SYDNEY (Reuters) - While there was some shock at the extent of the match-fixing revealed in Monday’s Europol report, there can be little surprise the fixers were based in Singapore given the history of corruption in Asian football.
From China’s ‘golden whistles’ scandal of the early 2000s to the 41 players from South Korea’s K-League banned by FIFA for match-fixing just last month, the taint of corruption has rarely been far from the game in the world’s most populous continent.
European anti-crime agency Europol on Monday blamed criminal syndicates based in Singapore for fixing hundreds of matches in a global scam over three years from 2008.
The driving force behind the match-fixing is the huge amount of money gambled on football on the continent.
Chris Eaton, former head of security at FIFA and now head of an anti-corruption watchdog, estimates $3 billion (1.9 billion pounds) a day is bet on sport, most of it on football and most related to South East Asia.
The Europol report said German police had proof 8 million euros $11 million had been made in gambling profits from the scam but it was probably the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s infinitesimal compared to what was made in the Asian market,” Eaton told Reuters on Wednesday.
“You can probably multiply that by a hundred for what was made in the Asian market. People have to get their head round this act - we’re talking about a major economy here.”
In China, where betting is outlawed outside the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, one expert at Peking University estimated that illegal gambling was worth $150 billion a year in 2009.
With such huge sums involved, it is no great surprise that players, team officials and referees earning far, far less than their European counterparts have been tempted and the leagues compromised.
Former Australia international Craig Foster recalled coming face to face with the problem in the early 1990s when he first played in South East Asia.
“I found an entirely unfamiliar world where players didn’t necessarily play to win, or for the team, but in which numerous gambling syndicates controlled players throughout the league and paid them either to win or lose, according to the odds,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday.
Indeed, the reason European leagues are so attractive to Asian gamblers is not only because of their high profile and glamour but because they are perceived to have retained an integrity local competitions lost long ago.
At times the fixing in Asia has descended into farce, as when players at one Chinese club peppered their own goal with lobbed “back passes” to try and even up the betting spread.
In Singapore, the local FA has employed random polygraph tests on players since 2001 in a bid to root out the problem.
China attempted to clean up its house in 2006 with an Anti-Football Gambling Leadership Group.
The effort was somewhat undermined when the football official appointed to lead the group, Nan Yong, was jailed for 10 1/2 years after being found guilty of taking 1.48 million yuan $237,600 in bribes last year.
Nan’s conviction was part of a renewed and robust police-led enquiry sparked when leading Communist Party officials - including then President Hu Jintao - expressed the need to clean up the sport in late 2009.
The latest attempt to curb the problem region-wide comes later this month when the governing Asian Football Confederation (AFC) host an Interpol conference entitled “Match-Fixing: The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game” in Kuala Lumpur.
“Our endeavour to wipe out corruption continues and the confederation is proactively organising events to fight corruption and match-fixing in the continent,” AFC general secretary Dato’ Alex Soosay said on Wednesday.
The AFC have not been immune to scandal themselves, however, and Qatari former president Mohamed Bin Hammam is still battling to clear his name after being suspended by world governing body FIFA for alleged bribery in July 2011.
All the while, Asian cases of match-fixing have continued to emerge.
Malaysia, which was rocked by a match-fixing scandal in the mid-1990s resulting in more than a 100 players being banned, handed out long suspensions to 18 youth players in February last year for match-fixing.
Then last month, the long-running enquiry into match-fixing in South Korea’s top flight K-League - a scandal so embarrassing the government threatened to shut the league down - resulted in the 41 players being banned for life.
Match-fixing in Asia is by no means limited to football, however, with volleyball and basketball also caught up in the Korean scandal, while cricketing authorities in India and Pakistan have their own battles to fight with illegal bookmakers.
The bad news for those who are trying to root it out is that many analysts believe the problem in sport is merely a reflection of a wider malaise in Asian society.
Global anti-corruption body Transparency International says there is an alarming level of corruption in Asia.
Its corruption index rates Singapore at 10, the very cleanest, but 16 other countries score below three on the scale.
Additional reporting by Paul Carsten, editing by Alison Wildey