The Mystery Final
There are some games that are far larger than just a sporting competition.
There was that game in 1936 in Berlin when the England team were forced to raise their arms in Nazi salutes.
There was that game in Belgrade between Red Star and Manchester United on February 6, 1958. It was to be the last footballing appearance of the Busby Babes. After the match, many of them flew off into the skies of football immortality in a crash at Munich Airport.
There was that game in Zagreb, May 1990, between Red Star Belgrade and local team Dinamo. The ensuing riot sparked a vicious, bloody war that lasted five years and killed tens-of-thousands of people.
And then there was that final game of the World Cup in 1998.
It featured the footballing super-power – Brazil. Their very name is redolent of sporting prowess. They had won the tournament in 1958, in 1962, in 1970 and again in 1994. They were supposed to win in 1998. The bookies had them at 4-6 odds-on favourites.
Except they did not.
The game on July 12,1998 was a one-sided victory for their opponents – France.
The Brazilian government was so angry by the loss that they held months of official inquiries and issued a hundreds-of-pages report that basically said, “We couldn’t find anything but there was something wrong with that game.”
Tens-of-millions of French fans disagree.
Part of the mystique was that the French victory was symbolic of something far larger than a football match.
French society, riven by globalization, was beginning to feel the political power of Front National – the far-right-wing movement that claimed, among other things, that France was being ruined by too much immigration.
The French national team was a handsome, swaggering and winning riposte to this argument.
Among the players was Emmanuel Petit who looked like the epitome of d’Artagnan of the Three Musketeers.
There was Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira – the dynamic, brilliant players whose names are still legend among footballing fans.
And there was their iconic, tough-boy captain Zinedine Zidane. Son of Algerian immigrants who had fought his way to the summit of the football hierarchy.
The game was played in front of a partisan, adoring crowd in Paris who willed their team onto victory before a national celebration on the Champs-Élysées. The victory helped melt the far-right parties back into the political shadows for another fifteen years.
The French claim, it was a victory of the best team.
But that is not what Asian match-fixers say happened.
This, for the first time, is their story.
I write this story on the eve of a Final of a tournament that I have not watched for a single minute. The World Cup in Qatar has been a disgrace with thousands of workers killed and serious allegations of corruption from its very inception.
However, over the last few weeks, I have had a number of conversations with sources – new and old – in the Asian match-fixing world. All of them repeated or confirmed the following story, so I write it now.
To begin with a number of important points:
– The fixers’ claims – and they might be nonsense – are, at least, consistent nonsense. It is same story told by multiple different sources from different fixing gangs who all say – essentially – the same thing.
– The fixers do not claim that any French player, official or fan helped the fix.
– There is no evidence that Ronaldo, the iconic star of the Brazilian team, who had a dreadful match, was in anyway involved in any under-performance. He did spend much of the afternoon of the game day suffering from a convulsive fit. His malady is still undiagnosed yet there is a very clear, ominous, and repeated idea of what may have happened to him.
The fixer’s story is simple. They claim that two of the Brazilian players were paid over $5 million dollars to underperform by members of the Italian mob.
The Italians then contacted their infamous colleague – Uncle Frankie – the Indonesian match-fixer. His job? Get as much money onto the Asian betting market as possible.
It was all about return on investment. If the fixers just bet on the Italian illegal gambling market their profit would be marginal. Plus, the smart money in the market – the illegal bookmakers – would see that something was happening if massive amounts of money came down against the favourites Brazil losing the Final.
So global connections were called. Even in the Asian market which is several hundred-times larger than the Italian, it took a lot of effort, cash and people to lay the money. One fixer said,
“A fixing network for a big game like a World Cup game is twenty or thirty people across Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia. Just trying to get as much money onto the market without anyone noticing. Its big, man!”
It was a massive challenge. Yet these international fixers had long experience in doing exactly this kind of action.
They have got form
In the early 1990s Asian gamblers recognised a potential market for globalised corruption long before anyone else in either the gambling or sports world. The king was Chinese-Indonesian match-fixer – ‘Uncle Frankie’. He began travelling to international football tournaments and offering bribes to players and referees to underperform.
