All the world is staged
Brett Forrest
August 15, 2012
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ON THE MORNING of Feb. 20, 2011, a man from Singapore walked into the central police station of Rovaniemi, Finland, a town that sits along the Arctic Circle. The man told officers that another Singaporean, Wilson Raj Perumal, was in Rovaniemi on a false passport. He offered no other information before leaving the station abruptly.

Though puzzled by the seemingly random tip, Rovaniemi police put Perumal under surveillance. Three days later, they followed him to a French restaurant near the soccer stadium, where the local club, Rovaniemen Palloseura, had just completed a 1-1 draw. Officers watched as Perumal sat down with three Palloseura players. They saw him scold the players, who cowered in fear. The next day, based on the false passport, the Finnish police detained Perumal. They phoned officials at the Finland Football Federation, who in turn contacted FIFA, soccer's international governing body.

One week later, Chris Eaton, FIFA's head of security, arrived in Rovaniemi. He knew exactly who Perumal was. Eaton informed Finnish investigators that they had just caught the world's most prolific criminal fixer of soccer matches, an elusive figure whom Eaton had been chasing for the past six months.

Perumal had rigged hundreds of games across five continents, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent gambling winnings for Asian and European syndicates. He was finally in custody. And he had been turned in by one of his own.

THE WORLD'S MOST popular game is also its most corrupt, with investigations into match fixing ongoing in more than 25 countries. Here's a mere sampling of events since the beginning of last year: Operation Last Bet rocked the Italian Football Federation, with 22 clubs and 52 players awaiting trial for fixing matches; the Zimbabwe Football Association banned 80 players from its national-team selection due to similar accusations; Lu Jun, the first Chinese referee of a World Cup match, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for taking more than $128,000 in bribes to fix outcomes in the Chinese Super League; prosecutors charged 57 people with match fixing in the South Korean K-League, four of whom later died in suspected suicides; the team director of second-division Hungarian club REAC Budapest jumped off a building after six of his players were arrested for fixing games; and in an under-21 friendly, Turkmenistan reportedly beat Maldives 3-2 in a "ghost match" -- neither country knew about the contest because it never actually happened, yet bookmakers still took action and fixers still profited.

Soccer match fixing has become a massive worldwide crime, on par with drug trafficking, prostitution and the trade in illegal weapons. As in those criminal enterprises, the match-fixing industry has been driven by opportunistic greed. According to Interpol figures, sports betting has ballooned into a $1 trillion industry, 70 percent of which is gambled on soccer. The explosive growth reflects the rise of online gambling, which has turned local bookies into global merchants, flooded by money from every continent. Asian bookmakers alone see a $2 billion weekly turnover, according to Eaton. "It's now one huge liquid market," says David Forrest, an economics professor at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, who specializes in the study of sports gambling. "Liquidity is the friend of the fixer. You can put down big bets without notice and without changing the odds against yourself."

For the soccer gambler, the buffet of betting options is endless. FIFA recognizes 208 soccer federations, each governing its country's professional leagues and national teams, which are split into several age groups. The total number of pro and national soccer teams worldwide far exceeds 10,000. On sbobet.com, one of the largest legal books in Southeast Asia, a gambler can bet on dozens of matches daily, from the English Premier League to the Indonesian Super League to the Ukrainian youth championships. And the betting options climb exponentially when you consider the dramatic upsurge in real-time propositional bets. Gambling on soccer online now resembles the stock market, with constant fluctuations and instantaneous arbitrage.

All of these circumstances created a perfect storm for fixers. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Chinese criminal organizations, known as triads, seized on that opening to fund a global match-fixing operation and manipulate bookies around the world. Why was China ground zero? The country's booming economy and culture of risk-taking has fostered the world's most rabid gambling market. But to take advantage of soccer betting worldwide, Chinese triads needed emissaries to plant match-fixing schemes abroad -- men fluent in English who could travel on a trusted passport. So the triads tapped criminal organizations in Singapore, Asia's westernized business hub and a country perceived as far less corrupt than China.

From the ranks of the Singapore syndicate emerged the smoothest operator of them all: Wilson Raj Perumal. A handsome, charismatic former petty criminal and runner for the syndicate, Perumal found his calling as a globe-trotting fixer. He didn't have to look hard for targets: Take 10,000 teams and multiply by the number of players per squad -- then add referees, club officials and federation administrators. To a skilled fixer, almost anyone could be had for the right price.

Using agents like Perumal, Chinese and Singaporean syndicates were so successful at fixing matches, they called into doubt the very integrity of the game. To combat the problem, those who love the sport looked to the one organization that appeared to have the authority: FIFA.

ON MARCH 28. a little more than a year after identifying Perumal in Finland, Chris Eaton stepped onto a stage in Manchester, England, at SoccerEx, the industry's largest annual trade show. FIFA's top cop had been invited to discuss betting in the beautiful game. "You can't overstate the magnitude of the issue," he said in his Australian drawl. "We're talking massive money."

A policeman for more than 40 years, Eaton is dogged, antipolitical and rule-bound. And at age 60, he has the energy of a man half his age. His monthly itinerary is a checkerboard of international takeoffs and landings. When he sleeps is unclear. With a mustache that runs long and wide and out-of-date, Eaton resembles Wyatt Earp, the one man who could establish justice on the range. "I quite would have liked that," Eaton says. "There are a lot of people that need shooting on the edge of the corral."

After several decades with the Australian federal police, Eaton joined Interpol in 1999, bolstering his international reputation as its manager of operations. He first worked with FIFA in 2009 as a security consultant for a youth tournament in Egypt. FIFA was so impressed with Eaton that it hired him away from Interpol...
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