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Soccer's year zero: How match fixing ruined the beautiful game

By James Montague, CNN
  • Turkish Football Federation withdrew champions Fenerbahce from the Champions League on Wednesday
  • More than 30 people jailed, including Fenerbahce president Aziz Yildirim, in match-fixing scandal
  • Seven players from Zambia and two from Georgia playing in the Finnish league were caught taking bribes
  • "FIFA is liaising with police in Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, it's global," Chris Eaton

(CNN) -- It was the highest profile, and most embarrassing, sanction imaginable.

The decision by the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) to withdraw champions Fenerbahce from this season's Champions League on Wednesday, due to allegations of endemic match fixing and bribery, shocked the football world far outside arguably Europe's most passionate footballing nation.

For Turkish football fans, it's the equivalent of Manchester United being stripped of the English Premier League title; or of the New York Yankees losing the World Series over corruption charges. Last year's runners up, Trabzonspor, will take Fenerbahce's place, but the shock waves remain.

Over the past few months, Turkish football has been embroiled in a match-fixing scandal that has brought down some of the biggest names in business and politics, whilst destroying the reputation of the grand dames of Turkey's footballing elite.

More than 30 people await trial in jail, including Fenerbahce president Aziz Yildirim, over the manipulation of up to 19 matches in last year's Super Lig (Turkey's top division). The start of the season has been delayed for a month while investigations continue.

One match under scrutiny includes Fenerbahce's final, crucial game which saw them beat Trabzonspor to the title and thereby seal a place in the lucrative Champions League group stage. But Turkey's current shame is far from an isolated example of corruption within football.

Over the past year more than a dozen countries have been rocked by allegations of sophisticated match fixing and bribery rings, many linked to illegal South East Asian betting syndicates.

What surprised me was the good deal of naivety in football circles
--Chris Eaton, FIFA's head of security

In China last year the head of the Football Association, his deputy, 20 officials and several players from Hong Kong were arrested for match fixing. In South Korea the country's K League was hit by the arrest of several dozen players, 10 of whom received life bans, for manipulating matches. One player later committed suicide.

Similar scandals have broken in Israel, Greece, Finland, Italy and Germany. The problem has reached such a critical point that FIFA has set up a special unit within Interpol to combat what it views as the biggest threat to the global game.

"I don't think I'd use the word shocked, I've been in policing for such a long time having worked last 12 years in Interpol," Chris Eaton, a former Interpol officer who has been appointed head of security for FIFA, told CNN. "What surprised me was the good deal of naivety in football circles."

Eaton has had to hit the ground running since Sepp Blatter set up his $40 million dollar special unit in May.

FIFA targets match fixers

"We're seeing loose organized crime ... entrepreneurial criminals that have a network that operates globally," he explained when asked who was fixing matches.

"(They have) lots of money making criminal enterprises one of which is match fixing. We want to get these guys out of football and I'm dedicating 2012 to that effort."

According to Eaton, entrepreneurial criminals have been targeting vulnerable players and officials largely in poorer countries in an attempt to fix the outcome of games.

But a new development has been the trafficking of players into different leagues in an attempt to alter the outcome of matches there. The recent corruption scandal that has engulfed Finnish football saw former champions Tampere suspended after they were found guilty of taking close to half a million dollars from a Singaporean company linked to Asian betting syndicates.

Seven players from Zambia and two from Georgia playing in the Finnish league were also caught taking bribes. But how does a player find himself in a position to be bribed?

"The scenario is that at a regional under 17s tournament, a capable young player is identified, legitimately (by clubs), but criminals will do the same," Eaton explained.

Gangs of Asian match fixers have been turning up at international games for twenty years
--Declan Hill, author of "The Fix"

"(The fixers) speak to the father, speak to the mother and talk about their son, taking over his development ... this is often accompanied by having a well known player from the same country as a mentor so they become part of a family. This becomes the mechanism to manipulate that player."

However, not everyone is convinced that FIFA is targeting the right people. Declan Hill, author of "The Fix," a book that saw him spend time with Asian betting syndicates and match fixers, believes that the proliferation of football and technology means that match fixing is now both incredibly easy and virtually untraceable.

"There have been gangs of Asian match fixers turning up at international games for twenty years, approaching hundreds of players, but people must learn three words. Anyone can fix. Repeat: anyone can fix," Hill told CNN.

"They (FIFA) are still talking about organized crime. But because of technology anyone can fix. A bunch of players in a second division somewhere, dissatisfied with their pay packets, they could fix a match. The basic technology means anyone can now fix.

"They are coming up with dozens and dozens of games that are fixed. And that is just the games they have evidence for, like the 19 games in Turkey." Hill believes that money is part of the answer, but admits that match fixing is spreading to more and more established leagues where low wages are less of an issue.

"Does paying players stop fixing? Generally yes. But look at Greece and Italy and Turkey. Major leagues (where match fixing has been proven) and major teams: Besiktas, Fenerbache," he said, explaining that FIFA were initially skeptical of his claims of match fixing when his book first came out.

"Now they (FIFA) say: 'He's right, minor games are being fixed in minor league. Now it's minor teams in major leagues.' And so the line where corruption begins and ends is expanding."

It's a sentiment that Eaton certainly now echoes: "With more and more established football leagues coming under the spotlight, the only thing that is certain is that more match fixing scandals are likely to be exposed.

"We are looking at the regions with least economic stability, some parts of Africa, Asia, South and Central America. That doesn't mean I'm not looking at Eastern Europe and Europe proper," said Eaton.

"I'm coordinating and liaising with police in Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey ... This is a global activity trying to take advantage of a very successful sporting operation. We need to protect FIFA."