Euro soccer suspects Asian boot

Key matches might have been fixed; probe launched

Soccer, Europe's favorite pastime, a broadcasting magnet and the center of a multibillion-dollar business, took a heavy blow this week after reports that Asian gambling syndicates might have fixed several key European club matches, scooping up millions in illicit bets.

The Union of European Football Assns. has asked Europol to investigate the allegations. They involve Europe's most popular and lucrative club tournaments: the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Cup.

There also have been reports that some qualification matches for next year's European Cup — a ratings giant across the continent — might similarly have been manipulated by Asian organized crime.

But while the scandal has been front-page news across Europe, broadcasters are holding their collective breath and clearly hoping the scandal will soon disappear.

"We obviously can't comment on an ongoing investigation, but at the moment we have no plans to change our schedule or revisit our (rights) contracts with UEFA," said Kristina Fassler, head of communications at Berlin-based Sat.1, which airs UEFA Cup and Champions League games.

A spokesman for U.K. pay TV group British Sky Broadcasting, which together with free-to-air ITV pays UEFA about $180 million a year for Champions League rights, called reports of match fixing "completely hypothetical," saying there has been "only a whisper" of scandal surrounding European soccer.

According to the official dossier UEFA submitted to Europol, it's a pretty loud whisper. The document provides details of at least 15 matches thought to have been fixed during this season alone. It says gambling cheats easily can bet $1.5 million-$2 million per match and make a similar-sized profit.

"It's our strong suspicion that agents collecting bets for the Asian betting companies are often playing a major role in manipulating matches," the dossier stated.

Although sports betting is legal in Europe it is tightly controlled, with bets often limited to three-figure sums and the gamblers required to identify themselves.

At many Asia bookmakers, limits can be as high as $50,000-$60,000 per bet, with gamblers allowed to place multiple wagers with no ID required.

UEFA suspects that Asian crime syndicates might have been systematically bribing European players, managers and referees to fix games, calling in wagers from Europe via mobile phone to betting parlors in Shanghai and Macau.

Europol officials believe that in addition to turning a profit, some syndicates also might be using the gambling fraud to launder money from the drug trade, prostitution and weapons deals.

This isn't the first time Asian crime has mixed with top European soccer. Early last year, Belgian soccer was shaken to its foundation by a betting scandal involving a Shanghai-based syndicate and leading clubs across the country.

There also has been plenty of homegrown fraud across Europe. Last year's match-fixing in Italy involving referees and several of the country's top clubs resulted in fines and relegation of one squad to a lower division. In Germany, corrupt referee Robert Hoyzer became a poster boy for cheats after it was revealed he manipulated several matches in exchange for cash from a Croatian gangster.

However, such scandals have done little to dampen European fans' appetite for soccer. Television ratings and stadium attendance in Belgium, Italy and Germany showed barely a dent after scandals in those countries.

Such outcomes contrast sharply with the sport of cycling, which was severely damaged this year by doping scandals at its premier event, the Tour de France. German public broadcasters ARD/ZDF pulled live coverage after repeated doping allegations against leading riders, and many of the sport's main sponsors — including T-Mobile and drinks group Gerolsteiner — have since withdrawn their support.

"The difference with soccer is that people have not yet lost faith in the whole organization, as they did with cycling," Fassler said. "There are a few black sheep, but if they are found and dealt with, things will go back to normal. … And soccer fans are a different breed anyway: In the end, they only care about the game. As soon as the ball starts rolling, they forget about whatever came before."

Leo Cendrowicz in Brussels, Mimi Turner in London and Jonathan Landreth in Macau contributed to this report.