Of course soccer is corruptible. Just as baseball found that gamblers had bribed players of the Chicago White Sox to throw World Series games in 1919. Just as horse racing has to be ever-vigilant about the doping of horses, and cycling and track and field have to be about their athletes. Just as Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, fears that illegal betting is today the greatest polluter across a sporting industry now believed to turn over $140 billion a year.
Europol said Monday in The Hague that a 19-month investigation into match-fixing had found 680 matches across the globe that it deemed suspicious. Those figures are, frankly, small change compared to what courts have demonstrated has gone on in China, in South Korea, in Turkey and in Italy during the past year.
Europe’s police officers are inevitably reluctant to point fingers too directly. They have to work within the law, too, and if their investigations are continuing, then they cannot prejudice the trials before the hearings.
But the cases that were talked about in The Hague have more than a familiar ring. The bulk of them appear to be a collation of fixes, notably in Germany, Finland, Slovakia and Hungary, that have run their course and been copiously reported on.
At the International Herald Tribune’s Sports Business Summit meeting last April in Istanbul — at the same time that leading figures in Turkish soccer were jailed on suspicion of match-fixing — guests included Ronald Noble, the secretary general of Interpol, the international police organization.
What Noble could tell us was dwarfed by what he could not because he is a working police officer, with access to ongoing criminal investigations. Those investigations are not just in soccer, where he has a mandate to work with FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, to help prevent match-tampering.
Noble has former Interpol officers in leading sporting institutions today. They operate from Europe to the Gulf. His organization is building a unit in Singapore that, from 2014 onward, will be dedicated to tracking and breaking global Internet organized criminality.
Soccer, as popular in Asia as it is anywhere else, lends itself to that crime.
In Singapore, Malaysia, China or wherever, the cartels can operate without being in the same time zone or on the same continent as where the matches are being played.
One of the most chilling, and to an extent unsolved, crimes was a murder case in Newcastle, in the north of England, where two Chinese students who graduated from a local university were beaten and stabbed to death. All the court could glean was that the person charged with, and convicted of, the killings might have been answerable to a gang in China that had hired the students as “spotters” at matches not even in the top professional bracket in England. Their role was to telephone goals, corner kicks and throw-ins the instant they happened, and with the broadcast delayed by a minute or less in Asia, bets could be placed and won at the touch of a button.
Another unnerving trial took place in 1993, when Liverpool’s goalie, Bruce Grobbelaar, stood accused of throwing a Premier League match. He was acquitted, but attending that trial, seeing and hearing a co-defendant from Malaysia in the witness box, left a sinister impression. The case was unproven, but the presence in that room of the mysterious middleman was, to say the least, unnerving.
The most recent German case, in which there were convictions in Bochum, left no room for doubt that no matter how much or little people are paid to play and officiate games, humans are vulnerable. And not always for money.
Many of those brought to trial these days tend to be through media investigation — for example, the Pakistani cricketers caught by British journalists posing as fixers.
Figures are bandied about that could make us dizzy. Noble, the Interpol chief, equates global gambling revenue to be on a par with that of Coca-Cola. Accountants suggest $1 trillion a year — more than $3 billion a day — is spent on sports.
Now here is a funny thing. Soccer is arguably the most widely broadcast sport that people play. This week, there are 40 international friendly matches, plus the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations, and all the club games around the world. Next week, the Champions League is renewed.
Itchy fingers will bet on those, and not only on the final scores. Lest anyone forget, television ads, stadium surrounds and even the shirts of many players will drum it into spectators.
The sport is on the run from betting manipulation, yet a team as illustrious and as wealthy as Real Madrid carries the logo of a betting company on its jersey. The message is that the game is synonymous with gambling.