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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Match fixing scandal could be monkey wrench to change soccer governance

Wilson Raj Perumal stands trial in Finland (Source: YLE/Jan Pelkonen)

By James M. Dorsey

A Singaporean national at the core of a global soccer match-fixing scandal provided key information that led to this week’s disclosure by Europol that it suspects that as many as 680 games on four continents were fixed by Asian crime syndicates and their European helpers.

Convicted in Finland in 2011 on match fixing charges and subsequently extradited to Hungary, one of several European countries where he is wanted, Wilson Raj Perumal, a 47-year old engineer of Tamil origin, agreed to map out the syndicates’ global operations in exchange for protective custody.  "I hold the key to the Pandora's box. And I will not hesitate to unlock it," he said in one of a series of letters to Singapore’s The New Paper.

Mr. Perumal’s revelations and Europol’s disclosure add to a series of corruption scandals that have rocked world soccer in the last two years. The seriousness of the investigation into match-fixing is likely to contrast starkly with efforts by world soccer body FIFA and many of its constituent regional associations to root out corruption.

Those efforts have largely only skimmed the surface even though they led to the inevitable resignation or banning from involvement in soccer of several executive committee members, including Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed Bin Hammam. They have yet to address an environment of backroom, back-slapping, non-transparent soccer politics that have spurred widespread perceptions of corruption.

Fan outrage over the match fixing scandal potentially could change that. FIFA has so far been under little, if any, fan pressure to introduce radical reforms. As a result, its major corporate sponsors politely expressed concern when the scandals first erupted in late 2010 and 2011 but did little to encourage FIFA to truly mend its ways. Europol’s disclosure of the extent of match fixing that may have even effected English championship games and European qualifiers could spark grassroots protests.

Indeed, in seeking protective custody from his former associates whom he had short changed to pay off gambling debts reportedly to the tune of $3 million, Mr. Perumal, believed to have been one of the smoothest operators of the match fixing scheme, may have provided the monkey wrench needed to fundamentally change governance of the beautiful game.

His operations did not simply involve the buying of corrupt players and referees but in increasingly also whole soccer associations, particularly cash-starved ones in Africa eager to play all-expenses paid friendlies. In the process, Mr. Perumal and his associates generated hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent gambling winnings for Asian and European syndicates in a global business that grew exponentially with television and the Internet.

FIFA investigators say Mr. Perumal perfected his approach of associations in addition to individuals in the late 1990s in Africa in countries like Ghana and Zimbabwe. He projected himself as a promoter acting on behalf of front companies that arranged friendly matches.  "Most football associations are broke. When you go up to them with an opponent who is prepared to ... play a friendly, they welcome you with open arms. They don't realize what is hidden beneath," he said in one of his letters to The New Paper.

Mr. Perumal’s downfall was a friendly between Bahrain and Togo in 2011 when it became apparent that Togo had fielded a fake team that surprisingly defeated the Gulf squad 3:0. The key to unravelling what had happened in Bahrain was the revelation by a Bahraini soccer official that the match had been arranged by a Singapore-based, FIFA-approved agent.

In effect however, the beginning of Mr. Perumal’s end preceded the match in Bahrain. A petty criminal with a long charge list involving housebreaking, theft, forgery, cheating and match-fixing, he fled Singapore for a Tamil community near London’s Wembley Station to evade serving five years in prison for running over a policeman in 2009.

Authorities finally caught up with him when he was stopped at an airport in Finland in 2011 as he was attempting to leave the country on a false passport acting on a tip of one of his associates. With Mr. Perumal spilling the beans to save his own neck and take revenge on those he feels betrayed him, the syndicates appear to have made a fatal mistake in fingering him in the belief that he would not share his knowledge in a bid to save his life.

The decision to out Mr. Perumal was prompted by complaints to the syndicate by a Finnish local club, Rovaniemi, that it had been paid less than the agreed $500,000 for its acquisition by associates of the crime group. Mr. Perumal had pocketed up to $300,000 of the sales price to pay off some of his gambling debts. By that time, syndicate bosses already suspected that Mr. Perumal’s loyalties may have been divided.

They assumed that he may have tipped off FIFA about the fixing of two matches in the Turkish Mediterranean Sea resort of Antalya – Latvia against Bolivia and Estonia against Bulgaria. More likely is that lack of caution by one of Mr. Perumal’s associates, Anthony Santia Raj, prompted the Latvian soccer federation to voice concern with FIFA.

In response then FIFA security chief Chris Eaton turned to London-based gambling watchdog Sportradar for help. Sportradar’s analysis of the betting pattern for both matches left little doubt that they had been fixed.

Mr. Perumal’s explanation of his demise is a very different one. He blames those he recruited and trained in Singapore, a perfect multi-cultural recruitment ground for Chinese syndicates looking for English speaking operatives who can easily blend in various parts of the world, for seeking to take over his position in what he describes as a cut-throat business. “I would have admired my enemy if he had brought the sword to my heart instead of my back,” he said in one of his letters to The New Press.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

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