- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2011

BOCHUM, GERMANY (AP) - A Croat and two co-defendants have been convicted of fraud by a German court for their part in what has been described as Europe’s biggest match-fixing scandal.

Ante Sapina was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison on Thursday. He confessed to fixing more than 20 matches, including a World Cup qualifying game and several matches in the top European club competitions.

His co-defendant Marijo Cvrtak also was convicted and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in jail. A third man, Dragan Mihelic from Slovenia, was given a suspended sentence of 18 months.

According to normal German judicial practice, none of the men have been officially identified, but their names have been published in the media.

Sapina and Cvrtak manipulated more than 20 games, including the 2010 World Cup qualifier between Liechtenstein and Finland in September 2009, when the referee was bribed.

Sapina testified that he traveled to Sarajevo to meet with a Bosnian referee and arrange for the otherwise meaningless World Cup qualifying match to be fixed.

In exchange for $52,000, referee Novo Panic agreed to make sure two goals would be scored in the second half. The match ended in a 1-1 draw with both goals coming in the second half. According to Sapina, one of the goals was the result of a clearly incorrect penalty decision.

Panic and another referee contacted by Sapina have been suspended for life by UEFA, the governing body of European soccer.

Other manipulated games include a Champions League qualifier between Debrecen of Hungary and Fiorentina of Italy and several Europa League matches, as well as games in domestic leagues in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Turkey, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Canada.

Sapina was convicted on 22 counts of fraud and attempted fraud, while Cvrtak was found guilty on 26 counts of fraud and attempted fraud.

Sapina was found guilty of fraud in a similar match-fixing case involving German referee Robert Hoyzer in 2009 and sentenced to 35 months in prison.

Three other man also have been convicted by the Bochum court and were sentenced in April to prison terms of three years or more.

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