With the possible exception of their most fervent supporters, few people would have expected the match between Unione Sportiva Cremonese and Pagenese to be anything special. It was just another routine league tie between two unglamorous Italian third division sides.
But when the teams took to the field at Cremonese’s home ground one Saturday afternoon in November 2010, it set off a sequence of events that would resonate across the world of professional football.
Ivan Ghigi, a sports journalist on the local Cremona newspaper La Provincia, was among the first to realise that something was wrong. Although Cremonese had played well enough to put two unanswered goals past their opponents (not that surprising as Paganese were already struggling in the league and were later relegated), Ghigi noticed that during the second half of the game some of the Cremonese players seemed lethargic.
“I had the impression that the player's reflexes were slowed down,” he said later. “So much so that in the evening we called the Cremonese team doctor, asking what was going on. We then published a few lines in the paper saying that a mysterious illness that had struck some of the players.”
In fact, five Cremonese players and the team physio had complained of feeling unwell after the game and were taken to hospital for tests. Traces of a tranquiliser were found in their urine, prompting immediate suspicions that their half-time drinks had been doctored. One of the players was so groggy that he had a serious car accident on his way home from the match.
Although the doping – if that was what it was – had not affected the outcome of the game, the club was suspicious and called in the police.
“The months went by," said Ghigi. “And then from the investigations it emerged that some of the Cremonese players had indeed been poisoned. They had been secretly administered a potent sedative called Minias, possibly while drinking tea or water.”
As the investigation continued, police soon focused their attention on the team’s goalkeeper, Marco Paoloni, who had been seen behaving erratically on the pitch in a number of games. Their suspicions were borne out when they listened covertly to his phone calls. Paolini had tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to manipulate the result against Pagenese by administering the sedative. And he had been paid to do so.
But Paoloni's phone conversations revealed even more – that he was really only a small cog in a very big machine. To their astonishment, investigators had stumbled on a match-fixing syndicate with connections to several Italian football clubs – even in Italy’s top league, the prestigious Serie A. In June 2011, police began making arrests and over the next few months Italian news bulletins were filled with pictures of players, managers, club officials and match-fixers being taken off into custody.
'The Kelong Kings'
Yet the more investigators found out about the scandal, the more its sheer scale became apparent. What had at first seemed a uniquely Italian disgrace was in fact part of a much wider international scam, run by a global match-fixing syndicate with branches in several European countries.
Marco Garofalo, of Italy's Central Investigative Unit, was involved in the inquiry.
He says: “The goal of the syndicate was to get definite information on which they could bet huge sums of money. Definite information means a definite result. In this sense the English term “match-fixing” gives you the perfect picture of the activities of this organisation … to fix a result, to pre-determine the outcome of a match. It is around this fixed result that the organisation operates. And it is on this fixed result that the organisation concentrates a large number of bets that they then cash in from the [online] gambling sites. In this case we are speaking of Asian sites.”
The syndicate, investigators discovered, was a remarkably slick operation. Emanating from the Asian city state of Singapore it had targeted clubs, players and games at all levels of the game in Europe and beyond. As the Italians consulted with detectives across the continent, they found that the syndicate's 'fingerprints' were also on illegally fixed games in Germany, Finland, Hungary and even as far away as Canada.
Players and coaches and officials had been bribed and suborned with cash brought in from Asia by special couriers, which had been handed onto middle-men and agents for distribution. Once the money had been paid and the results secured in advance, word was passed back to the syndicate in the Far East who would arrange for millions of dollars to be ‘gambled’ on each game – usually in thousands of small bets, placed anonymously via legitimate and unsuspecting online betting sites. It is not known exactly how much this one syndicate made in the process, but officials working for FIFA, the sport’s governing body, know that whatever the sum it is probably only the tip of an iceberg.
Detlev Zanglein, the general manager of Early Warning Systems, an organisation set up by FIFA to track illegal football betting, says that match-fixing scams can generate huge sums of money.
“It is very difficult to describe, to talk about the volume of the betting market, because as you know part of the market is totally illegal ... In general, our estimate of the yearly turnover [of football-related gambling] is about $350bn and probably half of that is done in illegal markets,” he says.
But as he concedes, the experts manning the computers at Early Warning Systems' Zurich headquarters can only do so much. They can track suspicious betting patterns but they cannot identify the beneficiaries of the fix, because most online betting operators either do not know who is placing the bets or are reluctant to share the information.
Yet the Italian investigation does appear to have lifted the lid on at least one of the major scams, run from Singapore by the syndicate that local media have dubbed “the Kelong Kings” - Kelong is the Malay word for match-fixing.
So who is behind this mysterious gang? And how exactly have they managed to operate undetected for so long?
People & Power sent Italian filmmakers Alessandro Righi and Emanuele Piano to find out. As they travelled from Italy to Finland and onto Singapore, they followed the trail of the criminals whose actions threaten to undermine professional football around the world and put doubt about results into every football fan's mind.
People & Power can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.
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Source: Al Jazeera