ROVANIEMI, Finland – A man arrived at the police station here in 2011 with an unusual tip. He told the police that a Singaporean man was fixing matches with the local professional soccer team. The police were incredulous.
This city on the Arctic Circle is known as the hometown of Santa Claus. It boasts a theme park with reindeer, elves and jolly St. Nicks. It is also a popular destination for Asian couples looking to make love under the Northern Lights. Rovaniemi is known for many things, but not for organized crime.
“Then after a few days, we started to realize that we had something real,” said Arttu Granat, a police detective at the time. “So we started to build up the surveillance team.”
The detectives soon discovered that Wilson Raj Perumal, a match fixer from Singapore, was toiling away in Rovaniemi, working with several players, unbeknown to the coach. Perumal was considered a risk by his associates in a Singaporean match-rigging syndicate, so the group had sent a representative to Finland to tip off the police, Granat said.
Perumal was arrested and given a choice: Talk or be sent back to Singapore.
Perumal talked. His account – along with confidential documents, judicial investigations and interviews with people with knowledge of the syndicate’s operations – revealed how pervasively illicit gambling operations have infected global soccer, leaving the legitimacy of what fans see on the field more fragile than ever.
No match-fixing syndicate has exploited soccer’s vulnerabilities more than the group Perumal worked for. The syndicate has manipulated hundreds of professional soccer matches around the world by identifying players and referees ripe for bribery.
The syndicate’s schemes often succeeded with apparent ease, including the rigging of exhibition games in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, raising concerns about the ability of officials to thwart match fixing.
The apprentice fixers
Perumal learned his trade in an informal school for match fixers in Singapore, along with Tan Seet Eng, a Singaporean man known widely as Dan Tan. In the early 1990s, they would gather in the stadiums where illegal bookmakers would take bets on the Malaysian-Singaporean soccer league.
The fixers were so successful that a Malaysian Cabinet minister estimated that they succeeded in fixing more than 70 percent of the league’s matches. The corruption was so bad that the Malaysian-Singaporean league collapsed.
At the bottom of the fixers’ hierarchy were runners: the go-betweens for the players and the fixers. Above the fixers were influential businessmen with the money to back the more expensive fixes and the protection muscle to make sure the network ran smoothly.
In the syndicate’s early days, there was one king, known as Uncle Frankie, a legend among match fixers. He was a Chinese-Indonesian businessman who sometimes used the name Frankie Chung, but his real name could not be confirmed. He knew that the global expansion of soccer presented lots of fixing opportunities. Uncle Frankie would go to major international tournaments, like the World Cup, and try to bribe players and referees.
Uncle Frankie taught Tan and Perumal the dirty secret of international soccer: Many teams and their personnel are poor, so they often have players, coaches and referees open to bribes.
“In every competition you find gamblers around,” said Kwesi Nyantakyi, president of the Ghana Football Association. “Yes, every competition. Every competition, they are there. It is done all the time in major competitions. In all the major tournaments, World Cup, Cup of Nations.”
“The gamblers are not Africans,” he added. “They are Europeans and Asians. So they have a lot of money to bet on these things.”
As a country of talented players with little money, Ghana is one of the countries that fixers frequently target at international tournaments, Nyantakyi said. So he was not surprised when, in 2007, it was discovered that there had been an attempt to fix an international match involving Ghana’s celebrated goalkeeping coach Abukari Damba, who was working with the Singaporean fixers.
After some players turned him in, Damba confessed and said in a Ghana Football Association hearing that he had worked with the Singaporean fixers for 10 years.
The Sapina brothers
Perumal joined the international match-fixing group in 2008. In his interrogation cell in 2011, he charted the syndicate’s organization for Granat and other Finnish police officers. It had European partners and Chinese backers who supplied money allegedly laundered through casinos in Macau.
The match-fixing syndicate was a criminal network, according to European police investigators. Europeans supplied compliant referees, players and coaches; Tan and the Singaporeans provided access to the vast, unregulated sports gambling market in Asia.
If the match fixers had only the referee on the take, they would say it was a one-star fix. In this case, the Asian syndicate would bet a smaller amount. If the local fixers had the entire team and the officiating crew on the take, it was called a five-star fix, and the syndicate would wager far more.
This system was devised at a meeting in a hotel room in Vienna in September 2008 between the Asian syndicate run by Tan and the Sapina brothers, two Berlin-based Croatian fixers who had a vast network of corrupt soccer players, referees and coaches. The Sapinas have twice been convicted of match fixing in Germany and are in prison there.
Together, they fixed hundreds of soccer matches around the world, targeting nearly every league – from the prestigious Champions League and World Cup qualifying matches to obscure, low-level matches. Once the Sapina brothers had persuaded their contacts to fix matches, Tan could then place bets on the Asian sports gambling market, the biggest in the world. Because much of the Asian market is underground, estimates of its size vary greatly.
Patrick Jay, a senior executive of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, one of the largest government-controlled gambling companies in the world, estimated that the Asian market handled $1 trillion in wagering.
In February 2013, Europol, the European Union’s police intelligence agency, said the results of 680 matches worldwide from 2008 to 2011, including World Cup qualifying matches and European Champions League matches, were considered suspicious. Tan’s group did most of this work, investigators said.
The European investigators determined that Tan’s syndicate also managed to fix matches played in the United States. In 2010, it persuaded a majority of El Salvador’s national team to throw a game against DC United of Major League Soccer as well as an international match against the United States in Miami. Many of the Salvadoran players were subsequently banned for life.
The syndicate lives on
In 2011, Perumal was found guilty of corruption in Finland and was sentenced to two years. He was released early. In late April, he was arrested again in Finland because, the police said, he had returned to the fixing business and had an outstanding international arrest warrant. He faces extradition to Singapore.
Last year, Singaporean law enforcement arrested Tan. However, he is in indefinite detention and may not stand trial. The scale of his match fixing may never be fully revealed.
Their arrests are not expected to stanch match fixing in Asia. Granat, the detective who helped disrupt Perumal’s exploits in northern Finland, said he ultimately recognized the group’s extraordinary reach.
“I remember I started to take it seriously when Wilson Raj Perumal had been in prison for a week and he told me, ‘This particular game next week will be fixed,’” Granat said. “He was in custody, and he could still tell me these things.”
In a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur, an associate of the syndicate’s discussed the group’s next phase. “Dan Tan and the others are locked up, but the betting cartel has just carried on,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
“They have new people to do their work. There is no stopping them.”