According to multiple interviews with players, referees and officials, the first confirmed sighting of his group of fixers was at the 1991 Men’s under-17 World Cup in Melbourne, Australia. However, a similar operation had been done ‘domestically’ in 1986 in Singapore when players on the senior Canadian men’s team fixed a game against North Korea. HIs team of match-fixers went to many of the big international football tournaments in Africa, Australia, Asia, North America, Latin America and, of course, Europe. They often stayed at the same hotels that the players did. They offered money to many teams, players, officials and referees to fix games at various World Cup tournaments.
Uncle Frankie even approached some of the Swedish players in a sauna the night before their third place game in 1994 in the United States-hosted World Cup. According to a number of them, he pulled out a bag filled with cash and offered it to them if they lost the game. None of the Swedes took the money.
It was not only Asian fixers, in the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the FIFA-ranked referees were hidden away in a maximum-security compound used by the Vatican in central Rome. One source reported, “It was incredible. The phone lines were supposed to be confidential and unlisted, but the referees were receiving phone calls in their rooms from bookies offering bribes.“
FIFA knew about this problem. When I interviewed the then-President Sepp Blatter, he began our interview by saying, “Ahh yes, Mr. Hill, you want to speak to me about the Asian match-fixers. I have known about this problem for years.”
The then-president of the Ghana national football federation was unsurprised when it was discovered that there had been an attempt to fix an international match featuring his own team. He said, “In every competition you find gamblers around. Yes, every competition, every competition, they are there. It is done all the time in major competitions. In all the major tournaments, World Cup, Cup of Nations. The gamblers are not Africans, they are Europeans and Asians. So they have a lot of money to bet on these things.”
In the face of this problem, the attitude of FIFA seemed to have been that these fixers were the unluckiest tourists in the world. They went to all these different tournaments, on all these different continents; they approached all these different players, coaches and officials – yet they never succeeded, yet they kept coming back to try again.
Salaries, Addiction and Official Thievery
To be very clear, I do not think that Italian mobsters were able to corrupt two of the Brazilian players. Here is why. Even if the salaries were not the astronomical amounts that the players receive now, it was still enough to guarantee the integrity of players on a well-run national squad like Brazil. This is in contrast to the players from sub-Saharan Africa, who in the 1990s and early-2000s were good enough to be world-beater players, but were routinely robbed of their salaries and benefits by their national association officials.
However, it does not matter how much money you get paid, if you are a gambling addict. Domenic Matteo, the brilliant Scottish player, once declared that he had one million pound gambling debt. This meant that he had spent all his money – salary plus sponsorship and marketing that he had gained over years at the highest level of the sport, plus another one million – on gambling. Sadly, he is not alone. Sports are littered with gambling addicts. The very things that make top athletes good at their sport, make them terrible gamblers – as Paul Merson, Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Keith Gillespie, Matthew Etherington, Kenny Sansom, David Bentley, Michael Chopra, Joey Barton, Eidur Gudjohnen, Dietmar Hamann, Gianluigi Buffon, Boris Becker, Blake Ferguson, Michael Jordan, and countless others, among many sports and countries, will tell you. This does not mean that any of these players would have fixed a match, but, in general, gambling is a good gateway opportunity for mobsters.
Yet there was no player on the 1998 Brazilian national team with gambling issues. No one whose addiction may have led them astray. Thus, I think the fixer’s story of corrupting two players is untrue. However, I do believe that there is a strong possibility that something else may have occurred.
During the lead-up to the game – just after lunch – Ronaldo, the talismanic star of the team, lay down for a nap. During his sleep, he went into violent convulsions. His roommate Roberto Carlos immediately shouted for help. Another player, Edmundo witnessed what happened. Here is an excerpt of his testimony to Brazilian politicians, from the superb book ‘Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life’ by Alex Bellos:
Suddenly Ronaldo started to have a fit. His entire body convulsed, he frothed at the mouth and began to shake uncontrollably. Roberto Carlos, overwhelmed by panic, started screaming for help. “When I saw what it was, I despaired,” Edmundo told congress. “Because it was a really strong and shocking scene.” He ran through the hotel hitting on all the doors and shouting for everyone to come.
A congressmen asked the striker for more details. “Was Ronaldo hitting out or shaking?”
