ESPN The Magazine
All The World Is Staged
Bribed players, crooked refs, fake games. The ugly truth behind the beautiful game is that criminal syndicates can fix any match, anywhere.mp3Interview: ESPN Behind The Bets(15932 kb)
ON THE MORNING of Feb. 20, 2011, a man named Jonathan Tan Xin walked into the central police station of Rovaniemi, Finland, a town that sits along the Arctic Circle. Tan Xin, a Singaporean national of Chinese descent, told the duty officers that another Singaporean man, of Indian background, was currently in the town traveling on a false passport. When the officers asked Tan Xin why he had brought this information to them, he reacted angrily, saying that he would leave the station if they were going to treat him as a criminal.
Jukka Lakkala, an inspector with the Rovaniemi police, went to the Scandic Hotel, where the man in question, Wilson Raj Perumal, was lodging. There Lakkala and a colleague took Perumal into custody. When they arrived at the station, the officers realized that they had detained the wrong suspect, another Indian man who had been staying in a different room in the same hotel. Careful not to make the same mistake twice, Lakkala placed the correct room under surveillance. Subsequently identifying Perumal, police followed him on Feb. 23 to Fransmanni, a formal French restaurant near the town’s soccer stadium. A game had recently ended, and the streets filled with the crowd that had watched the local club, Rovaniemen Palloseura, draw a 1-1 tie.
Officers watched the restaurant as Perumal joined three men there, two Georgians and one Zambian, all players for Palloseura. It was a contentious meeting. The three players cowered as Perumal scolded them. Lakkala believed that he was looking at something more significant than he initially thought. When Finnish police detained Perumal a day later, they phoned officials at the Finland Football Federation and asked if they knew who Perumal was. Federation officials had not heard of Wilson Perumal, and they in turn contacted FIFA.
The head of security for FIFA, a former Interpol administrator named Chris Eaton, knew who Perumal was, and he had been chasing him for the last six months. When Eaton arrived in Rovaniemi, he informed investigators that they had arrested the world’s most prolific criminal fixer of international soccer matches. Wilson Raj Perumal, an elusive figure who had compromised games in at least 26 countries, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent gambling winnings for Asian and European syndicates, was finally in custody. And he had been turned in by one of his own.
THE MOST POPULAR GAME in the world is also the most corrupt game in the world, with investigations into match fixing ongoing in more than 25 countries. Here is a sampling of events since the beginning of last year: Operation Last Bet rocked the Italian Football Federation, with 22 clubs and 52 players awaiting trial for fixing matches; the Zimbabwe Football Association banned 80 players from its national-team selection due to similar accusations; Lu Jun, the first Chinese referee of a World Cup match, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for taking more than $128,000 in bribes to fix outcomes in the Chinese Super League; prosecutors charged 57 people with match fixing in the South Korean K-League, four of whom later died in suspected suicides; the team director of second-division Hungarian club REAC Budapest jumped off a building after six of his players were arrested for fixing games; and in an under-21 friendly, Turkmenistan reportedly beat Maldives 3-2 in a “ghost match” — neither country knew about the contest because it never actually happened, yet bookmakers still took action and fixers still profited.
The reason for this epidemic is simple—profit—the market for illegal betting having ballooned in the last decade to rival long-established criminal enterprises. In 2008, Interpol supervised 1,082 raids on a randomly selected group of illegal bookmakers in eight countries in Southeast Asia. These raids uncovered $1.457 billion in bets in just two months. Interpol claims that bettors place $500 billion with illegal bookmakers worldwide each year, matching the amount placed with legal betting houses. Together, this $1 trillion total equals two-thirds of the annual global expenditure on military hardware. By comparison, the soccer industry is estimated at an annual value of $25 billion. How did this happen?
There are several factors. The emergence of the Internet precipitated the growth of online betting sites, providing bettors with greater options than the local bookie or betting parlor, which gave unfavorable odds. Suddenly, you could choose from a new catalogue of betting sites, which were dropping odds and commissions in the fight to attract business. In Asia, China’s booming economy was creating a middle class, and this bourgeoisie displayed a great appetite for gambling, flooding the market with new money. Additionally, the European and Asian markets began to work in concert, online, following each other’s price movements in seconds, bookies on one continent laying off bets with bookies on the other as part of their risk management strategy. In short order, the Internet enforced global regulation, of a sort, on a largely illegal, unregulated, underground industry.
“The Asian and European betting markets have come together and created one giant pool,” says David Forrest, an economics professor at the University of Salford, in Manchester, England, who specializes in the study of sports gambling. “It’s now one huge liquid market. And liquidity is the friend of the fixer. You can put down big bets without notice, and without changing the odds against yourself.”
The Internet also altered the way that people bet. Twenty years ago, 15 percent of bets on the international sports market were placed on soccer. But as the Internet allowed betting houses to offer continuous propositions based on the various factors of game time remaining, score, and players on the field, the rise of in-game betting boosted the popularity of soccer as a gambling proposition. The game now accounts for 70 percent of the international sports betting market. The Internet also allowed for a rise in the trading of bets between bettors. International gambling on soccer matches came to resemble an in-game stock market, with constant fluctuations, numerous propositions, and instantaneous arbitrage. The new complexity and mass of the global betting market offered a lucrative business prospect to those who could scheme the system in their favor, a new opportunity for crime on a massive, transnational scale. The Chinese triad syndicates that were benefitting from China’s blossoming economy, and which were most closely linked to the rabid Asian betting market were eager to fund a global match-fixing operation.
