Cleaning up the not-so-beautiful game

It looks like a mismatch. On one side are the authorities who run soccer, the world’s favorite sport, only occasionally aided by governments and the police. On the other stand determined professional gangsters, intent on fixing matches and laundering money.

Their antics, such as the 2010 arrangement of a fake game between Bahrain and a bogus Togolese team, can seem ingenious, even amusing. However, their repertoire includes violence and blackmail as well as sophisticated betting software. Several national leagues, notably China’s, have been severely discredited by their rackets.

All of Europe’s big political institutions have inveighed against sports corruption. Tax authorities, which in the past turned a blind eye to liabilities on player transfers and salaries, have belatedly begun to intervene, notably in Britain and Italy. In Finland, one of several European countries in which criminals have taken over teams for nefarious purposes, the sports ministry has helped to develop a smartphone app that lets players report match-fixing suspicions anonymously. South Korean officials have banned scores of players after a scandal in which dozens were jailed.

Singapore has attracted criticism for what some see as a failure to crack down on gambling rings and notorious match fixers. A Lebanese referee recently was jailed for six months there, one of three officials convicted of accepting sexual favors from a gambling syndicate in return for rigging a game. Bribing referees with prostitutes is a time-honored tradition.

The story elsewhere is less encouraging. Soccer administrators say that catching criminals is the police’s job. Police forces are hampered, however, by the difficulty of proving match-fixing and the cross-border nature of the scams: Satellite broadcasting and online gambling have created lucrative, and manipulatable, new betting markets, especially in southeast Asia, making the game a prime target for international crooks. Fuzzy jurisdiction means that forces tend to treat soccer crime as a low priority, says Chris Eaton of the International Center for Sports Security in Doha.

The biggest case to date centers on Bochum, Germany, where in 2011 a gang was convicted of rigging scores of matches in many countries. This was an accidental byproduct of an inquiry into the Croatian mafia, however.

Interpol and Europol have taken an interest, but no one can compel blase forces to act. Punishments tend to be light. Ralf Mutschke, head of security at FIFA, football’s global overseer, says that match-fixing offers “low risk and high gain.”

FIFA’s critics think that its global reach, broader than that of any police force, means that it could do more itself. It professes “zero tolerance” for match-fixing, pays for one of several plans designed to detect suspicious betting and issues worldwide bans to malefactors. It has set up an online system for reporting corruption.

However, other sports, such as cricket and tennis, have cracked down harder and faster. FIFA’s plan to loosen the licensing system for soccer agents, a few of whom connive in money-laundering and other offenses, and its equivocal stance on third-party interests in players are seen by critics as evidence of complacency.

FIFA also has been shamed by a series of bribery and embezzlement scandals relating to the choice of venues for the World Cup and its relationship with marketing agencies. Sylvia Schenk of Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, argues that “without good governance FIFA will have no credibility to tell players and referees that they have to stick to the rules.”

A much-vaunted reform has flopped. Alexandra Wrage of Trace International, an anti-graft outfit based in Maryland, resigned from an advisory committee. When the reforms touched on “sensitive issues at the highest levels,” she says, such as term limits and transparency about officials’ salaries, “they stalled.”

Damian Collins, a British MP who is critical of FIFA, says that “nothing has really changed.”

An internal report recently found that Sepp Blatter, the organization’s president since 1998, had been “clumsy” in his response to evidence of a huge bribe that was destined for someone else. Blatter, who denies all wrongdoing, has clung to power and is widely expected to run for a fifth term in 2015.

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