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Prosecutors Blow Whistle on Soccer Betting Scandal

Written by:
Guest
Published on:
Dec/01/2009

By MARCUS WALKER and DAVID CRAWFOR, www.wsj.com

BERLIN -- A widening match-fixing scandal in European soccer is shining a light on shady betting practices in the multibillion-dollar sport.

German prosecutors are leading a Europe-wide investigation into an alleged betting syndicate suspected of manipulating soccer matches in what is now believed to be 17 countries, up from a suspected nine countries last week, according to prosecutors' documents seen by two lawyers for suspects in the case.

If proved, the affair would be one of the largest betting scandals in European soccer history.

The case shows how a combination of globalization, the Internet and the rising popularity of legal gambling on soccer are increasing opportunities for organized crime, European police and soccer officials say.

The suspects are accused of trying to hide their rigged bets amid the large volume of bets placed on Internet gambling sites from Malta to the Philippines, according to arrest warrants and a 300-page summary of the evidence seen by suspects' lawyers.

NordicBet"Bribes are paid in Europe, bets are placed in Asia, and the profits are taken in Berlin," Jörg Ziercke, head of Germany's Federal Crimes Office, said in a speech at a police conference last week.

The probe first became public in late November when police in Berlin arrested five suspected ringleaders, mostly from the former Yugoslavia. Since then, details of the alleged syndicate's scale and methods have emerged almost daily.

German prosecutors described the broad outlines of the suspected betting fraud late last month, but have since declined to comment on details. Much of what is known comes from suspects' lawyers, who have viewed arrest warrants and have been given partial access to investigators' case files.

German prosecutors say a network of around 200 people is alleged to have bribed soccer players, referees and club officials to manipulate more than 200 matches, and to have made millions of euros through bets made online and with bookmakers in Europe and Asia.

German prosecutors are investigating possible manipulation attempts including payments from the alleged betting ring to a hotel cook in the former Yugoslavia who was asked to put performance-impairing drugs in a visiting team's food, said Burkhard Benecken, a lawyer for one of the suspects arrested in Germany.

A senior German police investigator who is involved in the probe said the investigation began early this year after German police wiretapped Mr. Benecken's client to gather evidence on other suspected criminal activity, and heard him talking about fixing soccer games.

Mr. Benecken would identify his client, a Turkish citizen, only as Deniz C. He says Mr. C is charged with kidnapping a Nuremberg bookkeeper, holding him in his basement for four days, and repeatedly beating him to demand payment of a €100,000 ($150,000) gambling debt. The lawyer says his client denies the allegations.

In all, 17 suspects accused of being connected to the betting ring have been arrested in Germany, Switzerland and Croatia.

One of the alleged leaders arrested in Berlin, a Croatian named Ante Sapina, had recently finished a prison sentence for a 2005 match-fixing scandal, in which he was convicted of bribing a German soccer referee to influence matches. The referee also went to prison. Mr. Sapina's lawyer described the new allegations against his client as "speculation."

German prosecutors are looking into how Mr. Sapina may have laundered millions of euros in gambling profits via a network of bank accounts and middlemen in Asia.

The soccer matches under investigation were mostly in minor leagues in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and Belgium. The list also includes major-league matches in Turkey and the former Yugoslavia. Europe's football-organizing body, UEFA, said at least one match in Europe's elite club tournament, the Champions League, is "suspicious" -- Albanian squad KF Tirana's 4-0 defeat by Stabaek of Norway in July. Repeated calls to Tirana weren't answered. Stabaek isn't under suspicion.

NordicBetMost of the teams whose matches German prosecutors accused the suspected betting ring of manipulating, such as Germany's SC Verl, aren't household names. Such teams pay their players a pittance compared with Europe's more famous clubs, where star players earn millions of euros a year. That may be why the suspected betting ring may have focused on obscure teams, gambling-industry analysts say.

"Matches involving clubs from lower leagues or small countries may be easier to manipulate, because it takes less money to try and influence the outcomes, and such games attract less attention than big matches in the English Premier League," says David Trunkfield, head of leisure strategy at PricewaterhouseCoopers in London.

At SC Verl, some players are alleged to have taken around €20,000 in bribes from the betting ring to throw games, according to investigation documents seen by Mr. Benecken. SC Verl's president, Peter Mankartz, said the club has suspended two players and is cooperating with the investigation. He gave no further details.

A suspected member of the gambling ring bet around €41,000 on SC Verl to lose one of those games, and took away €100,000 in winnings when the squad lost on an own goal, Mr. Benecken said.

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