Early attempts were blunt. On Nov. 3, 1997, in an English Premier League match against Crystal Palace, West Ham scored to tie the game at two in the 65th minute. Abruptly, the stadium lights went out. The same thing happened when Wimbledon played Arsenal a month later. In what is known as the Floodlights Affair, a Chinese-affiliated Malaysian gang had paid the technicians at the stadiums to cut off the power when the game had reached the desired score.
This scam ultimately proved too easy to investigate and prevent. And it wasn’t a traditional fix involving players and referees. The Chinese groups had to find another way. The new approach had to infiltrate the world of international soccer, manipulating it from the inside, corroding it without notice, forging a lasting, dependable network that would provide continuous monetary gains. For this, the triads needed a man with guile, someone who could slip from one country to the next with native comfort, someone who understood people, an easy talker who could ingratiate himself into any situation, flashing a brilliant smile that masked a dark reality. They needed a smooth operator.
RAJENDRAN KURUSAMY WOULD STRIDE into the raucous stadiums of the Singapore-Malaysia soccer leagues in the mid-1990s like he was the commissioner. In many ways, he was. Talking on his large, early-model cell phone, he stayed at a game long enough for the players on the field to see him, remembering the money they had taken from him, understanding that the fix was on. Kurusamy would leave the match as 50,000 fans celebrated a goal, unaware of the man who had set it up.
Wilson Raj Perumal had already embarked on a petty criminal career—forgery, assault—when he took a job as a runner for Kurusamy. Perumal would sit in Kurusamy’s office and watch mesmerized while the boss handed out stacks of hundred dollar bills without counting them, as players, refs, and club officials paraded to his office as though he was their paymaster. Kurusamy once claimed that he had personally cleared $17 million from match fixing—in five months. His operation proved too artless in the end, and police cracked down. By 1998, Kurusamy was in prison, where he spent two years in solitary confinement.
Perumal had already learned all that he would need to know from Kurusamy. The way to approach a player in false friendship. How to pay him far greater than the competition, ensuring his loyalty. How to threaten someone else in his presence, so that he would get the message without feeling as though he was in direct jeopardy. And how to follow through on a threat if a player resisted your demands. (In 2000, Perumal and an accomplice ambushed a Croatian defender, Ivica Raguz, on a Singapore street, attacking his left knee with a field hockey stick.) By the time Kurusamy landed in prison, the Internet had begun to change the betting market. But international bookmakers were not listing matches from the Singapore league. This meant that liquidity and profits were low. There had to be a new method to take advantage of the new opportunity. It was time for Perumal to take the act abroad, traveling on his Singaporean passport, the country’s reputation for conducting clean, corruption-free business making its travel document one of the most accepted in the world.
Perumal cut his teeth in Africa, in places such as Zimbabwe and Ghana in the late ’90s. And the strategy changed. No longer was the goal to corrupt individual games, but to corrupt national soccer federations. Perumal established several front companies, with names like Footy Media and Football 4 U, and he traveled the world, representing himself as a promoter who specialized in arranging exhibition matches, or friendlies, between national teams. He was always on the lookout for national federations that had fallen on hard times. They weren’t hard to find. He signed contracts with Bolivia, with South Africa, paying as much as $100,000 in return for the right to select the officials who would referee the international friendlies that Perumal would arrange. The struggling federations soon found themselves suddenly wealthier, and playing in Europe against high-profile clubs in the kinds of match-ups that would draw liquidity to the international betting market, if also a curious amount of red cards, penalty kicks, and offside calls.
“Most Football Associations are broke,” Perumal would write from Finnish prison after his arrest, striking up a correspondence with Zaihan Yusof, a Singaporean journalist. “When you go up to them and provide them with an opponent who is prepared to incur all expenses to play a friendly they welcome you with open arms. They don’t realize what is hidden beneath.”
Hidden beneath was the match-fixing syndicate in Singapore, which, according to FIFA, was run by four bosses whose legitimate businesses enabled them to fund the payouts and travel expenses that Perumal and his lieutenants required to enact the fix. Dan Tan owns an engineering business. Cheena Morgan owns a travel agency. Rajendran Prasad, owns a plastic bag supply company. And Peter Peh owns a spa business. These men often worked in concert with one another, using the hawala network, an international honor system that criminal syndicates use to move money around the world without detection. Behind these men, according to FIFA, were the Chinese triad groups, who utilized sweatshops across Southeast Asia. Rows of workers sat in front of computers placing $3,000 bets as fast as their fingers could press the keyboard keys, the wagers small enough and spread widely enough on enough credit cards to avoid detection by bookmakers both legal and otherwise.
