The Hague: The disclosure of massive match-fixing in European soccer caused a shock, but the outcome was no real surprise, said senior researcher Ben Van Rompuy of the TMC Asser Institute, a centre for international and European law in The Hague.
Van Rompuy's research specialties include international and EU sports law and regulation. Besides that he also is a member of the Interpol Global Academic Experts Working Group for Integrity in Sport, for which he recently had a meeting in Singapore.
"No, I was not surprised or shocked," Van Rompuy told Xinhua. "I knew these things happen. Although the number of matches, countries and people involved is high, it basically confirmed what was already widely assumed. It is just the tip of the iceberg. The purpose of Europol was more or less to make a wake-up call. We know about the problems. It was a good PR stunt. We now need to understand the message."
The European investigative organization Europol on Monday revealed an extensive criminal network involved in widespread soccer match-fixing with a total of 425 match officials, club officials, players, and criminals, from more than 15 countries, suspected of being involved in attempts to fix more than 380 professional soccer matches.
The alleged activities are said to be part of organised crime, which generated over eight million euros ($10.8 million) in betting profits and involved over two million euros in corrupt payments to those involved in the matches.
The operations would be run from Singapore with bribes of up to 100,000 euros paid per match.
"I think the total is a significant amount," reacted Van Rompuy. "It is difficult to trace the gambling money. It is probably an estimate based on concrete evidence. But it is clear that generally much more money is involved."
Among the suspected matches are matches in the Champions League, European Championship and World Cup qualifiers and matches from several European top leagues.
In addition another 300 suspicious matches were identified outside Europe, mainly in Africa, Asia, South and Central America. Most of the alleged illegal betting activities were organised in Asia, working closely together with European facilitators.
"Europol's investigation confirms how widespread the networks are," said Van Rompuy.
"It is an international phenomenon. The focus has shifted in recent years from Asia to Europe. In Asia, the sports world is so corrupt that it is no longer interesting to bet on it. Now, in particular European soccer matches are the subject of betting activities. The next trend is gambling on lower division and amateur matches that are relatively easy to manipulate. Who knows, the focus might soon shift to The Netherlands."
Van Rompuy does not expect that the research will lead to many convictions. He thus refers to the bribery scandal in Germany in 2009. At that time the prosecution of Bochum announced that two hundred games in Europe were under suspicion of fraud and manipulation.
"More than 200 suspects were named, of which only fourteen were eventually convicted," said Van Rompuy. "That puts this matter well into perspective. A total of 425 people are now suspected, but the questions is how many will be convicted. How many matches will actually be proven to be fixed? Is there sufficient evidence? Look at the case in Germany. With appeals going on, perhaps only a handful of convictions will be left."
The fight against match-fixing will be hard for several reasons, according to Van Rompuy.
"Betting syndicates from Singapore have contacts involved in soccer in Europa, but there are a series of intermediaries between them and nothing is on paper. This makes it difficult to trace. If proof of match-fixing is found, it's often by chance, like in recent years in Turkey and Germany.
"The networks operate internationally, often driven from Asia. The gambling culture in Asia is so strong and the Asian sports market is so corrupt. A lot has been done to fight it, but I do not know if it is enough. International cooperation is essential. In order to gain entrance to networks, coordination is needed, by Europol in Europe and outside Europe by Interpol."
Not enough is done by local governments and the sporting world, the senior researcher thinks.
"Real, unambiguous commitment to compliance, at all levels, is required. It is important to compile risk profiles of those most vulnerable to match-fixing, players with lower salaries for example. These target groups must get good education and training. Training is not only for perpetrators, but also for helpers and witnesses. At the Interpol meeting in Singapore, we discussed how academia can contribute to this task," he said.