“Hitting out a lot,” replied Edmundo.
“Lying down and hitting himself with his hands like this, with his teeth . . . “
“Locked together and with his mouth foaming.”
“His whole body hitting itself?”
“The whole body, yes.”
Cesar Sampaio, the defender, was the first person to administer first aid. He got to Ronaldo before the doctors did and, with Edmundo holding him down, put his hand in Ronaldo’s mouth to unravel his tongue and prevent him swallowing it.
This is shocking stuff. Yet there was a match-fixing scandal involving Italian organized crime, Asian corruptors, European and Brazilian players that had a very similar modus operandi.
The Italian job – A Dangerous, Violent Network
For their part, Dan Tan and his group constitute a network that is both dangerous and quick to violence…. It takes very little in the case of treason by one of the group to risk their murder. (Guido Salvini, Cremona State Prosecutor)
The investigation began with a bizarre traffic accident. The goalkeeper of the Cremona team, in northern Italy, was at the wheel of his car. It had stopped and was blocking the road. The keys were in the ignition. The engine was still on but the player was fast asleep and could not be woken up. This incident occurred just after a match that the police later discovered had been fixed. The goalkeeper had refused to participate in the corruption. So someone, somehow, had drugged his water bottle.
From that one incident, the Italian organized crime investigators were able to reveal an entire multinational network of match-fixing. The structure of the corruption was the same as countless examples of fixing from the El Salvador national team to much of the Zimbabwean Football Association to the Lebanese national team to international players on the Malta and Canadian teams stretching over decades and continents.
The local fixers – Italians, in this case – were corrupting the games by bribing players, referees, coaches and officials.
The Asian fixers were working to get the money into the gambling market with no one noticing the corruption.
Figure 1, from my university courses on sports corruption, is an illustration of how this criminal marriage of convenience works.
It is the same now in multiple sports fixing networks across world. Here is an excerpt from a note that I received from a match-fixer in one of the Russian-mob connected tennis fixing gangs (names have been changed):
“Vanya – (he is a) facilitator and he works with Sasha. His connection to Asian betting markets where they can bet much bigger money and use their higher profile players. Vanya is connected to MANY SYNDICATES – he provides limits accounts, Asia betting connections, corrupted sport teams, he himself is fixing sport events in Bulgaria – and other football teams. He has huge connections in Bulgarian basketball.”
A different gang, a different sport but the same way of working. “Vanya” has influence among the criminals because he has connections to the Asian market. Thus he can get far larger amounts of money placed in the market. The network that the Italian investigators busted was structured along the same lines. The Italians worked with the Asians to fix the gambling market but their local European network had a range of Balkan criminals, and Hungarian, Italian and Brazilian players.
As for the sleeping goalkeeper in Cremona, he was fortunate that no one hit his car or him as he slept. It is also an explanation as to what could have happened to the star Brazilian player Ronaldo on that fateful day in 1998. It is notable that both players were effected with something linked to sleep. The national team doctors carefully examined Ronaldo at the time. They even took him to a Parisian hospital. But, naturally, they were not working as forensic detectives to figure out if there had been any poison, rather they were working as doctors concerned with Ronaldo’s health and then checking if he could play the final. It is also notable that for the rest of Ronaldo’s 14-year career at the top of the world’s game, he never again suffered from a similar event.
It is this, I believe, that may be the catalyst for the story among the Asian match-fixers. Their long-term ability to get close to the players and teams at the big sports tournaments. The tactics, among Italian fixers, of using drugs to affect performance.
An impartial reader may think, as I do, “Hang on! The fixers may have all concocted this story long after the event.”
Yet, here is an excerpt from my first book, ‘The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime’. It tells the story of a convicted match-fixer, thousands of miles around the world, who was so sure of the result of the Brazil vs. France match he told his entire prison before the game and he was witnessed doing so by police officials.
Heck! They Even Said It Themselves
Officially, the Singapore anti-corruption police are known as the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). In Chinese their title is the Foul Greed Investigation Bureau. They are a feared lot in Singapore, famous for dawn raids and strong-arm tactics.