As the syndicate’s dealings grew, so did connections with criminal organizations in Europe. Ironically, it was Singapore’s honest business reputation that attracted organized crime groups in Italy, Hungary, Croatia, and Bosnia. Plus, no one had exhibited such a sound business mind when it came to fixing soccer matches.
It was a perfect swindle, and it went forward unchecked for more than a decade, as Perumal’s network of players and refs grew, as profits compounded, as Perumal and his lieutenants became well-known in the soccer world. One of Perumal’s subordinates attended an international youth tournament in Kenya. At the opening of the competition, dignitaries entered the stadium in a solemn procession. Once they spotted Perumal’s representative in the stands, they rerouted the procession, climbing the many stairs to greet the man, who placed $100 bills in the hand of each supplicant dignitary. Soon, players, referees, and club officials from distant pockets of the world were doing likewise, calling Perumal and his lieutenants directly, their desire for side money was so acute. “Hey, we have a game next week,” they would say. “Let’s fix it.” There was more business than anyone could handle. The fix was on at every level, from players to refs to federation officials to the coaches who looked at friendlies as little more than a vigorous practice. National coaches would call them from the sidelines during the game, telling them, “we’re about to let in a goal for you.” The head of one national federation called one of Perumal’s lieutenants in London. “Oh, I’ve lost my wallet, and I’m here with my family,” the man said. “Could you lend me $5,000?”
Perumal once boasted that he was “in better control of the Syrian Football league than Assad was over his people.” Perumal styled himself as soccer’s Robin Hood, his payments to compromised players in Africa, Central America, and the Middle East providing enough money to buy homes, to send their kids to school, to get medical treatment for old and ailing parents. “The players I knew were living in atrocious conditions,” Perumal wrote. “Within 6 months their lives took a 360 turn.”
Perumal rented an apartment in London, within sight of Wembley Stadium, around which he would take his daily jog. He would attend English Premier League matches on the weekends, by all accounts as a simple fan. London was his place to decompress, far away from the outposts where he bribed and lied and hoped each time for the fix to come through, the vagueries of the players and the field, and the knowledge of the sums wagered by the syndicates back in Asia, often making it a nail-biting affair. “You have no time to sympathize with anyone,” Perumal wrote. “At the end of the day you want to go home happy and calculate your winnings.”
This Perumal could easily do, as no one was following him and his crew of runners and bag men. There was no legislation enacted to combat match fixing. Authorities were more interested in solving crimes they deemed more important. And it was difficult to identify just who these match fixers were. Dan Tan made frequent trips to Europe, often overseeing fixes personally, employing a multitude of aliases, the most appropriate among them being Ah Blur. When authorities finally managed to locate a photo of Dan Tan, appropriately, it was blurry. This half-hearted search for match fixers recalled the days before the FBI, before cooperation between neighboring police forces, when a criminal was home free the moment he crossed a state line. With no real police pursuit, the syndicate grew brazen, organizing “ghost matches,” games that never took place but were listed on international betting markets, a compromised spotter tricking the bookmaker with regular updates from a game that wasn’t happening. Underscoring the fact that no one was watching them, they created dubious names for officials of their front companies, names like Hedy Larsen and Blapp Johnsen, a stinging reference to FIFA president Sepp Bladder.
It wasn’t just the syndicate that grew brazen. The players too took strange risks to enforce the fix. In 2010, five players for the Italian club Cremonese became ill during a game. When one of the players crashed his car on his way home from the stadium, blood tests showed that he had been drugged with Minias, a sleeping medication. Investigation revealed that a dentist had prescribed Minias the day before for the wife of the Cremonese goalkeeper, Marco Paoloni.
Unpoliced, driven by easy profits, match fixing had grown wildly out of control. Allegations appeared with regularity. Superior clubs were laying down for inferior clubs who were trying to avoid relegation. International qualifiers were resulting in outrageous scores: 11-1, 7-0. It was as if the Kansas City Royals had beaten the New York Yankees in the bottom of the ninth inning, scoring 10 runs on 13 hit batsmen. It was obvious, and it was everywhere, and everyone looked to the one organization that appeared to have the authority to stop it: FIFA. Beset with its own internal problems of corruption, FIFA officials recognized the need to hire someone from outside the organization to address this festering dilemma. FIFA needed a man who was beyond reproach, a man of integrity who could centralize the fight against match fixing and recover the honor of the game.
ON MARCH 28 OF THIS YEAR, in Manchester, England, Chris Eaton stepped onto a stage at SoccerEx, the soccer industry’s largest annual trade show. In the red plush seats of the Manchester Central auditorium sat some of the most influential figures in the sport, those with a financial stake in the course and economy of the game. Eaton joined a panel of four people. The title of the discussion: “Betting in Football.”
While those on the panel—a player advocate, a bookmaker, and a silver-tongued Fleet Street barrister—prevaricated about the very existence of match fixing, Eaton, when it was his turn to speak, cut emphatically to the point. “You can’t overstate the magnitude of the issue,” he said with an Australian drawl. “This is criminal behavior. We’re talking massive money.” When the panel concluded an hour later, Eaton repeatedly underscoring the financial scope and global nature of the problem, the others walked off the dias amid derogatory impressions of the lawman who remained onstage surrounded by reporters.
