In Korce they love their football team and that is why, on 21 February, thousands of the Albanian city’s inhabitants gathered to sing for Skenderbeu. The rally stretched far down the main avenue, one placard standing out among scarves and banners. Its message was clear: “Do not kill our dream.”
Everything Skenderbeu have achieved is on the verge of being discredited by the most extraordinary match-fixing inquiry of all time. A leaked UEFA report has recommended the six-times national champions, who competed in the Europa League group stage this season, are banned from its competitions for an unprecedented 10 years; if the governing body’s control, ethics and disciplinary body agrees, almost a decade of progress will come to a shuddering halt.
UEFA has not made the report, written by two of its ethics and disciplinary inspectors, public but it has circulated widely in Albania. It brought the population of Korce to the streets and its contents are damning. It concludes Skenderbeu “has been fixing football matches like nobody has ever done before in the history of the game”, alleging the club have essentially operated as a vehicle for organised crime, and shines a light on the detail that underpins UEFA's match-fixing inquiries. UEFA did not confirm or deny the document’s authenticity.
Skenderbeu have previously received punishment for match-fixing, a year-long suspension from European competition served in 2016-17. That was upheld by the court of arbitration for sport (Cas), as an “administrative measure” in a two-step UEFA process; the current investigation forms the second stage and is part of a more serious “disciplinary measure”.
The suspension came after UEFA's betting fraud detection system (BFDS) identified 53 matches involving Skenderbeu – spanning friendlies, domestic fixtures and European club competitions – allegedly manipulated for betting purposes between November 2010 and April 2016. The case focused on four games: two from the 2015-16 Champions League qualifying rounds and two from that season’s Europa League group phase. Skenderbeu were, based largely on the BFDS’s processes, banned. The new report adds fresh evidence from a panel of coaches while employing an external company to reconfirm its findings in an effort to press the case for a more severe punishment.
Skenderbeu are accused of “manipulation attempts to obtain criminal betting profits on a stunning global scale”, earning millions of dollars. The report alleges the club have “no respect for the integrity of the game” and that they contrived a highly organised structure intended to harvest huge sums through gambling. It is an allegation the club have denied.
“KF Skenderbeu’s legal department is following the necessary procedures for the issue in question and expresses confidence that the case will be closed successfully,” read part of a statement after the report’s existence became known.
The report argues two group games, at Sporting Lisbon and at home to Lokomotiv Moscow, are of particular concern. Skenderbeu lost 5-1 and 3-0 respectively, both matches’ outcomes following rapidly escalating betting patterns almost to the letter.
The former saw a flurry of “exuberant and illogical” bets made for six or more goals to be scored with Sporting 4-0 up late on; the latter, according to the report, became subject to a rush of highly suspicious, and accurate, bets when Skenderbeu were a goal down with five minutes left. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing from Skenderbeu’s opponents.
The best-known of the ties is a Champions League second qualifying round, second leg against Northern Irish side Crusaders on 21 July 2015. Skenderbeu had won the home fixture 4-1 and went 2-1 up in the return. There followed what the report terms “some outrageous suspicious live betting” totalling “a minimum of several hundreds of thousands of dollars”; Skenderbeu ran scant risk of losing the tie at this stage and conceded twice in the last 10 minutes, with Crusaders also having two goals disallowed. A tweet from Crusaders’ goalkeeper, Sean O’Neill – “If there is not a UEFA investigation into our game tonight, then there is something wrong” – is among the evidence submitted.
The BFDS uses algorithms and mathematical models to assess betting movements around games, which are “escalated” for further examination if irregular patterns appear. Skenderbeu have had more than twice as many games escalated as any other club since the system’s inception in 2009. UEFA has enlisted a British firm to conduct anonymised analysis of betting data from 10 of those games; the results bore almost total similarity to those of the BFDS and are central to the report’s conclusion.
Another cornerstone will be the findings of an “expert panel” whose members included Leicester City assistant manager Michael Appleton. They were asked to review incidents from alleged “appalling” and “embarrassing” play against Crusaders to “a few suspicious moments” in another cited game against Dinamo Zagreb.
The situation allegedly developed after Agim Zeqo was appointed Skenderbeu president in January 2010. At that point the club risked relegation. They survived, proceeding to win the league five years running; the report shows the first of their games to be “escalated” occurred in November 2010.
Zeqo said: “I vehemently deny that any match-fixing occurred during my tenure as KF Skenderbeu’s president. I stand ready to face such allegations openly in public, including any court of law if necessary.”
Current Skenderbeu president, Ardjan Takaj, who succeeded Zeqo in 2012, and former Albanian finance minister Ridvan Bode are said to have been influential to the alleged scheme. The latter is stated by the report to have been a key donor. He allegedly holds “the power, the connections and the knowledge to influence Skenderbeu’s matches, and ... has done so over the years”.
Takaj is accused of targeting friendlies for illegal gain and using relationships with Skenderbeu players to impact their on-pitch actions. A labyrinthine section of the report focuses on Takaj’s business dealings, exploring links between Skenderbeu and betting companies in which he allegedly is, or has been, involved.
Both men deny match-fixing. Bode said he had never supported Skenderbeu financially. He said the allegations were made with “reckless ease” and continued: “I was never part of and have never been aware of any attempt to influence any match’s result.”
Takaj said the allegations about his business involvement were “decontextualised”, and continued: “I have never been involved, directly or indirectly, in any activities aiming to manipulate the outcome of the match, neither [have] persons related to me.”
The 40-year-old goalkeeper Orges Shehi, whom the report alleges profited from match-fixing through his actions, remains in the team. Defender Tefik Osmani, accused similarly, is still around too and both issued denials. Shehi said: “I believe in the values of sport and of sportsmanship and have tried all my career to give an example for the next generations.” Osmani said: “I completely deny these allegations.”
Takaj is determined to clear the club’s name: “A 10-year sentence is in practice a capital punishment.”
It does not help Skenderbeu that Albania’s football federation last year stripped the club of its 2015‑16 title, also deducting 12 points for 2016-17, for match-fixing at national level. Another appeal to Cas is believed to be pending.
A further strand of the report’s argument is that, since the Cas hearing in July 2016, no Skenderbeu matches have been escalated. Skenderbeu must wait for UEFA's decision and came under the spotlight when the governing body announced last month that its disciplinary inspectors had received death threats after the report was leaked. The club distanced itself from those but they underlined the unsavoury nature of the case.
A letter by Sotiraq Filo, mayor of Korce, to UEFA's president Aleksander Ceferin, concluded by asking Ceferin and UEFA not to “kill the resurrected hope of an entire nation for football”. If Skenderbeu are found guilty this time, then responsibility will lie closer to home.