It is an odd place for the fate of the world football to be under consideration, but a drama that has been playing out in a Hungarian courtroom for almost a year now is, in its way, as important to football’s future as any international tournament. It is certainly crucial to perceptions about its integrity.
The trial is all about match-fixing. Over the past few years, global investigators and police from several countries have unveiled an intricate international criminal network, run from Singapore. For well over a decade, prosecutors allege, this sophisticated syndicate manipulated and rigged football games at all levels around the world, from amateur matches, through professional leagues and international friendlies and all the way to the FIFA World Cup.
The trial has been taking place in Budapest because the syndicate had dealings across eastern Europe – in Bulgaria, Slovenia and Hungary – and most of the 12 defendants had specific local connections, but the principal defendant is actually being tried in absentia. According to Hungarian prosecutors, Singaporean national, Tan Seet Eng, also known as Dan Tan, was the group’s financier and mastermind, ensuring that its members and investors made many tens of millions of dollars by gambling on the games they fixed. He has been in custody in Singapore since October 2013 under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows for indefinite detention or organised crime suspects.
What has made the trial possible has been the testimony given by the syndicate’s match-fixer-in-chief, Wilson Raj Perumal. Arrested in Finland in 2011, Perumal was sentenced to two years in prison for match-fixing but was extradited to Hungary in late 2012 after he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Ever since, his account of how he and his associates corrupted global football has been sending shockwaves through the sport.
The match-fixing phenomenon, say experts, all began with the global online gambling boom of the late 1990s that allowed punters to bet on football matches in the remotest corners of the game. Francesco Barranca is the general secretary of Federbet, an association that monitors matches around the world. He says that Asian match-fixers were quick to take advantage of the fact that online betting companies in the region are unregulated and offer huge betting volumes compared to the rest of the world.
“In the past, without technologies, it was not so easy to bet on a match of second division in Czech Republic and of course the offer of the bookmaker was very reduced. Now If someone wants to bet 500,000 euros on match of Premier League, he just has to put the money with this Asian bookmaker and very easily without any kind of check.”
But of course placing that bet becomes more attractive if the outcome is already known. What Perumal and other match-fixers aimed to do was turn a gamble into a near certainty – usually by bribing key players in a team or referees and linesmen to ensure in advance that the result of a game went the way the syndicate wanted.
And for years, Perumal says, it was all too easy. “In those days we were not so afraid of law enforcement and so on. There was no heat on match-fixing. So you just approached a person ‘Hey, look, you wanna do it or you don’t wanna do it.’ Not everybody can fix and not everybody is blessed with, or shall I say cursed, with the ability to fix a football match, but fixing can provide you instant profit of about a couple of millions within a year or so.”
I put an offer on the table that I would pay the expenses for the entire team, food, accommodation, transport, everything taken care of and they would be receiving 50,000 US dollars per match if they are able to dance to my tune
Yet as this film, Killing the Ball from investigative journalists Alessandro Righi and Emanuele Piano, explains, when the scams became more and more ambitious the authorities began to sit up and take note.
To evade their attention, Perumal admits that he was constantly having to devise new schemes, such as inviting FIFA-affiliated Football Associations to play friendly matches in southeast Asia and elsewhere.
This, he claims, made it easier to target players from poverty-stricken national teams. In 2007, for example, he fixed his sights on Zimbabwe.
“I put an offer on the table that I would pay the expenses for the entire team, food, accommodation, transport, everything taken care of and they would be receiving 50,000 US dollars per match if they are able to dance to my tune,” Perumal said.
Four years later, Perumal’s relationship with Zimbabwe’s national football team would erupt into a scandal that the local media dubbed ‘Asiagate’. In 2012, 80 Zimbabwean officials and players were banned from the game by the national football association, Zifa.
But by then Zimbabwe was not alone. Perumal says he was able to infiltrate other African national teams. Players and officials from Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mozambique, Togo and Kenya were ready to fall under his spell, taking part in international friendlies he arranged in Asia and elsewhere for the benefit of his gambling syndicate.
“You go back home with a lot of money,” he said. “After all it’s a friendly football match and nobody is going to talk about it the next day.”
In 2009, Perumal established a ‘sports management’ business called Football 4 U International, to interact more plausibly with national Football Associations. But although it had an impressive letterhead, the company’s headquarters were actually a cramped office tucked away behind a photocopy shop in Singapore’s Little India.
Nevertheless, says journalist Zaihan Mohamed Yusof, from Singapore’s The New Paper , the front was convincing enough to take in football officials and administrators around the world.
“Wilson Raj fine-tuned the art of match-fixing by giving it an air of legitimacy by setting up companies which are legit-sounding but it says a lot about football associations who, you know, they’re supposed to do due diligence but they didn’t. So he exploited that weakness, that laziness or so on and he was quite successful for a while,” he says.
The syndicate’s reach – as revealed by Perumal’s correspondence from the time – was simply astonishing. To keep generating cash, more and more games were rigged to order. Soon Perumal and his associates were attempting to meddle in major competitions like the Women’s World Cup, the Olympics in Beijing, the Africa Cup of Nations, the AFC Cup in Asia, the Gold Cup in North America and even the official qualification matches for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Not all their attempts were successful, but in dozens of games the syndicate’s corruption of players and officials paid off – casting a dark shadow over the genuine achievements of many honest footballers, who never suspected they might be playing in rigged games. In fact, Perumal claims to have played a part in the qualification of five of the 32 teams that eventually took the field in South Africa.
Killing the Ball deconstructs the involvement of Perumal’s syndicate in one of those crucial games, a dark and sinister tale of bribery and greed that exemplifies the corruption in some areas of the world’s most popular sport.