A cop for more than 40 years, Eaton has seen plenty enough to make him a good quote. He joined the Melbourne police at 17, at a time when police routinely bent the law in order to achieve what was called, “the noble end.” Maturing into a by-the-book stickler, Eaton today displays a keen dislike for the films Mississippi Burning and L.A. Confidential, for in these movies, the crooked cop wins. Eaton also came to admire J. Edgar Hoover, for his apolitical application of justice to the wealthy and influential.
A man of 60, Eaton has the energy of a 30-year old, with a rough-edged Aussie rambunctiousness that prompts you to remind yourself while in his presence that this man is actually a cop. He is an enthusiastic reader, supplying himself with ammunition for the many debates that his by-the-book nature necessitates that he court. He regularly surprises those around him with his range of knowledge and his ability to draw on figures that illuminate a point that he would like to make. His monthly itinerary is a checkerboard of takeoffs and landings from one continent to another. He has six children, the newest less than a year old. When he orders a pint in a pub, he smiles and says, “a steak in every glass,” before downing it and calling for the next. Leave a message with Eaton at any time of the day or night, and chances are good that he will return it within an hour. When he sleeps, it’s unclear.
After several decades with the Australian federal police, Eaton assumed the post of Manager of Operations at Interpol. He worked at Interpol for 12 years, briefly handling investigations into the Iraqi Oil for Food program, under Paul Voelker at the UN in New York, bolstering his reputation as a tireless enforcer of international law.
In 2010, FIFA officials grew increasingly apprehensive as the World Cup approached in South Africa, frightened that one of two catastrophes would befall them—a major terrorist act, or the fixing of the championship game—and who knew which would be worse. FIFA hired Eaton for the event, and when it went off without a hitch, the organization created a new security division, where Eaton would address the issue of match fixing.
“FIFA needed someone like Chris, who has credibility worldwide for speaking the truth as he saw it and wasn’t afraid to confront it,” says Ronald Noble, Secretary General of Interpol. “He is a tenacious law enforcement investigator who recognized a crime of global proportion that didn’t have the global attention that it required.”
Eaton is the man carved perfectly to combat match-fixing: dogged, anti-political, rule-bound, perceptive of people. With a moustache that runs long and wide and out of date, Eaton resembles Wyatt Earp, the one man able to establish justice on the range. “I quite would have liked that,” Eaton says. “There are a lot of people that need shooting on the edge of the corral.”
Eaton dove headlong into the fight against match fixing, learning quickly how daunting his challenge was. “There is a $2 billion weekly turnover for Asian bookmakers,” he says. “It’s as big as Coca Cola. And it does not produce anything. It’s just paper.” He assembled a team of investigators, cops like himself, choosing his subordinates for their “high energy and high criminal hatred,” their affability, their ability to cultivate human sources, while giving them free reign to operate in a “decentralized, bloody active way,” stationing them around the globe.
The new FIFA security team discovered that in these many parts of the world, all one need do to play an international friendly was show up at a stadium and pay a day’s rent. There were no papers to sign, no sanctioning procedures to endure, nothing at all that made an official FIFA friendly official. There was no one asleep at the switch, for there was no switch. “FIFA sanctions all matches,” says one operative. “But many matches go off without sanctioning.” This reality led down many a darkened path.
One operative visited the office of a match promoter behind an international friendly. The office was empty, the words, “Import/Export,” written on the door. When the operative called the number listed on the door, a woman answered, her voice barely audible over the crying children in the background.
Another operative investigated an upcoming friendly between Turkey and the Maldives, a match listed with SBO, one of Asia’s largest legal bookmakers. The game was set to take place at the MSN Stadium in Bukit Jalil, Malaysia. Suddenly, it was switched to the Petronas Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. When the agent contacted the soccer federations of Turkey and the Maldives, he discovered that neither organization knew anything about the match.
The only thing that the investigators could rely on was the match fixers themselves. They began cultivating sources within the syndicates, building an easy-going rapport, an approach close to a match fixer’s heart. Later, they inched closer, sitting back and listening to the match fixers’ stories of global adventure, playing to their egos. In this way, they began to learn the identities of the main operators, began to track their movements and their emails and their phone calls, getting a grasp for how the business worked and how they might prevent it. Still, the identities and physical appearances of the main bosses eluded investigators, who operated from grainy, distorted passport photos of questionable vintage. “We know what they do and who they work with,” says one operative. “We just don’t know who they are.”
The state of affairs rattled Chris Eaton into a simple realization, that the problem was “beyond policing,” that he needed to take an aggressive “counter-terrorism approach,” that the process of prosecution and conviction would have no effect on a transnational criminal conspiracy that operated in African villages and the darkened understructure of European stadiums like any neighborhood gang. “They attract, compromise, intimidate,” Eaton says. “There’s always a broken kneecap somewhere along the line. This is schoolyard bully stuff on an international scale. And it’s time for us to stand up and knock these bastards down.”
