The Fix Is In
‘The Age’ – Melbourne, Australia
‘My life is over. All I have fought for has come to nothing. The club itself has been crushed under the dirt. The people whom I trusted have betrayed me. We were fighting against them with slingshots and they had mortars.”
Robert Kutashi was a good man. He was a journalist-turned-football coach who had been appointed to head the anti-match-fixing efforts of the Hungarian League. On February 28, 2012, the Hungarian police announced they had arrested dozens of players for fixing, including six from Kutashi’s own team.
The next day – March 1st at 4.10pm – Robert Kutashi called up a friend at a Budapest newspaper and spoke those words. Then he went to a tall apartment block in the 14th district of Budapest. The building, ironically, overlooks a bankrupted soccer stadium and is next to a casino. Kutashi went to the top floor, took out his mobile phone from his coat, which he then folded neatly on the floor. Then jumped.
If Robert Kutashi were the only victim of this wave of match-fixing that is engulfing the world of sports, it would still be a tragedy. However, he is just one of many. There is a long trail of bribes, extortions, sexual blackmail, kidnappings, attacks, murders and suicides linked to match-fixing around the world.
There have been match-fixing controversies in dozens of different countries and last weekend in Australia came news of a fresh scandal allegedly linked to the same people who were involved in the match-fixing in Hungary that drove Kutashi to his death.
There is something going on in modern sport that we have never seen before. Here is an explanation.
Fixing and corruption in sport has a long history. At the site of the ancient Olympics in Greece, built in 776BC, there is a row of the remains of statues dedicated to their gods. The statues were built with fines paid by athletes and coaches who had been caught cheating. So there has been corruption in sport for at least 2800 years.
However, this generation is facing something almost entirely new. It is a form of match-fixing that is linked to the globalisation of the sports gambling market, and it is as if someone has taken match-fixing and injected it with steroids.
This new type of fixing has the power to destroy much of the modern sports world. Because of its international popularity, football is most at risk. However, this new kind of fixing has also embedded itself in tennis, cricket, Japanese sumo wrestling, horse racing, Taiwanese baseball, US college sports and a host of other athletic events. This new form of fixing will, unless fought, sweep aside many sports and leave them dead and destroyed.
If we take the entire sports gambling world, most of the familiar forms of gambling are relatively small. Las Vegas has only a tiny share of the total world sports gambling market (less than 1 per cent).
The illegal sports gambling market of North America is far larger than Las Vegas. It is often run by American organised crime syndicates like the La Cosa Nostra.
However, again when compared to the total world sports gambling market, it is relatively small.
If we take those two markets – Las Vegas and the US onshore, illegal markets – and then add in the offshore North American sports gambling sites (located in Costa Rica and the Caribbean), then add in the big British and Australian sports gambling companies such as Ladbrokes, William Hill and Betfair, and also the European sports national lotteries, you would have less than 40 per cent of the total world sports gambling market.
The rest of the sports gambling market is in Asia. The Asian sports gambling market is huge. It dwarfs the combined European and North American markets. Most of the Asian market is illegal, often run by the Chinese equivalents of Al Capone. And because much of it is illegal, it is difficult to give an accurate estimate of its total size.
A senior executive of the World Lottery Association, the umbrella-group of legal government-run gambling companies, claimed the total amount of the illegal sports gambling world, with most of this market being in Asia, is approximately $90 billion.
Other estimates have gone even higher. Officials at Interpol – the international police organisation – have claimed that the total world sports gambling market is worth $1 trillion.
In the past 30 years, this vast, illegal gambling market has corrupted sport across the continent of Asia. There are a few honourable exceptions of Asian sports leagues which are corruption-free.
They are the genuine exceptions. The fixing in Japanese sumo wrestling is so bad that recently the organisers had to cancel the national championship. The only other time that these championships have been cancelled was in 1946 just after the Second World War and the American bombing raids that flattened many Japanese cities.
The Taiwanese baseball league has had so many scandals linked to gambling match-fixing, it has now been reduced to only four teams. Pakistani cricket is a byword for this type of activity.
Much of Asian sport is drenched in similar types of corruption. The Chinese football league is a national disgrace. Those are the words of the former Chinese premier Hu Jintao, who declared in the autumn of 2009 that there was so much match-fixing and corruption in their football league that it embarrassed China.
There are similar circumstances in football leagues across the region: South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have all faced similar scandals in their own leagues.
In Malaysia, the corruption was so bad that following a national police investigation in 1994, one cabinet minister estimated 70 per cent of matches in their leagues were corrupted.
