The credibility of friendly international matches and FIFA’s ability to adequately regulate them is facing a fresh challenge after serious suspicions of match fixing were raised over two games held on Wednesday last week in Turkey.
FIFA confirmed on Tuesday that it was examining whether there were suspicious betting patterns surrounding Bolivia’s 2-1 defeat of Latvia and the 2-2 draw between Estonia and Bulgaria.
The games were played consecutively on neutral territory at the Mardan Stadium in Antalya. All seven goals were penalties, an outcome described by one bookmaking source as “freakishly unlikely”. One of the penalties was ordered to be retaken after the first kick was missed.
FIFA is examining whether the games were manipulated to enable gamblers to profit on the market for total goals in each game.
Both matches are understood to have been handled by the same team of Hungarian officials, who, according to the authorities in Budapest, were qualified only to officiate in the third tier of domestic football. The referee, identified as Kolos Lengyl, and his assistants, have been suspended by the Hungarian football federation pending the outcome of the inquiry.
FIFA confirmed that it was investigating the matches after being alerted by “various sources”, and claimed that its Early Warning System, which monitors betting patterns with legitimate bookmakers, had informed the investigation. UEFA and FIFA were alerted to concerns over the games as early as Jan 29.
The lack of oversight of the arrangements for the game, and the confusion over the match officials, raise questions over the credibility of friendly internationals at a time when they are increasingly unpopular with major European clubs and leagues.
Estonian FA spokesman Mihkel Uiboleht said on Tuesday that the federation president, Aivar Pohlack, wrote to UEFA and FIFA raising his concerns about the arrangements for their game. Pohlack was particularly concerned about the lack of clarity over the identity of the officials.
Despite this the matches still went ahead and the identity of the referee remained uncertain until three days after the game when the Hungarian FA confirmed it believed Lengyl was in charge.
The Estonian, Latvian and Bolivian federations have expressed their concerns over the handling of the matches, and insist that their teams were not involved in anything untoward. Uiboleht said the federation’s concerns were not shared with the players at any stage.
The Bulgarian FA was unavailable for comment, though manager Lothar Matthaüs said after the game: “I do not want to watch any more matches like the one against Estonia. It is very hard to motivate the players in such a gloomy atmosphere when they play in front of just 100 spectators.”
“All the arrangements for the matches were of a good level apart from the suspicious penalties,” Janis Mezeckis, the secretary general of the Latvian FA.
Bolivia led 2-0 after being awarded penalties either side of half-time before the referee gave Latvia their spot kick in the second half. “One of the penalties was 400 per cent a penalty but the other two were probably 50-50 penalties. It is hard to comment on the referees but sometimes you see even a good referee gives a team a penalty if he knows he has made a mistake with a penalty for the other side,” Mezeckis said.
Uiboleht said there were concerns over the spot kicks in the Estonia-Bulgaria match too, but said it was impossible to be sure without access to betting records.
“It raises suspicions because of the number of penalties but the only way of identifying whether a match has been fixed is by looking at the betting records. We have received reports from our partners and passed them to FIFA.”
Estonia’s penalties came in the 20th and 80th minutes, with Bulgaria’s awarded in the 40th and 83rd. All four teams were approached independently by a company calling itself Footy Media International. It claimed to have offices in London and Tokyo, but as negotiations continued a related company, Footy Sports International, thought to be based in Thailand, took the lead.
Footy Media International is understood to have a website but it went down when news of the controversy emerged, and there is no company with that name registered with Companies House in the UK. There is no evidence of any wrongdoing by the company.
FIFA regulations require friendly internationals to be arranged by approved match agents.
The Estonian FA is understood to have been offered a five-figure euro fee for taking part in the match, described as normal for a fixture at that level. It is thought the game was televised only in Bulgaria, with the broadcast rights residing with Footy Sports Media.
A second series of matches scheduled for next month at the same venue was cancelled this week after the Bolivian FA said it was no longer willing to take part.