Anti-Mafia Prosecutor Sounds Alarm Over Soccer Betting

European soccer is at high risk from match-fixing mobsters seeking to “load the dice” in an illegal gambling business valued at $90 billion a year, Sicily’s chief anti-Mafia prosecutor said.

“The entire football business is at a high risk of infiltration by the Mafia,” Antonio Ingroia told Bloomberg Television in an interview in the Sicilian capital, Palermo. Italy’s mob has pressured Italian “clubs in ticket selling and gangs have been operating in the ticket-selling black market,” which is often “tolerated by football clubs.”

Ingroia’s comments come as the European Championship gets under way in Poland and Ukraine and after Italian prosecutors in the northern city of Cremona announced a match-rigging probe last month. The case, the latest in a series of illegal-betting scandals in Italy, led to the arrest of Stefano Mauri, captain of Serie A team Lazio, and a police visit to the national team’s practice site to question defender Domenico Criscito, who was later dropped from Italy’s Euro 2012 roster.

“These activities can generate tons of money, and that’s what Cosa Nostra is after,” Ingroia, speaking of the Sicilian mob’s illegal betting operations, said June 2. “The Mafia can load the dice in some football matches and this has already happened in the past,” said the prosecutor, who began his career working for anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were both murdered in Palermo in bombings in 1992 blamed on the Mafia.

Globalized Scams

The Cremona probe, for which Juventus coach Antonio Conte was also placed under investigation relating to his previous job as Siena manager, highlights how match-rigging in the world’s most popular sport is globalized. While the case targets eight Italian matches from 2011, it focuses on a betting syndicate in Croatia and Hungary known in Italy as “the band of Gypsies” and headed by organized crime figures from Singapore, Prosecutor Roberto Di Martino said at a press conference in Cremona on May 28.

Mauri, Conte and Criscito have denied wrongdoing. Juventus Chairman Andrea Agnelli publicly backed Conte at a briefing on May 29, saying the former Italy midfielder will return as coach next year after leading the Turin team to the Serie A title.

Internet Gambling

The illegal gambling market worldwide is estimated at $90 billion, according to the World Lottery Association, a lobbying group for state-backed lotteries. Interpol estimates the value of legal and illegal gambling at $500 billion.

“There are connections between international and local criminal groups,” said Marcel Vulpis, an Italian author who has studied organized crime and soccer. “There’s a sort of international holding that we believe is run by the Chinese mob that does match-fixing and illegal betting, but also money laundering and gun-running,” he said.

While Lazio’s Mauri was granted house arrest this month, the spotlight in Italy has continued to shine on the national team, which was led to World Cup glory in 1982 by Paolo Rossi only months after he had served a ban for involvement in a betting scam. Rossi, now a commentator on Sky Italia SpA, has always maintained his innocence. Led by players from Juventus, Italy won a fourth world title in 2006 amid a match-rigging probe that saw the Turin team get stripped of a league title and demoted to Serie B.

Key Match

Di Martino said on May 28 that prosecutors are examining the Lecce-Lazio game in May 2011. The betting ring earned 2 million euros and the players who helped rig the 2-4 result received 600,000 euros, he said.

The next day, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said he sometimes wished Italian professional soccer games were banned for a few years over repeated cases of corruption, match fixing and fan violence. “That could benefit the maturation of us Italian citizens,” he said.

While Monti said his comments weren’t an official proposal, they sparked outrage in soccer-crazy Italy. Maurizio Zamparini, owner of Serie A team Palermo, warned that the state would lose out on 900 million euros a year in tax revenue if soccer were shut down.

“The rot isn’t only in soccer, it’s everywhere,” said Gianluca Guerrasio, a laywer who represents players. Banning soccer “would destroy an important business,” while “the rot is also in politics and the whole system of wealth.”

Juventus Players

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci, who is on Italy’s 23-man roster at Euro 2012, is also under investigation in Cremona, news agency Ansa said on May 31, citing court documents. Bonucci has said he’s not received any official notice that he’s being probed and has denied wrongdoing.

In an interview with Rai Sport on June 1, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli slammed what he called “crusades” against the nation’s most popular sport. He also defended keeping Bonucci on the roster, saying the player had received no notice of investigation.

“From time to time, soccer comes under the spotlight, but in the end, it’s always very popular and people still love it,” said Markus Wiget, a Milan-based lawyer who has represented English club Manchester United. Soccer “is an education” for children and “it would be a real pity” if that were harmed due to outside factors beyond the game’s control, he said.

FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, itself is undergoing reform after several of its officials faced corruption inquiries. In 2011, FIFA started disciplinary proceedings against six game officials as part of a match-fixing probe centered on two exhibition matches in Turkey involving Estonia, Bulgaria, Latvia and Bolivia. All seven goals in the games came on penalties.

Sicily’s top anti-Mafia prosecutor said a “specialized task force” is needed to root out corruption and cheating from the Italian game.

“When organized crime becomes so important to markets, it often becomes easier to adapt to it instead of chasing it,” Ingroia said. “That happens for soccer, politics, tax evasion - - it’s part of our country’s nature.”

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