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Stern Investigative - Sports Crime

Football betting scandal: 2 International Matches + 7 Penalty Kicks = Millions for the Mafia

In early February, two strange international matches took place. There were hardly any people in the audience and no television cameras to broadcast it. The participants among them Bulgaria’s national soccer coach Lothar Matthäus, did not suspect that racketeers had apparently organized the matches. Stern magazine’s investigation shows: It was the perfect scam.

By W. Löer, N. Plonka, O. Schröm, D. Liedtke and A. Mönnich

For years, Lothar Matthäus had been displeased about not getting appointed to the important jobs in the world of soccer. Neither the German, nor the Spanish, nor the English Major League wanted him. Nor did it occur to other great soccer nations to entrust the two-time World Player of the Year with their national teams. Matthäus coached in Israel und Eastern Europe. He found that inappropriate and rather exasperating.

On February 9th 2011, when Germany played Italy in Dortmund in front of an audience of 60,000, Lothar Matthäus spent the evening at the seaside resort in Antalya, Turkey.

Bulgaria’s national team, which he coaches, hosted Estonia’s team in front of an audience of 150 in the “Mardan Sports Complex”. Once again, Lothar Matthäus was far away from the center of the action with its big names and packed arenas and yet, at this very moment, he found himself at the most exciting place in the world of soccer. Only, he did not know it.

In Antalya, match-fixers pulled off a huge job

According to information uncovered by stern magazine, the following picture emerges: The betting ring mafia had chosen the small stadium for a deal, mobsters in Germany can only dream of. This time, they were not betting on Belgian second division matches, championship games in the Balkan states or contests in the German regional league.

In Antalya, match-fixers pulled off a huge job. Apparently, they had organized the two international games, which pitted Bulgaria against Estonia and Latvia against Bolivia. Nations competed against each other in matches that saw no commercials, television broadcast and hardly any spectators. They were international matches set up by the Mafia.

The leading role on the field was played by the referees. The first match, Bolivia versus Latvia, ended 1:2. All three goals were made on penalty kicks. Three hours later, Matthäus’ Bulgarian team had tied Estonia 2:2. In this match, too, every goal was made on a penalty kick.

A perfect scam

Stern magazine has gained access to data from early warning systems. These computer programs show probability ratios and indicate how wagers are placed. The numbers and graphs unequivocally show that absurdly huge sums were betted on both matches. The profits were gigantic. Not far from the beach in the Mediterranean, the betting mafia pulled off the perfect scam.

FIFA is still continuing its investigations. However, on the basis of inquiries by Stern magazine in the Baltic States, Asia and South America it is already possible to reconstruct how the racketeers operated. For the first time, it is possible to reconstruct every step in high level bet rigging. The means to success: the right referees, timely payment and as few witnesses as possible.

In October 2010, a man named Anthony Santia Raj drops in on the headquarters of Bolivia’s Soccer Association in Cochabamba. Claiming to be the manager of the agency, Footy Media, he tells the general secretary Alberto Lozada that Footy intends to support youth soccer in Bolivia. Raj also proposes to provide further training to local referees.

Contact to Estonia

Furthermore, he offers his agency’s services to organize several international matches for Bolivia’s national team with the first one already scheduled for February 9th, an official date for international matches.

Over the following days, general secretary Lozada discovers that Footy is also active in Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina. “We therefore did not doubt his sincerity”, Lozada now says. The agency was supposedly planning a tournament as preparation for the South-American U-20 Championship, scheduled for December in Argentina.

Footy also gets in touch with officials in Estonia. The agency provided 26 York Street, in London as its company address but now a man named Hedy Larsen from Tokyo offers in an email to organize an international match on behalf of Footy. He proposes a match against Latvia for February 9th, 2011. Estonian officials decline the offer. They don’t need the help of an agency to contact their neighbors. Besides, playing soccer in the Balkan States in February is difficult, since the stadiums are covered in snow.

Footy enters the field

Yet, the request is not entirely unusual. Planning, execution and marketing of international matches have become a steadily growing market, which is crowded with large agencies such as Sportfive and Infront, as well as smaller competitors such as Evol Sport, Simsport International and Go-Sport. During soccer conventions and draws for important tournaments, agents curry favor with representatives of national associations, in order to do highly profitable business with them. And with Footy, just another player enters the field.

On January 6th 2011, Anthony Santia Raj shows up at the offices of Estonia’s soccer association. Negotiations have sputtered and Raj intends to rekindle them. He does so by maintaining a tone of gentle persuasion and suggesting that the Estonians call him Tony. Tony is from Singapore. He is used to warm weather and is not wearing warm enough clothes in this meagerly heated office. Yet he warms up quickly.