At the CPIB headquarters is a museum where visitors can go on a tour of the artifacts of decades of investigations and successful convictions of a range of con men, crooks, and corruptors. In one corner in this hall of busted infamy is a StarTAC mobile phone. It is broken and bruised. The CPIB officers had to go into a sewer to recover it, after the phone was flushed down a toilet. But it is a mute testimony to the extraordinary powers of both the CPIB and Rajendran “Pal” Kurusamy.
Pal’s moment of glory came in 1998. He had been arrested for match-fixing in the Singapore league. He was in jail. Singaporean prisons are not places for the weak-kneed. The authorities do not subscribe to the idea of prisons as houses of reform or gentle correction. They are nasty, brutish, savage places. The German goalkeeper, Lutz Pfannenstiel, who was jailed there for match-fixing, described conditions inside: “At night there were people being raped. Someone died and I remember them carrying him out . . . I could hear the screams of people being caned. It was horrific.” But somehow, maybe by his ability to judge human nature, Pal thrived in the place. He managed to get a prison guard to smuggle in a mobile phone. From then on, he was set.
“I did everything,” he told me happily. “I worked from inside the prison. European matches, World Cup matches, international games.”
“Hold on,” I said. “Did you say that you were gambling on games inside a prison or you were fixing from inside the prison?”
“Both. I did both. I fixed games as well. Or I did until they caught me.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t believe you. You say you fixed a World Cup game from inside a Singaporean prison?”
“Oh yes; once you have the network it is easy. I tell you, I could tell any games that are fixed. Doesn’t matter what they are. And I could fix almost any match.”
Then he told me the story of how he achieved the ultimate soccer fixer’s goal, arranging a match in the World Cup Finals.
In the spring of 1998, Pal was finally back in prison, and the various appeals of the case were quashed. What is known both from Pal himself and the CPIB is that he paid a prison guard tens of thousands of dollars for a cellphone and replacement batteries. Even that, given Singapore’s tough stance on corruption, is pretty remarkable. But seemingly completely unfazed by his surroundings, Pal claims to have set out to fix games in the World Cup in France in 1998. The CPIB official I spoke to said:
Pal continued to match-fix, even in prison! He had a hand phone smuggled into his jail cell by a corrupt prison guard who we also caught.
The official did not specify which match or matches, but he did claim that had been the nature of Pal’s business inside the prison. Pal himself claimed that the game he had directly fixed was another one featuring one of the African teams.
There had been another curious incident at that World Cup, in June 1998, a furious Mike Saunders, the managing director of Victor Chandler, a large British bookmaker, announced to the press that he was convinced that there had been a fixed match in the World Cup. He said that there had been massive amounts of bets coming from Malaysia-Singapore, all on one outcome of one particular game. The rumours in the market was that one team had been bribed. The game Saunders claimed that had been a “bribery target” – one featuring the same game that Pal claimed to have fixed. He would tell me later, “We had agents working the Asian market, they were swamped. Their phones were going crazy. There is no doubt in my mind there was a fixed match in that World Cup.”
Whatever the specific truth of his fixing claims, Pal’s generous nature in prison got him into trouble. He claims he told the entire wing of his prison that they all should take France in the final:
Even in prison. Who will take the Cup? You know? But I know. I tell them – take France. Happens. Happens to beat them. Most people I tell them.
This final piece of flamboyance ensured that the prison authorities got to know about his activities, and one day they staged a sudden raid on his cell. Pal was on the phone and he frantically flushed the phone down the toilet. The CPIB, who by now were really angry with Pal, went down the sewer to get it. After retrieving the evidence, the furious authorities threw Pal into the ‘Shell’ – a solitary, underground cell – for corruption, illegal gambling and fixing.
In the twenty-four years since this match, the mystery of what may have happened in the 1998 World Cup Final has grown. There are countless articles and documentaries about it. Various theories have been raised. I bring this forward because it is a consistent story told by the fixers.
I also bring it forward at the end of a tournament whose atrocious labour and human rights conditions have utterly overshadowed the sport itself. Were the match-fixers at this particular tournament? Yes. Did they succeed? I have no idea. But I do fear that we may be entering a new era of sports corruption. One that is on an entirely higher level than bags full of cash and water bottles full of drugs….