Soccer faces epic fight against match-fixing

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The growing threat has prompted the European Union’s 27 nations to unite against match-fixing.

“The scale is such that no country can deal with the problem on its own,” said EU Sport Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.

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Gambling on sports generates hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and up to 90 percent of that is bet on soccer, Interpol chief Ronald Noble told the AP in an interview. Eaton, the former FIFA expert, has cited an estimated $500 billion a year.

The total amount of money generated by sports betting would equal the gross domestic product of Switzerland, ranked 19th in the world.

Match-fixing _ where the outcome of a game is determined in advance _ is used by gambling rings to make money off bets they know they will win. Matches also are rigged to propel a team into a higher-ranking division where it can earn more revenue.

FIFA has estimated that organized crime takes in as much as $15 billion a year by fixing matches. In Italy alone, a recent rigging scandal is estimated to have produced $2.6 billion for the Camorra and the Mafia crime syndicates, Eaton said.

Soccer officials are well aware that repeated match-fixing will undermine the integrity of their sport, driving away sponsors and reducing the billion-dollar value of lucrative TV contracts.

FIFA earned $2.4 billion in broadcast sales linked to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and already has agreed to $2.3 billion in deals tied to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The U.K.’s Premier League earned $2.8 billion in broadcast rights for Britain alone in its last multiyear contract. Membership in Europe’s Champions League is worth nearly $60 million a year to each team, according to a lawsuit filed by the Turkish club Fenerbahce.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter has proclaimed “zero tolerance” for match-fixing, and FIFA has pledged $27 million to Interpol to fight it. Computer experts working for FIFA and UEFA _ the European soccer body _ monitor more than 31,000 European games and thousands of international matches every year, trying to sniff out the betting spikes that can reveal corruption.

So far, however, sports authorities are “proving to be particularly helpless in the face of the transnational resources” available to organized crime, according to a 2012 study on match-fixing. The report warned that the risk of soccer “falling into decay in the face of repeated scandals is genuine and must not be underestimated.”

Some top soccer officials shy away from the dire warnings of academics and law enforcement officials. UEFA chief Gianni Infantino said in a statement that, on average, 203 games _ 0.7 percent of the matches that UEFA monitors a year _ show some signs of irregularities, “which does not mean they are fixed.”

“It is a small problem, but it’s like a cancer,” Infantino said. “We don’t say 0.7 is nothing. We say 0.7 is 0.7 too much. We can say generally that UEFA competitions are very healthy in this respect.”

Match-fixing has been around for decades, of course, and is not limited to soccer. It has also infected sports like cricket, tennis, horse racing and even volleyball. The U.S. has its own sordid history of gambling scandals, from baseball’s Black Sox in the 1919 World Series to a handful of point-shaving schemes in college basketball over the years, to an NBA referee taking money from a professional gambler for inside tips on basketball games, including some that he officiated in 2007.

Still, nothing approaches the scale of the match-fixing allegations now hitting soccer, because of the sheer number of games played and the enormous Asian betting interest in European games, according to David Forrest, an economist at the U.K.’s University of Salford Business School, one of the co-authors of the 2012 report.

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