“An extensive criminal network involved in widespread football match fixing…”

With a stern face and fixed gaze, Rob Wainwright addressed the gathered media in The Hague with conviction.

“We have uncovered an extensive criminal network involved in widespread football match fixing.”

Wainwright, director of Europol, paused, allowed the words to sink in, looked up at the gathered media, looked back down at his sheet of paper again, then continued.

“A total of 425 match officials, club officials, players and serious criminals from more than 15 countries are suspected of being involved in attempts to fix more than 380 professional football matches.

The activities form part of a sophisticated organised crime operation which generated over €8million Euros in betting profits and involved the payment of at least €2million in corrupt payments to those involved in the matches.”

And with that, the lid on football’s match fixing disease, barely able to contain all the rumours and whispers of the last few years, was blown wide open.

Wainwright went on to reveal the global scale of this issue, saying it was,

“the work of a suspected organised crime syndicate based in Asia and operated with criminal networks around Europe.”

“It is clear to us this is the biggest-ever investigation into suspected match-fixing in Europe. It has yielded major results which we think have uncovered a big problem for the integrity of football in Europe.”

Such is football’s global popularity and reach, Europol’s findings are big news, making headlines around the world.

The matches in question were played between 2008 and 2011 according to investigators, with suspicious games identified to have been played in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. The scale of football’s match fixing problem, it seems, is global.

Match fixing: FIFA’s response

FIFA responded quickly to Europol’s revelations, but spoke of how they need help from governmnents and national authorities if they are to seriously tackle the problem.

Ralf Mutschke, FIFA’s Director of Security, said:

“The news from Europol follows a long investigation. I have been very clear in saying that match-fixing and match manipulation is a global problem, and one that is not going to go away tomorrow. FIFA and the football community are committed to tackling this problem, but we will not succeed alone.

“The cooperation between law enforcement and sporting organisations needs to be strengthened. The support of law enforcement bodies, legal investigations, and ultimately tougher sanctions are required, as currently there is low risk and high gain potential for the fixers.”

FIFA’s main issue seems to be the lack of a real deterrent for would-be match fixers, with a lucrative upside that is perceived as far outweighing any potential downside.

“For people outside of football, currently the custodial sentences imposed are too weak, and offer little to deter someone from getting involved in match-fixing.

“FIFA requests that law enforcement bodies continue their engagement, and continue to assist FIFA in the global fight against match-manipulation and organised criminals, even if the investigations are considered complex.”

As Europol took centre stage based on Wainwright’s announcement, not all were won over. Guardian journalist David Conn wrote:

“It could be suspected that Europol was trying to make a name for itself, via the incomparably newsworthy medium of football, by announcing sensational match-fixing allegations, many of which remain vague and unspecified.”

That said, while the allegations may not have been specified in pinpoint detail down to the brass tacks, one would hope a European Union law enforcement agency with almost 800 staff and a mission statement to “fight against serious international crime and terrorism” would have better things to do than ‘make a name for itself’ as Conn puts it.

Depressing reading

What is clear for all to see is that Europol’s findings make for depressing reading.

While it is naive to suggest that a game played by millions of people around the world, with huge investment and bilions of pounds swirling around it in various forms from wages to TV contracts to advertising revenues, would not be open to corruption in some way, it is still sad to read of such widespread allegations.

Football is the world’s most popular sport because we believe, rightly or wrongly, that the sport is pure. Somehow, often against all evidence, football can at times feel like a more honest version of life itself – a fair game of values, equality and Corinthian spirit.

This is why we watch. This is why we love it.

While the games affected may not be of a high enough profile to really shock and disgust the world in the way, say, Lance Armstrong’s performance enhancing drug scandal did, although rumours continue to pour in, the very future of the sport relies on the simple yet fundamental principal that football is not fixed, at any level, anywhere in the world.

Regardless of whether Europol are trying to ‘make a name for themselves’ or not, a serious fight against match fixing must begin here.

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