The success of Toronto FC aside, Canadian soccer remains an abject embarrassment — not because of quality of play, but because European police and sports officials say a lower-level Canadian league remains a hot spot of corruption and match-fixing.
“You are supposed to be honest people,” Kee, a Chinese-Malaysian bookie who runs an illegal gambling site in Kuala Lumpur, said last year. “How can you be honest when so many fixed soccer games are going on in your country?”
These accusations of Canadian sports corruption are not about TFC but rather a small, obscure soccer league based in southern Ontario — the Canadian Soccer League, a little league that punches above its weight when it comes to controversy.
Largely based on suspected corruption in the CSL, Canada has been featured in reports of companies that monitor suspicious game activity, including in 2016 when three countries were specifically mentioned in one company’s report for high levels of corruption: Albania, Malta and Canada.
According to that company, Belgian-based Federbet, in 2015 European betting houses removed “en bloc matches from leagues like Albania, Cyprus, Malta, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Indonesia and Canada — the 10th least corrupt country in the world — because they clearly reflect signs of being fixed.”
Match-fixing suspicions surrounding the CSL have been allowed to fester by a combination of lax laws and official indifference. This open door to sports corruption is linked to the globalization of gambling. Soccer games in countries like Canada, even low-level ones with barely any fans, are bet on thousands of kilometres away, making professional fixers tens of millions dollars. It has been going on for years and, in this country, no one seems willing or able to stop it.
Birchmount Stadium, Scarborough on a cold, October afternoon. The Serbian White Eagles, based in Toronto, and Hamilton City are playing the final of the Canadian Soccer League. The crowd is just more than 100 people, and two of them are walking their dogs.
The CSL is the country’s third-ranked soccer league behind the Major League Soccer (where TFC and the Montreal Impact play) and the North American Soccer League (home to teams in Edmonton and Ottawa).
The two CSL divisions are made up of semi-professional teams from across southern Ontario, including Hamilton, Milton, Brantford, Scarborough, North York and Toronto. It is not a rich league — the owners are expected to back their teams out of love for the beautiful game. There are usually not more than a dozen people watching matches and the players are typically paid, at most, a few hundred dollars a week.
However, allegations swirl round the CSL that one of the main profit-making ventures is fixing matches. Pino Jazbec, who runs the league out of a strip mall in Mississauga, is candid about the corruption, saying it does not involve every team in the league, but acknowledging there is a problem.
“It is the players who are fixing. I wish I could catch some of them and take it in front of the law and really punish them.”
The involvement of gambling corruption in the CSL was first revealed in 2009 when German investigators intercepted dozens of calls between two match fixers. Ante Sapina, a previously convictedCroatian match-fixer living in Berlin, and his assistant were scouting fixing opportunities in Canada.
The scout was only in Toronto a few days,according to German police wiretaps that were evidence at one of Sapina’s trials.
The total money being bet on the CSL in the international gambling market was twice that of comparable European leagues. The players and owners in the CSL were badly paid and match-fixing was not on the radar of the country’s sports authorities or police.
The league was ripe for fixing, said the scout. With $150,000, they could even buy their own team. The business plan would be simple: bring over professional players from the Balkans who were better than the average Canadian player in the CSL. These players could be told to win or lose games over inferior teams and the fixers could make a fortune.
An international criminal network would allow them to profit from the obscure Canadian soccer games. It stretched to Germany, where the fixers placed bets with bookmakers in the Philippines and Malaysia using a network of “beards and runners” — people who hid their crooked bets — in Croatia, Slovenia and Turkey.
On Sept. 13, 2009, according to German police, they successfully convinced a group of players on Toronto Croatia to intentionally lose their match against Trois-Riveres. Toronto Croatia was defeated 4-1 and the fixers were exultant. One said: “Friend, if we don’t become rich here (in Canada), then I don’t know where we could become rich.”
Since that match, according to international experts, the problem in Canadian soccer has only gotten worse.
The fixers are exploiting a global revolution in sports gambling. During the last 15 years, the Internet has transformed what was a highly local industry into a global market dominated by laxly regulated Asian bookmakers who take bets on almost any soccer game going on anywhere in the world.
The cash flows are enormous. The Canadian Gaming Association estimates that Canadians gamble $4.5 billion a year on sports. Most of that money is in the offshore market. Gamblers can bet on a range of Canadian sports from National Hockey League games watched by millions to games in the CSL or Canadian university soccer watched by a few dozen people.
Globally, sports gambling is estimated at between $93 billion (US) to more than $1.5 trillion.
