FIFA security chief Ralf Mutschke says the biggest threat from match fixers at this year’s World Cup in Brazil is likely to come during the final round of group games.
Those matches, which begin June 23, will involve some teams with no chance of advancing, and criminals may find some players who are more susceptible to bribes, he said. While some of the 32 nations feature multimillionaire stars including Barcelona forwards Lionel Messi of Argentina and Neymar of Brazil, many other players eke out more modest livings in the world’s smaller leagues.
“We have a broad variety of different measures to look at the betting market, to make a risk assessment of each single game,” Mutschke said in an interview during a trip to Brazil. “The final is probably not at risk. The group stage is a different situation for some of the teams.”
The soccer ruling body’s most senior anticorruption official said FIFA assesses games to focus on ones that are at a higher risk. The month-long competition starts June 12 in Sao Paulo.
The World Cup, sport’s most-watched event, generates about $5 billion, and the 2010 final between Spain and the Netherlands attracted an average audience of 530.9 million television viewers. While the attention makes it hard for criminals to target games, Mutschke says FIFA isn’t taking any chances with a tournament it relies on for more than 90 percent of its income.
“I do believe the World Cup is safe, but I have to do a lot of preventative work to make sure the World Cup will be safe in the future as well,” said Mutschke, 54, who for 33 years was an officer with Germany’s federal police and Interpol.
Lure of Bribes
According to a study of Eastern European soccer by global player union FIFPro in 2012, 12 percent of the 3,357 players interviewed had been approached to fix games, and out of those 55 percent didn’t have their salaries paid on time.
Mutschke said he is nervous about the amount of money some of the biggest fixers have at their disposal. He said a suspected fixer called Tan Seet Eng, known around the world as Dan Tan and arrested by authorities in his homeland Singapore last year, told authorities he offered bribes of as much as $1 million. European police body Europol last year said it uncovered a Singapore-based network responsible for rigging or attempting to fix 680 local, national and international matches across the world between 2008 and 2011. Italian authorities named Tan as the head of the gang. He remains in custody in Singapore.
“If you think of $1 million and you look at all the teams, for a lot of teams it’s probably not interesting but for some teams it might be,” Mutschke said. “If they were to raise the bribe to $10 million, think about how many people you can bribe for $10 million, how many referees?”
While no games at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were found to have been fixed, some exhibition warm-up matches, including some involving the host nation, may have been manipulated, FIFA said. South Africa beat Guatemala 5-0 and then Colombia 2-1, the referee awarding three penalty kicks in each game.
“When you think what happened in South Africa before the World Cup with the international friendlies you have to conclude the World Cup is at least a target,” said Chris Eaton, director of sports integrity at the Doha-based International Centre for Sport Security. Eaton was FIFA’s director of security at the last World cup.
FIFA’s measures to combat match-fixing include accessing information from bookmakers, educating referees and getting them to sign integrity declarations. It also has an anticorruption hotline and is a partner in a system that tries to detect unusual betting patterns. In Brazil, analysts will monitor game data to look for suspicious changes in player behavior.
While players under duress have reached out to FIFA, so have others purporting to have knowledge of ongoing fixes. One man demanded 250,000 Swiss francs ($287,000) in return for information. Mutschke said he worked out the man’s identity before meeting him and asked for information on cases.
“He said it was too dangerous,” Mutschke said. “He went away and two weeks later he was in a court trial in Switzerland for match-fixing.”
The case collapsed because of “bad law in Switzerland” against betting fraud, Mutschke said.
Eaton said that while sports bodies’ sanctions including lifetime bans are severe, the legal repercussions are less so.
“Match-fixing has quite frequently been the lesser of two international conspiracies,” said Eaton, also a former police officer. “The real issue is betting fraud. You see players prosecuted by sport authorities and what you do not see are criminals being prosecuted.”
Mutschke said criminal investigations are rare, and often take several years, with punishments not severe enough to deter would-be fixers.
Wilson Raj Perumal, a Singaporean, served half of a two-year prison term in Finland after being convicted in 2011 of bribing players there. He’d already served jail time for match-fixing in Singapore in the 1990s and was behind a number of other incidents around the world, including sending a “fake” Togo team out to play Bahrain, according to FIFA.
Khalid Ali, secretary general of the European Sports Betting Security Service, a not-for-profit organization representing bookmakers including Ladbrokes Plc and Bwin.Party Digital Entertainment Plc, said the difficulty in securing convictions and the relatively lenient punishments are attractive to fixers.
“If you are a criminal organization and you have to make a choice of smuggling drugs and match-fixing, in terms of sentencing you’d pick match-fixing because you’d probably get a year max,” he said.