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For Global Soccer, Scandal and Corruption Seem Pervasive as Grass Stains

February 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
After completing an extensive investigation, the European Union's police agency Europol suspects nearly 680 soccer matches between 2008 and 2011 -- including World Cup qualifying matches and the European Championships -- were fixed. For more, Hari Sreenivasan talks with Kevin Baxter, who covers soccer for the Los Angeles Times.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Next, we turn to a scandal that’s rocked one of the world’s most popular sports.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Soccer has been tainted in the past by evidence of match fixing. But European law enforcement officials outlined a complex scandal yesterday that was enormous in scope and could be deeply damaging to the game’s reputation.

The European Union’s police agency, Europol, said an 18-month investigation turned up 680 matches suspected of being fixed across the globe. The games were played between 2008 and 2011. The scandal may have even involved qualifying matches for the sport’s biggest tournaments, the World Cup and the European Championships.

The probe cited links to criminal networks, including a Singapore-based crime syndicate. Europol wouldn’t name any of the suspected matches or individuals, but said it involved more than 400 people in 15 countries.

For more on this story, I’m joined by Kevin Baxter, who covers soccer for The L.A. Times.

Thanks for joining me.

KEVIN BAXTER, The Los Angeles Times: Thanks for the invitation to speak with you. Good evening.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Kevin, tell me, this is not a large soccer country, the United States. Help us put in perspective how big of a scandal this is.

KEVIN BAXTER: Well, Rob Wainwright, who is the head of Europol, said that it’s so large, at such a grand scale, that it threatens the very fabric of the gain.

And another Europol investigator said that this is just the tip of the iceberg. To give you maybe a little bit of perspective, the international sports wagering market is about one trillion — does one trillion of business a year.

The Asian markets alone, they have more transactions, sports bets on a daily basis than the New York Stock Exchange goes through. So it’s phenomenal, the size of the betting market. Now, that’s everything from you or I going down to the nearby casino and putting $5 down on the Super Bowl. It goes from there up to huge bets on soccer matches.

And this is throughout the world. Now, with soccer, there are 208 national federations that oversee as many as 10,000 clubs worldwide. So it would be very easy to sort of come in, bet on a game, fix a game, some low-hanging fruit perhaps — fix a game, and then put down a lot of bets on it, and be able to walk away with some money. And that’s what this investigation found.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, give me an example of what happened. Were they paying off players, refs, team managers?

KEVIN BAXTER: Well, they paid off — according to Europol’s investigation, and as you mentioned in the lead-in, this is not the first time soccer’s been caught up in this.

The difference now is the scope. Five continents were involved in this, as you said, World Cup qualifiers, European Championship qualifiers. Basically, what happens is the syndicates — and the focus here is on a Singapore-based crime syndicate — they hire runners.

The runners go out and make contact with a player, an official, perhaps a team official of the club that they have targeted. They will sit down with them, ask what they want. Some of the bribes have gone as high as $130,000 to fix a match. Then the runner and the person who they have decided to bribe, they come together and decide what kind of strategy they want to use.

There was a famous incident not too long ago in Turkey where there was an exhibition game played. Most soccer games have a total of three, maybe four goals. They decided the over/under on that would be seven goals, and the referee was part of the bribe in this case. And the referee — by the end of the match, seven goals had been scored, all of them on penalty kicks.

There was one kick that a player missed and the referee ordered him to kick it again, so they could finish with seven goals, which is what the crime syndicate wanted. So, it’s pervasive. It’s at all levels. And it’s something that the soccer community globally needs to clean up, especially ahead of the next World Cup.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so what’s the potential for impact of this scandal on the United States?

KEVIN BAXTER: Well, that’s interesting.

I think that’s the question that a lot of people are going to be asking: Could it happen here? U.S. soccer says they have not been contacted by anyone in this investigation. We know that a Canadian team was involved in this, that there was a suspicious match there in Canada that was investigated.

We know that other teams CONCACAF, which is the conference that the U.S. team plays in during World Cup qualifying, we know that Central American teams were involved in this scandal. The U.S. says it couldn’t happen here because they have too many safeguards.

And Major League Soccer is involved with a number of different organizations that give early warning signs, tip them off when lot of movie is moving — a lot of money, rather, is moving on one match. And they have tried to keep a handle on that.

But to say that it couldn’t happen here, you look at the United Kingdom and the football association there, which is now looking into the possibility that Liverpool, one of the most famous clubs in the world, may have been involved in this Europol scandal.

So to say that it couldn’t happen here, they may be a little bit arrogant. As this scandal has shown, it’s pervasive. It’s everywhere. Some people are saying now that this illegal market in soccer bribes, soccer betting now may be as large and pervasive and as lucrative as the international drug market.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Kevin Baxter from The L.A. Times, thanks so much for joining us.

KEVIN BAXTER: Thanks for having me.