European football gears up to tackle foul play

Events in Bochum last week killed that hope. There, at police headquarters in the heart of the industrial Ruhr Valley, law enforcement officials announced that 15 suspects in Germany and two in Switzerland were under arrest. This, apparently, is the tip of an iceberg. The police claim they have evidence implicating the corrupting of some 200 professional matches across nine central European countries during 2009 alone.

The suspect matches range from minor regional leagues in Germany to top Champions League and Europa League encounters, the two most glamorous club tournaments in the global sport. UEFA, the European soccer authority responsible for the sport in 53 counties, had been in denial about such widespread corruption right up until the eve of the news conference in Bochum.

UEFA's disciplinary officer, sitting beside the police chiefs in Bochum, looked and sounded dumbfounded at the scale of the allegations. But the detectives of Germany's police force said their inquiries so far pointed to the corrupting of games in the country's own leagues and across borders in Belgium, Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, Turkey, Hungary, Bosnia and Austria.

A Swiss league team, FC Thun, reportedly banned its forward Omar Faye from playing Sunday because he had been questioned by the police. The club declined to say what his implication might be. The inquiries are ongoing. The police say that other police criminal investigation units are cooperating, including Scotland Yard in London.

No names were named at the conference. So while the net closes in on suspects, the law enforcers will not be specific on games, players, referees, club officials or fixers. But, now that it has gone this far, now that one nation's police are on the trail and others are assisting their inquiries, we had better believe it.

Something sinister is happening in the sport and in other sports under investigation, including tennis, horse racing and anything, it seems, that attracts the gamblers who stand to make tens of millions of dollars, euros, pounds or yen.

Bochum's police had been bounced into their hastily called news conference by a story in the Berlin newspaper Morgenpost on Thursday. It stated that another match-fixing scandal was about to break, and it implicated Ante Sapina, the head of a Croatian syndicate, who was jailed with four others convicted of bribing a German referee, Robert Hoyzer, to rig matches in 2005. The police did not confirm or deny that Sapina was again under arrest. They did say that one method of entrapment used to gain evidence was phone tapping — the tactic that exposed corruption in Italy's top league, Serie A, before the 2006 World Cup.

Theo Zwanziger, the president DfB, the German governing body, reacted to the announcement by pledging: "As soon as we know who is under investigation, we will give prosecutors everything they need. It's in our interest that the prosecutors are aggressive... Nothing will be swept under the carpet."

UEFA's general secretary, Gianni Infantino, said: "UEFA will be demanding the harshest of sanctions before the competent courts for any individuals, clubs or officials who are implicated in this malpractice, be it under state or sports jurisdiction."

But from FIFA, the global governing body of soccer that funds its own watchdog monitoring games for suspicious betting patterns, there was silence. We deserve better than this. Soccer is the global sport. FIFA and UEFA are the guardians not only of the immense money-making machine that feeds off it but of its reputation and legality.

The proliferation of online betting, with FIFA and UEFA condoning countless clubs, and even leagues, in Europe to advertise them, is an anomaly that does not occur in the United States. Europe has an unholy alliance between betting promotion and the game.  What is taboo in the United States is legal in Europe. And some people from Asia to Russia to the heart of Europe can profit from that.

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