When there was an attempt to clean up the very corrupt Singaporean-Malaysian joint football league, the two countries came close to a diplomatic incident. The Malaysians claimed the league was so corrupt because the gamblers in Singapore were fixing a lot of the games; the Singaporeans said the league was so corrupt because the criminals in Malaysia were fixing a lot of the games. Neither could agree so the league was disbanded because of the corruption.
It is this gang of match-fixers from Malaysia and Singapore who are now travelling the world to fix games.
Asian fans are not stupid. They know what is going on. They are not happy about all the corruption in their sports. In fact, they are very angry. So they turn their allegiances to teams in other leagues where they think the contests are not corrupt. This is part of the reason why fans in China are now wearing Manchester United or Houston Rockets shirts.
Far more importantly, the punters in that vast illegal Asian gambling league are switching their bets from the local sports, with all their inherent corruption, to international sports. They are betting on events from ATP tennis matches to North American ice hockey games to tiny games in semi-professional Australian soccer.
There are also a number of companies who place monitors at these matches. The companies send their people to the games where they stand on the sidelines with their mobile phones or laptops reporting back to the illegal gambling market in Shanghai or Johor Bahru or Manila.
They are not just reporting on the big Premier League, La Liga or Serie A games. They are reporting on games that are tiny in size: Canadian soccer games played in front of 200 people, Finnish baseball games, German table-tennis tournaments.
For example, in July 2008 in Copenhagen, Denmark, the annual Tivoli Cup took place.
The Tivoli Cup is a youth tournament for Danish teams. It is a big tournament, but most matches are played in parks and watched by a couple of dozen people, parents and, that year, four Chinese monitors reporting on the games back to the gambling market.
In other words, the illegal gambling market in Asia is so powerful that it is worthwhile to monitor games of Danish teenagers playing football matches in the park.
Later that same year, in an indication of both the power of the market and the ruthless criminals who control much of it, two Chinese gambling monitors who presumably decided to double-cross their bosses were found tortured to death in their apartment in northern England.
What are the Asian fixers doing? They too are not stupid and they are trying to do to European and North American sports leagues what they so successfully did in their own leagues: corrupt them.
Now the fixers are coming to Europe, Latin America, Africa, North America and Australia and forming alliances with local criminals. It is an ideal marriage. The Asian criminals get access to the teams and players; the local criminals get access to the lucrative Asian gambling market.
Here is how they work. The Asian fixers have a ”runner” who works as their agent. These agents hire a local ”project manager” – usually a team official – coach, manager or senior player. The key quality of a project manager is that they have to have lots of credibility and power on the team.
The runner gives the project manager a sum of money to start to persuade the players to join the fix. The project manager knows which players are most likely to take part in a fix. In a more complicated variation, the runner will arrange the transfer on to the team of various players who have worked fixes before.
In Finland, the world’s biggest match-fixer, Wilson Raj Perumal, who is suspected of masterminding the rigging of professional soccer matches in the Victoria Premier League, helped bring in eight Zambian players who would then win or lose games on his command.
Once the fix is set up, the runner phones the Asian fixers with the information on how the fix will be played. This is not just which team will win or lose but more complicated choreography. For example, if a team can lose the first half, but end up winning the game, they can earn 20 to 30 times their money.
Then these fixers – with their years of experience – ”fix” the Asian gambling markets. Using agents and sophisticated tactics they hide their activities from the bookmakers.
In one fix in a 2009 match played in a minor soccer league in Canada, they had a globalised network of fixers, runners and players stretching across nine countries and three continents.
In this way, they have fixed soccer games in at least 60 countries, including the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Zimbabwe, Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Finland, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong and Canada.
They fixed matches at every level from youth-level football tournaments to the lucrative Champions League to, according to Europol, the Europe-wide police organisation, hundreds of international matches.
The problem is that few inside the sporting world are actually taking this issue seriously. There are, of course, lots of conferences, lots of speeches, lots of high ideals, but very little action.
Even Australia’s own legislation is tough on paper, but it still needs to be backed up with rigorous enforcement on the streets and the stadiums.
Until the sports world decides to get tough on this issue, stand by for more match-fixing controversies and more victims like Robert Kutashi.
Declan Hill is an international investigative journalist who infiltrated an Asian match-fixing gang for his book
The Fix: soccer and organised crime.
His next book, The Insider’s Guide to Football Corruption, based on his doctoral thesis from the University of Oxford, will be published next month.