Fears are growing that Chinese criminals have taken match-fixing to new levels by buying stakes in European clubs and then organizing corruption of these teams’ fixtures.
A stake in Athlone Town, a club under investigation over an allegedly fixed match in the League of Ireland last weekend, is believed to have been sold to a party ultimately funded by a Beijing-based fixing syndicate.
The same group, control by an individual whose name is known to this newspaper, is understood to have taken interests in lower-league clubs in Portugal, Latvia and Romania where fixing has also been suspected.
Athlone are under investigation by the Irish police, the Irish FA and European football’s governing body UEFA over their 3-1 defeat to Longford Town last weekend.
A confidential UEFA report sent to Athlone on Friday says: ‘There is clear and overwhelming betting evidence that the course or result of this match was unduly influenced with a view to gaining corrupt betting profits.’
Sources say gamblers with inside knowledge profited by around £500,000 from bets placed in the unregulated Asian markets on at least two goals being scored in the first half (Longford were winning 2-0 at half-time), and on four of more goals being scored in the game. Longford went 3-1 ahead in the 87th minute.
Sources say the stake in the Irish club bought by the Chinese firm was lower in value (around £425,000) than estimated betting profits from that one game alone. Athlone have received recent investment but officials have declined to say how much or where from. It is not known if the cash was paid directly from China or via intermediary organisations.
Athlone did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment from the MoS but a club statement said they were ‘absolutely shocked’ by fixing allegations.
Chinese firms have bought interests around 20 clubs across Europe in recent years, almost all of them with no hint of controversy, let alone scandal. But governing bodies will now be on red alert over deals, not least for relatively large sums in the lower leagues. ‘If an investment offer for a “lesser” team seems too good to be true, it probably is,’ says one investigator.
Two other Athlone matches this season caused alarm among market watchers, although it is not known if UEFA are aware of this. One was against UC Dublin on 8 April, which Athlone lost 4-1. Sources from both the ‘integrity’ side of the football industry and in the betting underworld say huge sums were won in that match by bets place on at least five goals being scored in the fixture. UC Dublin’s fourth goal - the fifth in the game - was scored in the 89th minute.
The Irish police will begin an official investigation on Monday.
Athlone have seen a spate of comings and goings among the playing and coaching staff since the mystery investment in the club.
Among the recent arrivals was Latvian goalkeeper Igor Labuts, who has played for at least two other teams where money is believed to have been injected by the Beijing firm - and have been investigated for fixing. He has admitted to being approached in the past by fixers and thwarted their advances, and says he has been shocked by fixing allegations against his clubs.
‘I know that I am clean but it’s unpleasant and my reputation has been damaged,’ he said.
A UEFA spokesman said: ‘UEFA is completely committed to eradicating match-fixing, a disease that attacks football’s very core.’
Sources say UEFA have investigated around 200 matches per season over the last three years in leagues across the 55 nations in their region over suspicious betting patterns and fixing concerns.
Over the past seven years, UEFA has been involved in the successful prosecution of 14 match-fixing cases across the Continent where the guilty parties were banned for between a year and life.
While the ratio of allegations to prosecutions is hugely disproportionate, it is notoriously difficult to prove fixing beyond any doubt. Typically a successful case will involve tracing a money trail on bets and then linking that unequivocally to corrupt players or officials.