The man in the dark green shirt and matching scarf, stood, statuesque, on Stevenage Road, in the upper-middle-class district of Fulham in west London. Some other fans, in Scottish kilts, stopped to take his picture. He wanted to be noticed, because he held a placard in front of his chest with words written in red ink across it:
“We don’t fix matches, we WIN them.”
Across the road, at Fulham’s Craven Cottage stadium, the placard bearer’s beloved Nigeria team was about to kick off against Scotland, in the first of Nigeria’s friendly preparation matches for the World Cup. British newspapers had reported earlier in the day that the match had been “red flagged” by the U.K. National Crime Agency (NCA), alerted to an attempt to manipulate the result, by unnamed parties seeking to profit from bets placed on specific events or outcomes during the 90 minutes.
Matches at this stage of the soccer calendar are especially vulnerable to match fixers, as recent investigations by FIFA, the game’s world governing body, have made clear. The period in the lead-up to a major international tournament like the World Cup is filled with so-called friendlies, one-off fixtures arranged by teams that want to use them as stages in a training program to test fitness and tactical strategies ahead of their serious matches. The friendlies often involve opposition with little to play for. All 32 competitors at the Brazil World Cup, which begins June 12, will have played a handful of these friendlies in the three weeks ahead of the tournament opening. Some will have faced fellow World Cup finalists; the majority will feature opponents who are winding down from their club seasons, preparing for their vacations.
Signs of possible rigging have also become harder to detect. With the rise in “spot betting,” in which odds are offered on a vast range of bets — from which team might take the kickoff to the number of corners or yellow cards — the number of ways in which a match might be deliberately influenced has grown. Hundreds of thousands of dollars can be won or lost, not just on the final score of a game but on apparently minor events during it.
2010: A fixing odyssey?
Ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a match-fixing ring headquartered in Singapore, but whose ringleaders had established bases in Europe and across Asia, targeted a series of international friendlies to fix. Their modus operandi centered on corrupted referees, and, according to a subsequent investigation commissioned by FIFA, whose report Al Jazeera has seen, “there is persuasive circumstantial evidence [that] leads inevitably to the conclusion that several SAFA, South African Football Association, employees were complicit in a criminal conspiracy to manipulate these matches.”
“At the very least,” the report found, “it appears that SAFA staff were easily duped or extremely foolish.”
The ruse, through which at least seven pre–World Cup matches in May and June 2010 were affected, began with a simple introduction. A man presenting himself as “Mohamed” appeared at the headquarters of the South African Football Association, the host federation of the multibillion-dollar World Cup tournament, in the spring of 2010 and suggested that his organization, “Football 4U International,” enter a cooperative agreement with SAFA in a referee-exchange program aimed at advanced training of referees. Essentially, Football 4U offered to provide international, FIFA-recognized referees for matches in the lead-up to the tournament, and to assume the costs of supplying the referees.
Once a contract had been signed between the parties, Football 4U — a front for a Singaporean criminal syndicate — imported referees, mostly from elsewhere in Africa, with whom it had established relationships. The sting attracted the attention of FIFA only once the refereeing began to look repeatedly erratic. After a series of four matches involving the South Africa national team and opponents from Asia, Europe and Latin America had made local media headlines for the poor match officiating, particularly the awarding of unusual penalties, the head of the South African refereeing commission, Steve Goddard, demanded that the designated official for a fifth match, South Africa versus Denmark, be replaced.
The FIFA report describes a confrontation and then a farcical scene, in which Football 4U had arranged its own replacement, Ibrahim Chaibou of Niger, and he was ready and warming up in the tunnel leading to the pitch when a third different referee arrived. Soon after the match against Denmark, in which the South African referee had officiated, Goddard told FIFA’s investigators, he received a phone call threatening his life. One witness interviewed by FIFA investigators said Chaibou, who retired from refereeing in 2011, paid a sum close to $100,000 into a South African bank during his stay in the country.
They identified the ringleader of this series of fixes as Wilson Raj Perumal, a Singaporean who in 2011 was convicted of match fixing in Finland, and who this year co-authored a memoir, “Kelong Kings,” an account of nearly two decades operating around international soccer as a promoter, fixer and gambler, mostly through underground Asia-based betting operations. His story of the 2010 World Cup buildup aligns with much of FIFA’s report. It makes up but a small chapter of Perumal’s tale: He also claims to have fixed competitive matches that enabled countries to qualify for World Cup tournaments.
Perumal’s favorite territory, however, was summer friendlies, like the dozens taking place all over the world now as the World Cup approaches.
“The best thing about international friendlies,” Perumal writes, “is that, save for the final score, nobody reports to FIFA what happens on the pitch. Bookmakers are usually keen to offer bets for international friendlies; betting companies are profit-oriented businesses and will bring up as many games as they possibly can on their websites to attract punters. Since all league activity is suspended during international FIFA calendar days, the only revenue for gambling companies on those dates is represented by international fixtures.”
As for Nigeria against Scotland, in west London, it finished as a 2–2 draw. A second-string Nigerian lineup, with few of the players present who are likely to line up in their World Cup opener against Iran on June 16, did not produce the win the placard-bearing loyalist wanted. There is no suggestion of any irregularity in the conduct of players or officials, but the reports that a fix may have been attempted brought about heightened scrutiny when Nigeria’s goalkeeper Austin Ejide made an error in which, under pressure from a Scotland player, he appeared to palm the ball into his net, with his team trailing 1–0. Respected English referee Lee Probert disallowed the would-be goal because of a perceived foul on Ejide.
Nigeria head coach Stephen Keshi later said he had been made aware of the reports of the NCA’s interest in the fixture, but dismissed them.
“We don’t know where that’s coming from,” he said. “It’s something ridiculous. We’re not gamblers, we’re football players.”