Match-fixing is probably as old as gambling, legal or illegal, in professional team sport. But it has never before been exposed on the scale of the claim by Europol - the European police - to have cracked a Singapore-based criminal betting cartel linked to 680 suspicious championship football matches. In terms of a threat to a sport's integrity, that ranks with Lance Armstrong's seven drug-assisted Tour de France cycling victories because of the organised criminal involvement. It follows several match-fixing and gambling scandals that led to arrests of players, referees and officials from South Africa to China to Europe.
Only last month, the international police organisation Interpol warned that global soccer corruption was helping fuel criminal domination of vice and drug-trafficking, and the head of European football's governing body Uefa, Michel Platini, said match-fixing was the biggest threat to the future of the sport.
More than half the allegedly fixed matches were played in Europe, mainly in the German, Swiss and Turkish championships, with the remainder in Africa, Asia and South and Central America. Europol said an Asian syndicate working with criminals in Europe was known to have made more than €8 million (HK$84 million) betting on fixed matches. That would seem to suggest a fortune in ill-gotten gains remains to be uncovered.
Despite Platini's blunt warning, national and club football authorities may be prone to go into denial, like cycling officials did for years, to protect the brand, which generates billions in advertising, marketing and TV rights. That would be a disservice to football's global following, including countless Hongkongers who enjoy top competition and betting on the outcomes. In a hint of incredulity, an English commentator has noted that it is harder to fix a game between two teams than between two individuals. But it only takes one crooked referee, linesman, goalkeeper or striker to affect an outcome.