September, 14 members were suspended for life.
September 2013 - Match fixing comes to Australia as 10 members of their Premier League were arrested under suspicion of fixing soccer matches with upwards of $2 million bet on the suspect games. Some of these players were from England, working in Australia during the "off-season."
November 2013 - A match-fixing scandal finally hits England as six are arrested on alleged charges of doing just that, including one former Premier League player-turned-agent. Apparently, one can buy a referee for 20,000 English pounds. Heck, that means I could buy a referee...and I'm just a lowly sports writer. It's become that frightening out there.
April 2014 - Match-fixing in the Indian Premier League in cricket is rampant and nearly destroyed the league over the course of the past year. In a piece for Sports On Earth, I untangled the web of corruption so it was easy to understand - even if you don't comprehend how the game is played. Two things to note: One, despite being illegal, betting in India on both cricket and soccer is greater than gambling on the NFL and NBA in the USA. Two, social activist Naresh Makani had filed a case against BCCI [Board of Control for Cricket in India] and others, alleging that "all IPL cricket matches were fixed and franchise owners were involved in it."
July 2014 - Five rugby players were suspended,three casual game day officials were terminated and nine others suspended for the rest of the NRL season for betting on league games. A dozen other players were given a "one time only" warning about such behavior as the league instituted a "zero tolerance policy." This scandal may or may not have led to the death of player Ryan Tandy who had been banned for life.
July 2014 - Here's a rarity: a spot fixing scandal in hockey featuring 30-year old Tyler Mosienko (grandson of the great Bill Mosienko formerly of the Chicago Blackhawks). Of course, Tyler claims this happened on just "one occasion" and he did "nothing" to make the bet a winner. But it goes to show that no sport is immune to this form of corruption.
August 2014 - It's not Wimbledon or the US Open, but this looked like a clearly fixed tennis match from all aspects. The interesting part is that it was telegraphed on the betting boards, but no one acted to prevent the fix or stop payment on the bets realted to it. What more do the authorities involved need to prove this happens more frequently than fans believe?
Sorry about the year-long gap here, but I was researching/writing A Season in the Abyss. But since that's finished up....
April 2015 - France's biggest handball star Nikola Karabatic -- who has won an Olympic gold medal in the sports among other world titles -- will stand trial for fraud over his suspected involvement in an illegal betting case. Six other players are also facing trial on similar charges. Karabatic and his younger brother (also a player) were among a group of French handballers suspended for match fixing some two years ago.
October 2015 - The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) suspended four Nepali players and an official (the captain of the national team no less) for their roles in a match-fixing plot. They were arrested and charged with accepting bribes from bookmakers in Malaysia. The AFC's investigation is still on-going and may result in more players and officials being suspended.
October 2015 - This may be hard to believe, but the entire Canadian Soccer League may be under the influence of match fixers. Perhaps as many as 60 games in a single season - that's 42 percent of the games played - featured suspect betting activity. Yet this league survives.
While none of these events have made an American newspaper or were seriously covered on ESPN or Sports Illustrated - with the sole exception perhaps being the Europol announcement that 680 soccer matches were suspected of being fixed worldwide - the fact is sporting contests of every sort continue to be rigged. Another writer Patrick Hruby of Sports On Earth, questioned the legitimacy of professional tennis given its recent spate of allegedly fixed matches.
The situation has become so serious that the International Olympic Committee set up a special panel to look for suspicious betting patterns and activities during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Of course, it doesn't help that FIFA allowed bookmakers to set up shop directly outside the South African stadiums hosting the 2010 World Cup matches.
If this can happen in the “world’s game” of soccer as well as in these other sports covered above, how is it not possible that similar incidents of game fixing are not occurring within major sports leagues of the United States? And remember, ESPN, Fox Sports, and NBC are all pushing soccer onto the American sporting public, having signed multi-million dollar deals with these soccer leagues, without alerting the public about these scandals. I wonder why....?