This tough talk made unsettling vibrations along the politicized corridors of FIFA’s Zurich headquarters. FIFA is not an organization known to ferret out perpetrators, considering its own upper-echelon scandals, four members of its ruling executive committee having recently been banished over allegations of bribery. Such tarnish often prevented sources from coming forward in the field. “We hear people tell us all the time, ‘I’m not talking to you,’” says one of Eaton’s operatives. “’You’re from FIFA. You’re the most corrupt organization in the world.’” From Sepp Blatter, from the top on down, had come the term “our football family,” memorized and repeated like the Lord’s Prayer by the top brass or just those who wanted some slice of the pie. Registered as a charity in Switzerland, FIFA pays no taxes, and it earns $4 billion for each World Cup.
While Eaton’s security team further penetrated the world of the match fixers, they discovered the contractual ties that the Singapore syndicate’s bogus front companies had forged with national federation officials around the world. On several occasions, the word came from Zurich to stand down, for certain waves weren’t worth making. “They don’t really know what we’re doing out here,” says one of Eaton’s operatives. “They’re worried that it might lead back to them.”
“Every member association is responsible for organizing and supervising football in its country,” says FIFA spokesman Wolfgang Resch. “Since FIFA has jurisdiction only over persons affiliated with FIFA, it will never be possible to control parties outside the current system.”
It became clear soon into Eaton’s tenure that the marriage was an imperfect one. In the fall of 2010, FIFA extended a letter of intent to hire Frederick Lord, the director of Interpol’s Anti-Corruption Office and an Aussie colleague of Eaton’s. FIFA then rescinded the offer to Lord, who had already resigned his post at Interpol. Some sources said that FIFA was worried that Lord would conduct internal investigations. When Eaton introduced two FIFA initiatives aimed at curbing match fixing—a whistleblower’s hotline and amnesty for anyone who came forward and confessed to match fixing—they were shelved almost as quickly as they were announced, shuffled along to committee, where they now languish. In November last year, FIFA partnered with Sylvia Schenk, Transparency International’s top sports official, to investigate allegations of corruption stemming from the awarding of World Cups to Russia and Qatar. A month later, Schenk had cut ties with FIFA, citing the organization’s lack of commitment to the issue.
Eaton found his access to FIFA resources and cooperation limited. His frustration mounted, and his statements grew bolder. As FIFA and Interpol were set to announce the creation of an Anti-Corruption Training Wing in Singapore, located across from the U.S. embassy, Eaton called Singapore “a match-fixing academy,” causing FIFA officials to roll their eyes over the actions of the politically unskilled Aussie. “Chris said some things that most CEOs would have fired him for,” Noble says. “The problem with Chris’s approach is that he wants to investigate these cases like a law enforcement officer, but without the powers. Chris’s approach is holistic. He wants a FIFA witness protection program. He wants a FIFA jump team. But these things just aren’t possible.”
Effective May 1, Chris Eaton left his post at FIFA. On July 1, he will be joining the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), a Doha-based consulting company funded by the Qatari royal family. At ICSS, as the Director of Sport Integrity, Eaton will continue the work he has begun with FIFA, expanding it to cover all sports.
At the bar in Manchester’s Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Eaton looks relieved to be moving on. “FIFA is on a steep learning curve about the true realities of the infiltration of organized crime in sporting organizations for the purpose of betting fraud,” he says. “I’m happy to be have been able to assist them in getting up to speed.”
Eaton leans over the bar and orders another pint. Scattered about the room are various influential pockets of the soccer world, the silver-tongued and the political, chatting quietly over drinks. Periodically, these people mumble among themselves, then turn in Eaton’s direction, this Australian cowboy in their midst, then turn back toward one another with wry smiles. Eaton doesn’t see or doesn’t care, and he latches onto his new beer, assuming a stance of comfort and ease.
“This is the average person’s game worldwide, so it must be a model,” Eaton says. “The issue is governance. Is this a business with a little governance? Or is it governance with a little bit of business? I prefer the latter.” He takes a healthy sip.
WILSON PERUMAL HAD A DAY to kill in Costa Rica, before a flight to Rio de Janeiro. He holed up in his hotel room and started betting. He had been attracted to the world of Raj Kurusamy in the ’90s, and as his match-fixing enterprise enriched him, clearing millions of dollars per month, Perumal developed an insidious gambling habit. It wasn’t enough for Perumal to bet on games that he fixed. For in this, there was no gamble. Like shooting craps against yourself with loaded dice. The man who specialized in guarantees found no thrill in the fix. He laid bets on the Chicago Bulls, on Manchester United, on clubs and games he knew were not fixed. But the same instinct that served him well in fixing a match—reading players, feeling the nuance of a match—benefitted him when he wagered his money on the unknown outcomes of random games. “He has a knack,” says one associate, “an eye.” Over 12 hours of in-game betting in that Costa Rican hotel room, Perumal won $1 million.
He stayed too long, the thrill of the gamble holding him tightly, and when he arrived at the airport, Perumal learned that he had missed his flight to Rio. He returned to the hotel, and started gambling all over again. Over the ensuing 12 hours, he gave that $1 million right back. He blamed it on the hotel staff, who had booked someone else into his old, lucky room. Privately, though, Perumal must have understood that what was happening in his life was beyond any kind of bad luck.
