They said the corruption reached the sport’s three biggest competitions, the UEFA Champions League and qualifying games for the European Championship and the World Cup, a quadrennial tournament watched on television by hundreds of millions of people around the world.
“This is the first time we have established substantial evidence that organized crime is now operating in the world of football,” Europol director Rob Wainwright said at a news conference in The Hague.
While gambling and match-fixing linked to Asian betting syndicates and organized crime have vexed soccer for some years, the scope of the corruption outlined in Monday’s report was unprecedented, not just for soccer but for professional team sports.
The Europol report’s description of criminal elements infiltrating players and officials with bribes to determine the outcome of games represents the nightmare scenario for professional sports leagues. While hundreds of millions of dollars are bet on big sporting events such as Sunday’s Super Bowl, U.S. leagues such as the National Football League go to great lengths to guard against exposing themselves to the influence of organized crime.
“When sports move from unscripted, honest athletic competition to scripted entertainment like we see in the movies and on television and Broadway shows. . . that is the scenario in which sports consumers and fans begin to tune out,” said Ryan Rodenberg, an assistant professor of sport management at Florida State University.
Major League Soccer, the U.S. professional soccer league, said it had not been contacted by Europol investigators.
“While we have faith in the integrity of those associated with MLS, we will not ignore what has already transpired around the world. We are not so naive as to think we are immune,” MLS Executive Vice President Nelson Rodriguez said. “We are hiring a director of security who will be charged with developing an integrity program as well as additional defensive measures. This area will be a primary focus.”
Rodriguez said MLS has taken a number of steps aimed at identifying any possible match-fixing. He said these include monitoring gambling activity internationally and in Las Vegas, training and education efforts and a ban on phones and other electronic communication devices in locker rooms beginning an hour before the start of games.
Europol said more than 400 individuals from 15 countries, including players, were involved in the suspicious matches in Europe.