by Dr Ashutosh Misra, Associate Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security
The arrest of nine footballers and their coach in Melbourne earlier this month is reportedly the biggest related to suspected match-fixing in Australia’s sporting history.
Police acted on information about a scam allegedly perpetrated by Melbourne-based Malaysian national, Segaran ‘Gerry’ Gsubramaniam. European soccer professionals spending their off-season playing with the Southern Stars Football Club in the Victorian Premier League are among six people subsequently charged.
It is important to note that this is neither a ‘blip on the radar’ nor a ‘bolt from the blue’ for Australian sport. Rather, it is a symptom of the larger malaise plaguing international sport in general, and soccer in particular.
Preserving the integrity of sport has become a major concern for sporting bodies and law enforcement agencies worldwide, and the transnational nature of threats to sporting integrity makes this task all the more challenging.
Allegations of the illicit involvement of organised crime syndicates in match-fixing, illegal betting and the distribution of prohibited drugs among athletes have grown alarmingly in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States.
Last February, following its biggest ever investigation, the European Police Office (Europol) revealed that around 380 matches – including some linked to the World Cup, European Championship and Champions League – had been fixed by an organised crime syndicate in Asia and involved around 425 match/club officials, players and criminals across 15 countries.
These revelations came on the heels of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Police Organisation (Interpol) signing a 10-year agreement worth 28 million euros in May 2011 to curb and prevent Asian-based match-fixing and illegal betting in sports.
In 2011 and 2012, Interpol waged four Soccer Gambling (SOGA) operations in Macau, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. These resulted in more than 7000 arrests and the seizure of $US27 million in cash from illegal betting dens, totalling an estimated $US2 billion in illegal bets.
Interpol Secretary General Roland K Noble revealed that organised crime identities were using forged documents to travel from country to country, adding: “We have to do everything in our power to keep sport clean. Corruption in sport is so damaging. With a handful of cases, you have to ask whether a viewer or spectator can have confidence in the match he or she is watching.
“It is definitely beyond and above the world of sport, and above and beyond FIFA. It is fair to say we haven’t caught up to the scale of the problem.”
According to Noble and FIFA, about 90 per cent of gambling in sport relates to soccer and totals around $US400 billion per annum.
Furthermore, organised crime syndicates make more than $US15 billion annually from match-fixing in soccer, while last year 50 countries were reportedly implicated in match-fixing scandals across Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa.
Biggest single threat to integrity
In 2011, then President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, identified gambling-related corruption as the biggest single threat to the integrity of international sport.
And Australia is not immune, having been rocked by incidents of corruption and the involvement of organised crime identities in sports.
It began with cricket in the 1990s, but more recently has received greater public attention in the wake of an Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report revealing “the involvement of organised criminal identities and groups in the distribution of new generation PIEDs” (Performance and Image Enhancing Drugs).
Released last February and based on a 12-month investigation undertaken with the support of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the ACC report concluded that organised crime syndicates posed a serious threat to the integrity of sport in Australia. It also exposed the vulnerability to corrupt and unethical conduct by athletes, sportspeople, administrators, coaches, sports scientists and others.
While noting that the problem was not confined to sport, the ACC observed that by utilising online gambling platforms, recognised international crime syndicates could launder money and engage in secondary financial crime such as identity theft, economic conspiracy and fraud.
According to an ACC estimate – which may be conservative – serious organised crime costs the Australian community up to $15 billion each year.
ACC National Manager Shane Neilson argues that globalisation, the increased cross-border movement of people, goods and money, international markets and rapidly developing technology all facilitate organised crime. Groups can offend in one jurisdiction, launder in another and enjoy the proceeds in a third.
CEPS partnership with Interpol
The Griffith University-based Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security (CEPS) has been working on this issue for several years, establishing a partnership with Interpol to work on issues of sports integrity.
In 2011 and 2013, CEPS organised two international workshops in which global experts, state, national and international law enforcement agencies and sporting codes and bodies engaged in highly stimulating and engaging discussions.
Broadly speaking, these ‘Chatham House’ discussions found that law enforcement in Australia is largely reactive and that sports corruption is accorded a relatively low priority based on the notion that it is an internal matter for the affected sporting codes to investigate.
The role of law enforcement has also been impeded by problems of interoperability, cross-border complexities and a lack of skills and training in how to deal with fraud and corruption-related offences.
Even for international agencies such as Interpol, other transnational challenges such as people smuggling, narcotics, money laundering and arms trafficking have meant match-fixing in sport has only recently become a priority.
But things are happening. For example, in Australia the National Integrity in Sports Unit (NISU) was created by the Federal Labor Government in October, 2012. At a state level, the Sports Integrity Intelligence Unit operates within Victoria Police.
It is also encouraging to note that inter-agency cooperation has intensified between the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Crime Commission, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre to curb/prevent crime and corruption in sport in Australia.
Nevertheless, the preservation of integrity in sport has a long way to go.
Experts point out that cross-border cooperation remains a major challenge for law enforcement agencies in Australia and the key for effective enforcement is increased information sharing among local, state and national agencies.
National anti-corruption agency
In his latest research article, Policing corruption and corporations in Australia: towards a new national agenda (Criminal Law Journal 37, 2013), CEPS director Professor Simon Bronitt says the issue of sports corruption cannot be seen in isolation from other forms of corruption within the state and society.
He recommends the creation of a national anti-corruption agency to deal with corruption, enhance the protection of whistle-blowers and improve the technical skill-base of law enforcement officials dealing with cases that are often highly technical and complex. (Interpol is now providing special training to officials investigating match-fixing.)
CEPS workshops have suggested the problem should not be approached exclusively through the lens of law, crime and regulatory enforcement. Rather, it must recognise the crucial role that prevention strategies play in promoting a culture of positive values and ethics that is so critical to individual and organisational change.
Given the multi-sectoral and transnational nature of this challenge, forging partnerships between law enforcement, industry and research institutions is imperative for building a deeper understanding of the problem and developing better tools for tackling threats to integrity in sport.