Perumal had been gambling so actively and losing so heavily—dropping $10 million in one three-month span—that he began engaging in a dangerous game. The only way that he could recover that kind of money that quickly was to short the syndicate itself. Through the Hawala system, Dan Tan and the other heads of the Singapore syndicate would send Perumal the $500,000 needed to fix a match. Perumal wouldn’t fix the match, instead keeping the money for himself and hoping that the right team would win organically by the proper score. He would also run a fix with two clients, taking money from both of them, running one fix but not the other. This was a short-term strategy, for he was liable for the expenses incurred on a failed fix. Before long, Perumal was in deep, $1 million in debt to one boss, $500,000 to another, $1.5 million to someone else. He became desperate. And he became sloppy, arranging for a fake Togo national team to play against Bahrain on Sept. 7, 2010. It was so obvious—Bahrain’s head coach, Josef Hickersberger, said that the Togo team was “not fit enough to play 90 minutes”—that the ensuing media coverage brought unnecessary attention on the syndicate.
It wasn’t long before the Singapore bosses called meetings with Dany Jay Prakesh and Anthony Raj Santia, Perumal’s principle lieutenants. The bosses said that they didn’t trust Perumal. He wasn’t a sure bet anymore. His ego was out of control. He had even created a Facebook page. It was all getting too unreliable. The bosses wanted to continue the scam with people they could trust. In a business based on betting, Perumal’s gambling had impinged his credibility.
Wilson Perumal had been riding high, crisscrossing the globe, playing by his own rules, on the fringe of the criminal world, playing one syndicate boss against another, slipping with impunity in and out of locker rooms, palling around with dignitaries and well-known athletes, all of whom wanted to be his friend. But when he turned on a hotel TV on Oct. 8, 2010, he knew that it was all over. Bolivia was playing Venezuela in an international friendly. Refereeing the game was a man named Ibrahim Chaibou, an official from Niger whom Perumal had cultivated into the world’s most dependable, most corrupt FIFA referee. Chaibou had officiated the fake Togo match. He had awarded three controversial handball penalty kicks in South Africa’s 5-0 win over Guatemala in May 2010. He had called back dozens of goals on phantom offside calls, had extended injury time long enough to pad the score, had issued red cards at critical moments in games, and when Anthony Raj Santia contacted him about reffing the match at Venezuela’s Estadio Polideportivo de Pueblo Nuevo—San Cristóbal, he went right along with the plan.
Santia and Prakesh had gone around Perumal, tapping into the network that he had spent a decade establishing, connecting it with the Singapore syndicate directly. While Dan Tan and the bosses recruited Wilson’s underlings away from him, these former subordinates in turn bad-mouthed Wilson to the bosses, looking after their own advantages. Angry, bitter, Perumal likened corrupt players and officials to “whores who will walk with the higgest [sic] bidder.”
By this time, Perumal had traveled to Finland, where he had been overseeing a deal on behalf of Dan Tan. Perumal had been running fixes with the Rovaniemi club since 2003. He had stacked the team with players he had spent years compromising in Africa—Tanzanians, Kenyans, Zambians—the easy money turning them enthusiastic about playing on the Arctic Circle. The Rovaniemi club had generated so much positive cash flow over the years that Dan Tan decided to buy it, thereby further guaranteeing continued income.
Angry over how Dan Tan had left him out in the cold, and in need of money to support his gambling, Perumal sabotaged the purchase. Negotiating with a Hungarian front group, the Finnish owners of the club agreed to sell it for $500,000. When Perumal received this cash amount, he handed over only $200,000, keeping the rest for himself. The Fins called the Hungarians. The Hungarians called Singapore. When everyone got together in an office in Rovaniemi, it was clear who was the cause of the misunderstanding.
While Perumal’s reputation was rapidly deteriorating, Anthony Raj Santia was staging the biggest fix of his career, two friendlies in the seaside resort town of Antalya, Turkey. Latvia vs. Bolivia, and Estonia vs. Bulgaria. What he didn’t know was that the games were under suspicion before they began. Janis Mezeckis, the general secretary of the Latvian Football Federation, was concerned about the way that Santia had assigned the referees. Santia’s inexperience tipping his hand, Mezeckis contacted FIFA. Chris Eaton in turn alerted Sportradar, a gambling watchdog and consulting group based in London.
Sportradar uses proprietary algorithms to compare odds of a given bet offered by the world’s top 300 gambling sites with the odds that they should be in actuality. Once a particular proposition attracts too much betting action, surpassing a pre-established threshold, the Sportradar system issues an alert. As the Sportradar staff watched, the betting for each game in Antalya behaved identically. The original over-under of 2.5 goals generated massive betting on international bookmaker sites. Once the first goal of each game was scored, the over-under increased to 3.5, and the betting action ceased. With scoreless time passing in each game, the line dropped to 2.5 again, and the betting instantly became rabid once more. “There was severe support for more than three goals in both games,” says Darren Small, C.O.O. of Sportradar. “The support in the marketplace for those games was nowhere near logical, with about five million Euros bet per match on the over/under.” The results, like many in a fixed match, were artless. Each game achieved at least three goals in aggregate. Together, the games generated seven goals. Each goal was scored on a penalty kick. After a player missed one penalty kick, the referee ordered that it be retaken.