Four days, five stars

The man, believed to be in his forties, enthusiastically talks about his life as a sports manager. He says that Footy is new in the business, yet maintains excellent contacts to South America. Tony exhibits a keen interest in details. For instance, he asks, what players would like to eat in Antalya, since Antalya is exactly what Tony tries to make palatable to the Estonians, Bulgarians, Latvians and Bolivians: an international match in Turkey with a four day accommodation at a five star hotel. It is meant to be a sportsmanlike trial of strength between the teams without selling broadcasting rights and advertising banners. For that, Tony offers Estonia 50,000 Euro.

In Cochabamba, Bolivia, Alberto Lozada becomes increasingly suspicious. Footy offers to also pay his association 50,000 Euro. But how does the agency make a profit if not by selling broadcasting or commercial rights? This, however, is not Lozada’s problem. Bolivia accepts and signs a deal with Footy for another two international matches.

Fear for the image

In late March, Bolivia is scheduled to play Finland and Bulgaria. The agreement, which Tony has arranged to be emailed, in turn makes Estonia’s soccer president ponder. Aviar Pohlak, 49, with long, shaggy, grayish black hair, is unique among soccer officials. He writes children’s books and poems and dresses mostly in a wool sweater and suede vest. To FIFA and UEFA meetings in Switzerland, he cruises along in his own car and hops on his bike for the last yards. Yet, not only his clothes and means of transportation separate him from his counterparts.

The headstrong Estonian is not afraid that the fight against bet rigging could leave the sport of soccer with a black eye. Whereas the first instinct of others is to cover up for fear of damaging the sport’s image and putting off sponsors, Pohlak sounds the alarm.

Aivar Pohlak wonders how Footy’s draft agreements on the international match can fit on one page. He knows otherwise. His skepticism grows.

UEFA doesn't feel responsible

Meanwhile, in its emails Footy increases the pressure. The company warns that whoever does not sign will not cash in. At Estonia’s request, multiple amendments are added. Footy plays along patiently and at the same time, tries to get Estonia to agree to additional matches planned for the summer.

On January 27th 2011, the first of numerous warning emails reaches UEFA. Aivar Pohlak describes in great detail the process, irregularities and his misgivings. The official does not mince words: He claims to have learned, that people in China who are involved in match fixing finance Footy”. Yet, UEFA does not feel obligated to respond. A spokesperson will later explain that exhibition matches fall into FIFA’s area of responsibility.

Almost immediately, the world soccer association learns about the two matches, but to Aivar Pohlak’s astonishment, does not cancel them. Then he comes up with an explanation: Of course, FIFA officials will be present to take the referees to task.

Footy acts honestly when it comes to money

At that point, Footy Media’s homepage is still viewable and advertises not only both matches in Antalya but also mentions two additional games in its portfolio: Macedonia versus Cameroon and Azerbaijan versus Hungary. It is not true, but it conveys the impression that Footy is doing well.

However, Footy acts honestly when it comes to money. Soccer associations in Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria and Bolivia all receive payments as promised, ranging from 40,000 to 80,000 Euro. Officials in Estonia notice that their payments were wired from two personal accounts in Singapore.

It is not really peak season in Antalya on February 9th. Many restaurants are sparsely occupied, neither are the giant hotel complexes . At 2 pm at the “Mardan Sports Complex” there are no tickets on sale for the two matches scheduled for later that evening. However, the word is that people can simply stop by to watch.

Tony cannot treat the Bulgarians in the same way

The four national teams have arrived, as has Tony. He voices regret that the Estonians will not be able to check into the Mardan Palace Hotel after all. He puts the delegation from Estonia up at some sort of youth hostel.

Tony cannot treat the Bulgarians in the same way. Their coach, the only world-famous member among them, played 150 international matches in his active career and knows what kind of service to expect. Matthäus and his guys stay at a four star hotel.

When Matthäus arrives at the stadium a little after 7:30 pm, he becomes aware that on this tour, the amenities have limits, even for him. The Bolivians who have been playing Latvia since 6 pm in front of about 100 people occupy the locker rooms.

Bulgaria’s game versus Estonia kicks off at 9 pm. It is not clear to the players who the guys in the black referee jerseys actually are. Footy has assured both parties that “competent, experienced FIFA-badged referees” will call the game.

Penalty kicks galore

However, the umpire does not possess a FIFA license. It is clear, though, what his plan of action is: There are penalty kicks galore.

Aivar Pohlak receives continuous updates over the phone and by halftime he is certain that after three penalty kicks in Latvia’s match against Bolivia and another two in this game, FIFA will call the game off. Yet, the match continues.

On this day, FIFA acts like narcotic agents who monitor dealers and junkies but do not step in, in order to get to the masterminds behind the operation. This mode of operation is controversial since it does not prevent criminal activities from being carried out. Thus, February 9th, 2011 initially becomes a disastrous day for the sport of soccer. FIFA suspects the betting ring mafia’s involvement, but does not prevent the million dollar deal and is thereby willing to take a risk.

