China at epicentre of global soccer match-fixing, say experts
Soccer is called the 'beautiful game' but the ugly truth is that it is bent, not only in Asia but the world over. And, experts say, the mainland is to blame
Match-fixing is seen as the biggest problem facing the sport with recent scandals hitting Italian, Turkish and English domestic soccer as well as the national teams of Guatemala, Nicaragua and South Africa.
Illegal-gambling syndicates with their willing go-betweens find journeymen players paid low wages are tempted to take a back-hander to throw a game or get a red card.
And it seems much of that temptation is coming from China.
In a an interview with the South China Morning Post, Chris Eaton, director of Sport Integrity at the International Centre for Sport and Security, said: "It is the massive illegal sports-betting market in China, by far the biggest in the world, that directly and indirectly finances the majority of the world's betting fraud related [to] match-fixing.
"In short, China is today a major part of the problem. With change, China can be a major part of the solution."
Recent allegations of corruption in Hong Kong have come at a bad time, with the 12-team league looking to turn fully professional.
First Division clubs Happy Valley and Tuen Mun have been forced to cancel matches, while some players have been de-registered.
Six players and three others, including technical director Sergio Timoner, were taken in by the ICAC after a match that Happy Valley lost 5-0. Investigations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption are continuing and no one has been charged.
Earlier in the season, when Tuen Mun defender Li Ming scored a last-minute own goal against Yokohama FC, his contract with the club was ended the next day. The incident sparked an inquiry, but he's nowhere to be seen.
Corrupt referees - known as "black whistles" - players, officials and coaches have all been arrested since a campaign to clean up the game on the mainland was launched in 2009.
The most high-profile casualty was Lu Jun, the "Golden Whistle" who officiated at the 2010 World Cup. Two years later he was one of nine people convicted of charges related to corruption.
The first Chinese referee to take charge of a World Cup match in 2002, Lu was jailed after admitting taking bribes to fix games involving clubs, including Shanghai Shenhua, along with tales of a wrongly awarded penalty, the fixing of international friendly matches and gambling.
Over the years many Chinese fans switched their support to European teams as doubts over the integrity of Chinese Super League games refused to go away. Last year the league kicked off the season without a sponsor or a TV deal after tyre-maker Pirelli tore up its contract and CCTV refused to show matches after recent scandals.
The problem was highlighted during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when details emerged of a Chinese gang running a sophisticated online betting network.
Run by a sinister Hong Kong gangster nicknamed "Dark Brother", it racked up more than 100 billion yuan in bets. He was arrested as he left what was described as "a cocaine-fuelled nightclub party" in Shenzhen.
Elsewhere in the region, 41 players from South Korea's K-League were given worldwide lifetime bans last year following a match-fixing scandal, which led to the government threatening to wind up the league if action was not taken.
Corruption is not just the domain of shady criminal figures in Southeast Asia. In England the realisation is dawning that the home of soccer is no longer immune from the problem.
Late last year, players from non-league, semi-pro teams were arrested as part of the National Crime Agency's investigation into match-fixing.
Two men, who are alleged to be members of an international illegal-betting syndicate based in Singapore, were among those arrested.
But any arrogant belief that Britain, regarded as the home of the sport, was immune from such scandals was blown apart just before Christmas when a newspaper sting exposed alleged corruption at the heart of the professional game.
D.J. Campbell was one of six people questioned and bailed by UK police in connection with allegations of fixing in football matches. Campbell, 32, who played in the Premier League for Birmingham, Blackpool and Queens Park Rangers, was arrested after former Nigerian international Sam Sodje told an undercover reporter he could arrange yellow and red cards in exchange for cash.
Sodje was secretly filmed telling how he punched an opponent in a League One (the third-tier league) game to get a red card in exchange for £70,000 [HK$890,00). He was sent off in the 50th minute while playing for Portsmouth against Oldham Athletic last February.
This week in Scotland, the Scottish FA launched a campaign to prevent match-fixing, but the body's chief executive, Stewart Regan, admitted it might already have arrived. Launching the "Keep It Clean" initiative, Regan said he wanted to protect Scottish soccer, but he was unable to swear the game wasn't already bent. When asked if the game in Scotland was clean, Regan replied: "Who knows?"
History suggests it would be foolish of any administrator to rule anything out. In 2009 some 200 games across nine countries were implicated in the biggest match-fixing scandal to hit European soccer.
Fifteen people were arrested in Germany and two in Switzerland following more than 50 raids across those two countries, Austria and the UK with cash and property worth more than HK$10.5 million was seized.
German police warned the cases they had uncovered were "only the tip of the iceberg".
The most high-profile matches under suspicion took place in the the Turkish league, where two of the biggest clubs, Fenerbahce and Besiktas, were banned from competing in Europe by Uefa - the European governing body of the sport - for their involvement in domestic match-fixing.
Italian soccer is no stranger to corruption scandals; in fact it's almost a way of life. In the latest scandal eight players, including Lazio captain Stefan Mauri, were charged in relation to match-fixing in Serie A, the Italian top-flight league. Mauri was eventually banned for nine months for failing to report match-fixing. More than 50 people have been arrested in Italy since mid-2011, in connection with match-fixing. Currently, prosecutors in Cremona, Bari and Naples are investigating suspicious games.
Last year, a Fifa report alleged the results of South Africa's pre-2010 World Cup warm-up matches against Thailand, Bulgaria, Colombia and Guatemala were fixed and implicated the nation's officials. The individuals were suspended, then re-instated. Guatemala handed lifetime bans to three internationals and one Nicaraguan was banned for life by his federation. Those bans have also been extended worldwide by Fifa, the sport's world governing body.
Australian soccer is also having to cope with its own corruption scandal. Last September, soccer chiefs were tipped off by Sportsradar, a Swiss-based sports-betting intelligence agency, that all was not well. Victorian Premier League side Southern Stars had played 21 games, losing 16 and drawing four. Their only win was a 1-0 victory over a top side. Some of their performances were described as "comical".
Arrests followed and a Malaysian, Segaran "Gerry" Gsubramaniam, admitted to fixing matches that allegedly netted more than HK$13.6 million in winning bets.
He was allegedly in constant contact with people in Malaysia and Hungary, including known match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal, before telling players how to manipulate match results. He is currently in custody awaiting another court date in April.
Two English players also convicted of fixing matches will now testify against their teammates and coach.
Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop said: "The detection measures we've had in place have worked, and that is a sign we're working in the right direction."
The truth is, soccer across the world still has a long way to go.