Following the Antalya matches, FIFA put the screws to Santia, and for the Singapore syndicate, it became clear that FIFA had foreknowledge of the fix. Dan Tan and the bosses, already dealing with the fumbled purchase of the Rovaniemi club, came around to the idea that Perumal had tipped off FIFA in order to sabotage his former subordinate’s project. That is when Dan Tan made what for him was a fateful decision. Going against the criminal “ethic,” Dan Tan authorized Santia to hand Perumal over to the police. Santia engaged Jonathan Tan Xin, a low-level runner for the syndicate, who traveled to Rovaniemi, walked into the police station, and ended Wilson Perumal’s match-fixing career. At least for now.
On March 26, 2011, Chris Eaton and one of his investigators traveled to Sharjah, UAE, to attend a match between Kuwait and Jordan. They had watched the Antalya friendlies closely, and they felt comfortable with the many elements of how the fix was conducted in-game. The Sharjah match had all the signs of the fix: African refs, no sponsorship or TV deals, the venue switched at the last minute. At halftime of the game, the FIFA investigators walked down to the locker rooms of the players and the referees, confronting them directly. They told them that they knew what was going on, and that the second half better be played cleanly. The syndicate’s desired result was not achieved. Through confidential sources, FIFA learned that the Singapore bosses and their Chinese backers lost $10 million on the game. This marked FIFA’s first victory going head-to-head against the Singapore bosses. Sources also told FIFA that members of the syndicate were suddenly unsure of one another. “We put them against each other,” Eaton says. “We made them suspicious of each other.”
With the evidence mounting in Finnish court, and with his anger building over the syndicate’s treatment of him, Perumal agreed to cooperate with authorities. He provided information that prompted an Italian court to issue an indictment on Dan Tan in December 2011. Perumal served one year in Finnish prison, after which Helsinki authorities responded to a Hungarian warrant. Perumal is now in protective custody in a safe house in Budapest, where, sources say, he is delineating the syndicate’s operation and its connections to European criminal groups, all this in exchange for leniency in future sentencing.
“I would have admired if the enemy had brought the sword to my heart instead of my back,” Perumal wrote. “What should have been settled on a table between us has now turned into a circus. I hold the key to the Pandoras Box. And I will not hesitate to unlock it.”
ALL IS QUIET IN SINGAPORE. Dan Tan’s attractive young wife answers the door of their condo, a frightened look on her face, saying that he is not at home. The devotees walk 108 times around the Hindu temple where Rajendran Prasad worships, but they say they do not recognize him from a faint passport photo. At the outdoor Mon Ami Café, in the heat of Little India, where investigators say Cheena Morgan pays out winnings on Monday evenings, all you can find is what’s on the menu. There is a faint rustling in the apartment of Anthony Raj Santia, but the door stays closed. Chris Eaton and his FIFA security team have frightened the Singapore syndicate into apparent inactivity.
But what are appearances for a group that specializes in fooling stadiums full of thousands of fans into believing that what they are watching is real? Out of the pedestrian horde of a Singapore shopping district appears a man like any other. “I think we have an eye for each other,” he says.
He is a member of the syndicate, one of the biggest match fixers in the world, and he takes a seat in a café, calmly ordering an espresso. He is friendly and engaging, an easy talker, like every match fixer must be. He talks about walking through a cane field, ushered by men with rifles, certain he would never see Singapore again. He brags about the number of goals he has arranged in a single match. He talks about fixing the CONCACAF Gold Cup next year. It’s not hard, he says, since they have 20 of FIFA’s 30 total referees in their pocket.
He talks so freely on the topic that it is hard to determine if he is bragging, or if this business is really that easily done. He talks about the World Cup final, relates discussions he has had about fixing the biggest game in the world. “You pay the ref $15 million, ok,” he says. “You pay $10 million per player. So it’s $1 billion for the game. There is $15 billion bet on the World Cup final. Sure, I think it can be done. If the opportunity is there, why not?”
It is naïve to think that the manipulation of outcomes does not occur in football, baseball, basketball. But there is a fundamental difference. Pete Rose continues in his exile, while FIFA barely displays the gumption to investigate its own referees. There is an air of European permissiveness about the soccer world’s attitude toward match fixing. Or maybe it is that through experience, FIFA officials simply understand that the world is ungovernable, and that the most you can achieve is personal well-being.
The match fixer sips his espresso, and he speaks about the well-being of his former associate, Wilson Raj Perumal. “Protective custody,” he sneers. “Fifteen minutes alone, he walks to the bathroom, he’s dead. They’ll put a sniper on him, take him out. It’s easy. They offered to pay me $300,000 to go to Hungary just to help them identify him. They want me to sit on a roof with the sniper. The Russians made $350 million last year on this. Wilson is messing with people’s business.”
The fixer finishes his coffee. He lays the cup delicately on the saucer, betraying no emotion. It is business he has come here to discuss, not the passion of an international soccer game. “There is no business that gives this kind of return in 90 minutes,” he says, grinning. “It’s a guarantee.” He walks out of the café, and in one athletic stride, then another, he blends into Singapore’s affluent foot traffic, gone again.