If they fail to expose the masterminds and break up a part of the international betting ring mafia in the process, the mobsters will have scored an enormous victory.

A sure bet

Huge bets are placed on the two matches with returns running high. Major clients of the betting agencies mainly place live bets, which allows them to place wagers on matches that are already in progress. For both games, they play “Asian Totals” especially often.

In order to win, at least three goals must be scored. Most of the time, however, the betting odds are far below what analysts at Sportradar, a London based betting watchdog, have calculated.

Bookmakers notice that this particular bet had been placed in large numbers. Thus, they lower the odds to keep their own losses to a minimum. Yet, despite the low odds, the mobsters keep on placing wagers on high scores. They could lock in higher profits when placing bets with high odds. Yet, the risks would be higher. “Asian Totals” with a score of at least three goals, however, is a sure bet, provided the referees secure the desired outcome.

This is what apparently happens in Antalya. When Bolivia’s goalkeeper saves a penalty kick in the match against Latvia, the Bosnian referee, who does not appear on any FIFA list, orders that it be retaken. Latvia scores.

"A dismal atmosphere"

For the match between Estonia and Bulgaria, around one million Euro in bets are placed prior to kick off and another five millions once it has started. That is three times more than usual for similar matches. Total profit: several times the original bet. The exact amount will never be known.

Despite only around 250 spectators, the penalty kick spectacle in the seaside resort in Southern Turkey does not remain a secret. Both matches are recorded in the official FIFA statistics. In the wake of the 2:2 against Estonia, Lothar Matthäus and his team drop to No. 51 from 49 in FIFA’s world ranking.

In Antalya, the coach bemoans the miserable conditions rather than the flood of penalty kicks. “It is difficult to motivate players in such a dismal atmosphere.” Shorty after the match, Footy deletes its homepage. Nobody from the agency can be reached by phone. The office on York Street in London does not exist. Yet, the company feels confident enough to email UEFA detailed explanations. They had opted against assigning referees from Turkey because they “would have had to bear the costs”. In order to save money, they had decided to “offer opportunities” to talented referees from other countries.

Not the first time

Footy does not disclose that the Bosnian referee’s official fee alone was 1,000 Euro. Instead, they provide a rather brashly impertinent explanation as to why their homepage is inactive. They will shortly present a new page and they are “sure that you understand that it is a common practice worldwide to further develop websites”.

Footy also sends an email to Estonian officials in which they express their displeasure. “Our company has nothing to do with any alleged misconduct. We will conduct an internal investigation of the referees.” Hungary’s soccer association, meanwhile, apologized for the performance of the three Hungarian referees in Estonia’s match against Bulgaria. However, they do not provide any information on Kolos Lengyel, who called four penalty kicks. Lengyel himself declines to comment.

It appears that this was not the first time Lengyel had been assigned by Footy. Last December, during preparations for the U20 South American Championship he caused a stir when he allowed fourteen minutes in overtime in a match between Argentina and Bolivia. Nobody noticed anything unusual during the regular playtime. Neither team had scored. In the 113th minute, Argentina converted a penalty kick.

Wilson Raj Perumal

The extent of Lengyel’s involvement with the betting mafia has awakened the interest of FIFA’s anti-racketeering officers. Until recently, they have been struggling with the question of whether to schedule the 2022 World Cup in Qatar for summer or winter and now find themselves faced with a huge challenge. They have to prevent soccer from turning into a playing field for organized crime. Already, the association has widened its investigations in Singapore, where Tony had been spotted as late as February.

FIFA investigators are also looking into Tony’s relationship to another Singaporean citizen: Wilson Raj Perumal, 45, who had been convicted of match-fixing and spent nine years behind bars. He organized the infamous match between Bahrain and Togo, which took place in September of 2010. Bahrain won 3:0. Only it was not Togo’s national team that played but simply men from Togo hired by Perumal.

Tony was Facebook friends with Perumal. After the matches in Antalya, Tony’s Facebook page was deleted. According to information uncovered by Stern magazine, Tony and Perumal had collaborated on fixing games. Later, Tony operated his own business.

The betting mafia will still be an issue in the future

After the matches in Antalya, Perumal was caught, carrying false papers in Finland. The police had received a tip-off. Tony, too, had previously traveled to Finland.

The World Soccer Association represents 208 nations. They all want to compete internationally. For all those international matches, Asian bookkeepers accept particularly large bets. The betting mafia will continue to be a factor to be reckoned with.

Lothar Matthäus did not notice anything suspicious while in Antalya, but that is not to say that he liked it. True to the motto “Never again Estonia,” he advises Bulgarian officials to play only great soccer nations from now on and happily offers to use his contacts to help.

W. Löer, N. Plonka, O. Schröm, D. Liedtke and A. Mönnich / print

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