Is match-fixing about to become for football what steroids are to Major League Baseball and blood doping is to cycling?
We knew it was going on. We knew the temptation was too great for it not to be. What we assumed was that illicit activity was limited to polluted pockets, like the ring uncovered in South Korea in 2011, the operations that permeated Italian football in 1980 (Totonero), 2006 (Calciopoli) and 2012, or the ongoing investigation into alleged fixing of friendlies in the lead-up to World Cup 2010.
Isolated incidents, within reason, can pass without leaving an indelible stain on the game. Football is the richest sport on the planet, and greed is a powerful force. Where there is betting, there will always be corruption. That said, for now at least, the overwhelming majority of football fans don't doubt its integrity.
Italy is battling an infectious disease that won't seem to go away. However, Italy is but an outpost in a game that has hundreds. One bad apple does not make for a batch, and judging by the uproarious reaction that occurs each time match-fixing is highlighted there, you'd be led to believe the rest of the world has been vaccinated.
You'd be wrong. According to a report by Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union, match-fixing is rife across the continent. They claim to have evidence pertaining to 380 matches, including World Cup qualifiers, Champions League games and fixtures in Europe's elite leagues.
Reads an extract from Europol's statement, released on Monday:
A total of 425 match officials, club officials, players, and serious criminals, from more than 15 countries, are suspected of being involved in attempts to fix more than 380 professional football matches. The activities formed part of a sophisticated organised crime operation, which generated over €8 million in betting profits and involved over €2 million in corrupt payments to those involved in the matches.
According to a BBC report, one of the 380 games in question was a Champions League match played in England within the last four years (Hungarian newspaper Ekstra Bladet claims it was the 2009 meeting between Liverpool and Debrecen—H/T Daily Telegraph). We also know that games in Germany form part of the investigation, with a reported £13.8 million laid down in bets there and £6.9 million made in profit.
In addition to the 380 games in Europe, Europol have identified a further 300 "suspicious" matches, which took place "mainly in Africa, Asia, South and Central America." As for the crime network behind the alleged fixing, Europol's statement says betting has taken place "primarily on the Asian market":
The ringleaders are of Asian origin, working closely together with European facilitators. During the investigation, links were also found to Russian-speaking and other criminal syndicates.
What happens next in the investigation, dubbed "Operation VETO," has serious implications for the credibility of the world's most popular sport. A multi-billion-dollar industry, which sells itself on competition, could be on the verge of a monumental embarrassment.
It will be a while before we watch somebody win the Tour de France without suspicion they're doping. The same is true of a hitter who goes on a home-run binge, or a pitcher who defies the onset of time and throws fizzing fastballs into his late 30s and beyond.
If match-fixing is proven to be rampant in football, could we be made to feel the same about Champions League group matches or World Cup qualifiers? Could we come to question the honesty of everything we've seen before, and all that lies ahead?
Sport trades on honesty. Without it, you may as well be Lance Armstrong.