Surprised By The Match-Fixing Scandal? You Shouldn’t Be
The Europol investigation found that nearly 700 football matches were fixed, rocking the sport to its core.
IN THE HAGUE ON MONDAY, when the director of Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, announced the preliminary findings of an investigation into the rigging of soccer matches, many observers were shocked. Nearly 700 fixed games. Several on UK soil. A transnational criminal conspiracy with an Asian syndicate pulling the strings.
How could such a thing be happening? I knew how easily it was done.
In April of last year, I traveled to Singapore to report for ESPN The Magazine on this very issue. The most accomplished match-fixers in the world are from Singapore. It was there that I learned how simple it is to fix a game, how boldly and imaginatively these fixers operate on every continent, and how wildly a fixer and his backers can profit in the massive business of Internet sports betting. Over coffee in a cafe in one of Singapore’s shopping districts, a prolific fixer explained to me that he had already arranged to rig the entirety of this July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup in the U.S. He wouldn’t touch the championship game, he said, because that wouldn’t be right. It may sound inflammatory to the uninformed, but I returned from Singapore convinced that even the World Cup championship match was fair game.
Now many in the general public are learning for the first time the scope of match-fixing. Credit goes to the world’s most effective fixer. Europol’s recent announcement is linked to the arrest of Wilson Perumal, the biggest name in the game. Two years ago, Finnish police apprehended Perumal on a tip engineered by his boss in Singapore. The relationship between the two men had ruptured, typically, over money and mistrust. Stewing in jail and facing a lengthy term, Perumal felt betrayed. Embittered, he wrote a letter to a reporter. “I hold the key to the Pandora’s Box,” he wrote. “And I will not hesitate to unlock it.”
Hesitancy is not a quality that much profits the match-fixer. The Perumal case highlights what officials have thought all along: The permissiveness of international soccer officials created a setting in which it is acceptable to bend the outcome of a match. Fixing was happening everywhere, all the time, and nobody in a position of authority in the soccer hierarchy was terribly interested in taking responsibility for its ouster from the game.
This attitude has allowed fixing to evolve. One source I spoke with Thursday noted that fixers are now focusing on club friendlies. These are routine games played between teams from leagues in different countries. A Scandinavian club, for example, signs to play a match in a sunny climate during the winter, when snow covers the ground in its own country and the players are in need of a workout. Unbeknownst to the Scandinavian club, its opponent, a team from an Eastern European domestic league, has a motive other than exercise. The two teams meet on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, and the fix ensues.
Although club officials have denied involvement, some people who are combating match-fixing have pointed to Skenderbeu, a team in Albania’s top division, as a prime offender in this regard. According to a source I contacted this week, between 90 and 95 percent of the betting on some of Skenderbeu’s matches have been on the money, a sure sign of the fix.
Match-fixers continue to exploit new opportunities, despite increased publicity and law enforcement’s proactive response to it. Can this problem ever be solved?
I called Chris Eaton. At the time of my reporting last year, Eaton, a longtime Interpol cop, was the head of FIFA security. By my own estimation, Eaton was shackled by FIFA’s bureaucracy, hamstrung by the organization’s reluctance to address the problem of match fixing effectively. Famous for its own internal corruption and stultifying corpulence, FIFA has preferred to Band-Aid the disease of match-fixing rather than cut out the tumor. Eaton has since moved on. He is now the head of integrity for the International Center for Sports Security, an organization based in Doha, Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup. Eaton knows more about match-fixing than anyone besides the fixers themselves. It is therefore enlightening that he is now focusing his efforts where he believes they will injure fixers the most: Manila.
Eaton claims that the three largest gray sports books in the world are located in the Philippines: SBOBET, IBCBET and 188BET. He says they are gray because they are legal, yet they have little to no regulatory oversight. Eaton says their status as legal books enables them to generate the large handles that fixers need to cloak their bets, and that their lack of supervision allows criminals to infiltrate their ranks in order to manipulate and defraud. I asked Eaton why all this was so important.
“This is the source of the criminal profits that are then reinvested back into match-fixing,” he said. “It’s a circle of activity. Betting fraud is the father of match-fixing. Without betting fraud, there’s no child of match-fixing.”
Eaton and his subordinates are currently engaged in a 12-month investigation in Manila, intelligence mapping the structure and the method of operation of the criminal groups active in Filipino sports books. “These are operating very much like international commodities houses and currency exchanges,” he says. “They are young, highly educated, highly qualified people who act as traders, who sell and buy bets in enormous quantities. It’s very much Wall Street. Except it’s betting Wall Street in Manila.”
Eaton maintains that if match-fixers and their sponsors no longer have easy access to these sports books, the funds needed to bribe players, coaches, referees, and club officials will vanish, returning integrity to the game of soccer.
“We need to see sport regulations and sport controls that make the public confident that sport is clean,” he says. “But betting has to be clean too. We have to apply business principles to the gambling houses, the same business principles we’re demanding of sport. Because if you don’t cure both sides of this problem — the betting fraud and the match-fixing — then the problem will persist.”