February 15, 2011

FIFA opens match-fixing probe

FIFA is investigating claims that four national teams were brought to Turkey for exhibition games last week suspected of being fixed as part of a betting scam.

Officials from Latvia and Bolivia, Estonia and Bulgaria are working with FIFA regarding the double-header in Antalya last Wednesday that was arranged by the company Footy Sport International.

Curiously, the games produced seven goals that were all scored from penalty kicks, including one that was ordered retaken after the initial spot kick was missed.

The Estonian federation said Monday it had suspicions two weeks earlier. The Latvian governing body still does not know the identity of the match officials despite confronting them before kickoff and repeatedly asking the company for information.

FIFA has asked all four federations for their versions of events to help.

It's not the first time an exhibition arranged by a company has drawn suspicion. Last September, a fake Togo team lost 3-0 to Bahrain in a game arranged by a match agent with Singapore connections.

Neither national team filed a complaint, so FIFA didn't formally investigate suspicions that the host Bahrainis were duped into playing a game they were certain to easily win. The Togo federation banned one of its coaches for his role in the affair.

In an apparently similar case, a team posing as Zimbabwe's first choice admitted throwing matches on its tour of Thailand and Malaysia in December 2009. Players said they received instructions at halftime to ensure the correct results were achieved for the types of wagers that had been staked.

Michel Platini, the former French star now president of the Union of European Football Associations, has called match-fixing the biggest danger facing the game.

In Turkey, the scoring was dictated entirely by referees' decisions, as Latvia beat Bolivia 2-1 and Estonia and Bulgaria played out a 2-2 tie.

Latvian Football Federation spokesman Martins Hartmanis said the identities of the referees for its game remain still unknown despite numerous written and verbal requests to the company.

Hartmanis claimed to have insisted on FIFA-designated referees for the match, but two weeks before the game received the names of three referees -- supposedly from the Czech Republic -- who weren't on FIFA's list of international officials.

Before the game, organizers said the referees were from Hungary, but when Latvian officials approached the referees, they claimed to be from Croatia.

"This turned about to be a bit confusing, but it was 15 minutes before kickoff and our general manager didn't want to stop the referees from preparing for the game," Hartmanis said.

Estonian Football Association spokesman Mihkel Uiboleht said suspicions about possible match-fixing arose two weeks before the games. He declined to give details.

"But these are suspicions that we considered worthy of passing on to necessary authorities," he said.

The Bolivian federation said it sent a message to FIFA President Sepp Blatter asking for "an exhaustive investigation."

"We have also filed a complaint with the company that contracted the matches," federation director Alberto Lozada said.

Bolivia also has canceled a scheduled return visit to Turkey next month for matches against Finland and Bulgaria.

FIFA declined comment Monday. Soccer's governing body is likely to examine whether any official from Footy Sport International, reportedly based in Thailand, had the required FIFA authority to organize a match between European and South American teams.

Under FIFA rules, national teams are free to choose their opponents for exhibitions and play in neutral countries, but only FIFA-licensed match agents can stage games between teams from different continents.

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