“We have a word for a day when the sports gambling market moves $4 billion,” says Patrick Jay, formerly head of gambling at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the world’s largest regulated bookmaker. “In Asia, we call it Thursday.”
It is this massive pool of gambling cash that is corrupting sports around the world, including Canada. To fight the corruption, a new industry was born.
“We check over 400 bookmakers across the world,” says Francesco Baranca, the secretary-general of the sports integrity company Federbet. “We can see if too much money is being bet on one team or a certain event. By doing this, we can tell with 99 per cent certainty that a game has been fixed.”
Companies like Baranca’s watch the total volume of bets and money on a game to check for strange odds movements that may indicate fixing; it is akin to monitoring the stock market for insider trading by following sudden rises or falls in stock prices.
In the last two years, most major sports league in the world, including the NBA and NFL, have signed multimillion-dollar contracts with these companies to help prevent corruption.
Most monitoring companies work directly for leagues and keep their information confidential. But Federbet releases its annual public report at the European Parliament.
“The Canadian Soccer League is a disaster,” says Baranca. “Many bookmakers will not touch the league but when they do allow betting, the games are suspicious. In 2016, we still see crazy odds movements that makes us think that a lot of games are fixed.”
In 2013, Sports Radar, another gambling monitoring company, issued a report, obtained by the Star, claiming that there had been 14 suspicious matches in the CSL out of the hundred matches played that year.
Last year, Sports Radar and the Qatar-based International Centre for Sports Security claimed there had been as many as 60 fixed matches in just one season in the CSL. An ICSS senior official called it a “rogue league.”
During the CSL season that ended on Oct. 30, fixing continued, says Baranca.
“They had two games in September that were absolutely fixed. They received a lot of bets from Russia and the market went crazy. They are still fixing games in Canada yet no one does anything. Why not?”
Friedhelm Althans, a German detective, is called a super cop by some European police. It was his investigation that taped the match-fixers talking about Canada in 2009.
The investigation and trial lasted more than three years but eventually convicted dozens of match-fixers.
“At the end of our investigation, we had evidence for match-fixing networks in nine countries,” Althans told the Star. “The police in eight of those countries came to us and we shared our evidence. The one exception? Canada.”
After years of complaints from international police forces, Canadian police began a round of investigative hot potato. First, the Ontario Provincial Police began to investigate, then they closed their file. The RCMP opened an investigation in February 2016 but it did not go far.
Cpl. Urbano Ciccarelli, the man who led the RCMP investigation, says that while the force is not actively investigating the file is still open to new information. It is a question of resources. Sports corruption is not a police priority.
“They’re more likely to pile on resources when you’ve got a shipment of cocaine coming in, but a fixed soccer match, well, they’re not going to throw 50 bodies at it and that’s just the reality.”
In April 2015, the Canadian Soccer Association, the organization that oversees all Canadian soccer, held a meeting to discuss match-fixing. The goal was to “further enhance Canada’s capacity to protect the integrity of sport and engage in international prevention efforts against match-fixing.”
In attendance were representatives from international agencies such as FIFA (soccer’s world governing body), Interpol and the RCMP, the OPP, the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Gaming Association. The Star has obtained confidential documents from this meeting.
An international observer at the meeting was astounded by the Canadian attitude: “It was extraordinary. We went around the table and most of the people said, ‘It’s a problem, but there is nothing we can do.’ It is like there is an open season for corruption in Canada.”
Perhaps more extraordinary was the report by the OPP that there was no due diligence for club ownership in the CSL and that “one potential target now owns a (CSL) team.”
Jazbec, who has spent more than 60 years in organized soccer, says he knows that fixing is going on in his league.
“Everybody is making comedy when it comes to integrity. There have been allegations of fixing for years but we get no help from the Canadian Soccer Association. We do not have any gambling monitors. We do not have enough money for that kind of fancy stuff.”
He says the league does what it can with limited resources.
“What we try to do is film as many games as possible and scare the sh– out of the coaches and owners of the teams. If they can get the players to stop fixing that would be great … What I would like is just one person being properly investigated and charged because that would make all the others afraid.”
The Canadian Soccer Association would not consent to an interview on the topic of fixing, only issuing a statement stating that they were working closely with CONCACAF, the association that runs soccer in North, Central America and the Caribbean, to protect Canadian soccer. Three years ago, they cut ties with the CSL but they did not mention potential match-fixing as a reason, claiming instead that a viability study recommended another league.
In October, at the end of a hard-fought final at Birchmount Stadium, the Serbian White Eagles won the CSL title by a score of 2-1. People monitoring the betting market did not think there was a fix.
“Very few bookmakers took bets on the game,” said Federbet’s Baranca. “Why would they? It is Canada.”