Is The 2009 European Football Betting Scandal The Worst Of All?

Date IconLast Updated: 28 Sep 2022
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Is The 2009 European Football Betting Scandal The Worst Of All?
© PA
Croatian Ante Sapina and his brother and Milan were at the centre of the European-wide operation

More than a decade has now passed since German police uncovered what was described at the time by UEFA spokesman Peter Limacher as 'undoubtedly the biggest match-fixing scandal that European football has ever seen'.

Yet when the Bochum-based investigators first began to probe the Croatian gang at the centre of the affair, they expected to uncover crimes related to drugs and prostitution. There were plenty more surprises along the way.

While it is true that football matches are more difficult to fix than many other sporting contests, it would be naïve to think the world’s most popular pastime is immune to nefarious activity.

That was the case half a century ago, when several games in the 1970/71 Bundesliga season were found to have been illicitly manipulated for profit, and has subsequently been reinforced by incidents such as the discovery in 2005 that the German referee Robert Hoyzer had been involved in fixing and betting on encounters of which he was in charge.

responsibleReferee Robert Hoyzer, right, has the finger pointed at him, and not for the last time (© PA Images)

Needless to say, Germany has not been the only country to fall victim to such unsavoury episodes. The Totonero scandal sent shockwaves through the Italian game in 1980 and led to the enforced relegations of Milan and Lazio and the suspension for two years of international star Paolo Rossi, while several sides – most notably European giants Juventus – were implicated in the Calciopoli disgrace of 2006 that centred on the selection of favourable referees.

Elsewhere, French outfit Marseille were stripped of the Ligue 1 title after being found guilty of offering bribes to the players and staff of domestic rivals Valenciennes; a betting ring was discovered in Britain in the 1960s, with two England internationals among the 10 professional players who were sent to jail for their involvement in match fixing; and in 2005, Brazilian authorities ordered the replaying of 11 top-flight matches after it was revealed that two referees had accepted bribes to influence the result of said contests.

Yet according to those involved with the case, none of the above could match the 2009 scandal for size, scale or significance. As many as 200 fixtures across nine different domestic leagues and Europe’s two biggest club competitions, the Europa League and the Champions League, and an international tournament, were affected.

The investigation even led indirectly to the arrest of 16 people in China – including Yang Xu, a former vice president of the Chinese Football Association – after scrutiny into match fixing around the globe.

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Nine European Countries Implicated

However, this was a scandal centred on Europe, and on nine countries in particular: Germany (which had 32 games investigated), Turkey (29 games), Belgium (17 games), Switzerland (22 games), Croatia (14 games), Slovenia (seven games), Hungary (13 games), Austria (11 games) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (eight games). Three Champions League qualifying fixtures also came in for scrutiny, as did 12 matches at the equivalent stage of the Europa League and a qualifier for the European Under-21 Championship.

Two Croatian brothers, Ante and Milan Sapina, were at the centre of the operation, with the sibling duo coordinating an international criminal gang in an attempt to fraudulently win millions of euros. Their plan was to offer bribes to players, coaches and referees in a bid to influence the outcome of games, before placing a series of bets on the fixed outcomes to earn a sizeable profit.

The fraudulent activity came to light when German police tapped the phones of suspected criminals, despite the fact that the officers did not anticipate uncovering what they ultimately did. They pursued the case doggedly, carrying out more than 50 raids in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK, which led to the arrests of 17 people – 15 in Germany and two in Switzerland – and the seizure of cash and assets worth in excess of a million euros.

Up to 200 individuals in total were investigated as police probed top-flight games Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Turkey, second-tier encounters in Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, and several Champions League and Europa League qualifiers. The value of the fraud was put at €10 million, although at a press conference in Bochum, police officers and UEFA officials emphasised that the true number could in fact be much higher.

Patrick Neumann was the first professional footballer to confess that he had accepted a bribe.

responsibleNeumann denied being involved in the fixing efforts but did admit to receiving an illicit payment (© PA Images)

The midfielder, who plied his trade with SC Verl in North Rhine-Westphalia, was suspended by his club alongside team-mate Tim Hagedorn after meetings with Borussia Monchengladbach II and FC Koln II were flagged up as suspicious by the powers that be. Neumann admitted to having received €500, but he denied involvement in the fixing efforts.

Marcel Schuon, a defender who began his career in the youth ranks of VfB Stuttgart, admitted that he knew a game between his then-employers Osnabruck and Augsburg was fixed but failed to tell anyone until after the final whistle, with the match finishing 3-0 to the latter as had been planned. In Hungary, meanwhile, Debrecen goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksic was banned for two years for failing to report an approach from match-fixers, thought to be related to a Champions League clash with Fiorentina in the qualifying phase.

And over in Switzerland, several FC Thun players were accused of throwing a game against Yverdon Sport, which ended in a 5-1 defeat after suspicious bets were placed on a four-goal margin of victory. FC Gossau’s matches against FC Locarno and Servette were also looked into, with midfielder Mario Bigoni subsequently admitting that one of his team’s games was 'not clean'. Bigoni was then found dead in mysterious circumstances in the riverbed of the Old Rhine, having disappeared after an evening out with friends two weeks earlier.

Oleg Orijechow, a referee from Ukraine, was suspended by UEFA after being accused of being in contact with a member of the match-fixing gang.

Eight-Year Ban From European Football

European football’s governing body also announced in March 2009 that they were bringing charges against a club whose identity was not revealed at the time but which later turned out to be Macedonian outfit FK Pobeda.

They were banned from European competition for eight years after it was found that their 2004 tie against Armenian side Pyunik had been fixed, while club president Aleksandar Zabrcanec and ex-captain Nikolce Zdravevski were suspended from the European game for life.

“Firstly, I would like to thank the German authorities for their action and for the good collaboration,” said Gianni Infantino, the current FIFA president who at the time was serving as UEFA’s general secretary.

“This case proves that it is possible for a state investigative authority to work closely together with a sports governing body when it comes to corruption or match fixing, and it is gratifying to see that the Betting Fraud Detection System endorsed by the UEFA President, Michel Platini, is already bearing fruit. We will continue our battle against any form of corruption in European football with a mission of zero tolerance".

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However, despite the understandable satisfaction felt by the governing body when they uncovered the crimes, there was also concern at the industrial scale of the operation. This proved to UEFA that match fixing remained an issue even after the organisation had created a specialist unit to monitor betting markets around the world via the use of a piece of software that they called their ‘Betting Fraud Detection System’.

It also helped to focus minds across the continent, disproving the notion that the size and wealth of European football meant it could no longer fall victim to such nefarious manipulation by profit-seeking criminal gangs.

Three individuals were convicted of fraud in Bochum in April 2011, with each member of the trio admitting their involvement in the fixing of 32 matches and bribing of players. The following month Ante Spina, one of the Croatian brothers at the heart of the scandal, was sentenced to five and a half years’ imprisonment, although the ruling was dismissed by the Federal Court of Justice in December 2012.

Nevertheless, he was later sent to prison for five years by the District Court of Bochum, who also sentenced his brother Milan to 10 months’ imprisonment for his role in the affair.