– The players in both change rooms are calm just an hour before kick-off. After all they are confident they have been well coached on how to carry out their designated roles. The referee and linesmen have trained for this day and are quietly confident everything will go to plan without controversy.
That is until officials walk in unannounced for a last-minute chat. This is no pep talk but rather a grim warning, as they tell everyone in the rooms they have information that this top-level Italian game is bent as a corner kick.
The information has come from Sportrader, an international betting monitoring service that picks up unexplained late plunges that mirror previously fixed games.
This one is what is called a five-star fix – that is the betting syndicate has players on both sides on the take as well as the referee.
Such games can be manipulated to a 5-0 result – the gold-star standard for fixers. Any game where five goals are scored now raises suspicions, as match fixers are attracted to the long odds offered for high-scoring games.
But this time the gig is up. Within minutes players text the betting agents and Sportradar watches as the crooked punters desperately lay off their bets to minimise losses.
Sportradar has spent years analysing betting patterns of games known to be crooked and has developed software that identifies similar punting traffic.
“There has been a massive turnaround in Italy,” says Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton, who late last year was briefed by world experts at a sports integrity conference in Paris.
In confidential meetings, senior sports officials, police, government agencies and anti-corruption experts discussed what has become a worldwide problem – match fixing on an unprecedented scale that crosses national boundaries and sporting codes.
Three sports were named as being in deep trouble: soccer, cricket and tennis – all codes where players travel across the world to play countless matches, often in areas considered notoriously corrupt.
Millions of dollars are now punted on obscure games in strange locations. Exotic bets can be made on the next six hit, the next no-ball, the next double fault, the outcome of a penalty or even how many players will wear sunglasses on the field. And many of the players come from deeply impoverished backgrounds.
Elite competitions, including the Olympics and the World Cup, are rumoured to have been compromised.
Asian sports now identified as match-fixing targets include sumo wrestling, karate, badminton and table tennis.
Now cycling is tarnished with claims that Lance Armstrong was involved in bribery as well as doping.
This week what was discussed at the Paris conference was finally made public: the world game is hopelessly infected by match-fixing.
The European Union law enforcement agency, Europol, says nearly 700 games around the world are suspected of being fixed. It declared that 435 match officials, players, club officials and known criminals were linked to 380 suspected crooked games at different levels of professional soccer played throughout Europe.
A key to the claims is an international police operation code-named VETO, carried out in 13 countries that involved analysing 13,000 questionable emails.
Europol says the main ring is based in Singapore. In fact, police believe there are two major syndicates running out of Singapore with the capacity to influence sports around the world.
One was run by Wilson Raj Perumal, a Singaporean arrested in Finland two years ago this month.
His phone records read like those of a World Cup executive – he had the numbers of senior soccer officials in Asia, Europe and Africa. And they took his calls even after he was identified as a match-fixer.
Perumal was accused of bribing as many as 11 Finnish players, fielding a fake side as Togo’s national team in a rigged match against Bahrain and bribing players to lose in Thailand, Malaysia and Syria.
And his fingerprints were all over a suspicious 5-0 win by South Africa over Guatemala in 2010.
Ashton left the conference convinced that many local sports were vulnerable to being corrupted.
Another delegate at the conference was AFL integrity services manager Brett Clothier. What he learnt confirmed the league’s fears.
Some time ago, the league identified three threats to the integrity of the sport: gambling, salary cap breaches and performance-enhancing drugs.
It is now facing the perfect storm: Adelaide is implicated in player payment manipulation with Kurt Tippett; Melbourne is under investigation over tanking allegations connected to the draft; and there is Essendon’s questionable use of unspecified performance-enhancing supplements.
Clothier has become the most important man in football. If he finds that Essendon has used banned substances the results will catastrophic. But AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou told Fairfax Media the integrity of the game would not be compromised, no matter what the cost.
The AFL’s integrity unit has been enlarged, with a new intelligence analyst due to join later this month, and there are plans to recruit more investigators.
And the off-field rules have been tightened. Now investigators can seize all records, which means as part of the Essendon supplement investigation computers, phone records and financial documents are likely to be taken.
The AFL is looking at technology used by US baseball authorities to retrieve deleted tweets and emails from players and officials.
Increasingly, sports investigators are looking to electronic tracks rather than the results of dope tests to identify corrupt activity.
Indeed, the operation VETO soccer investigation relied more on the email trail than human sources to expose the major match-fixing syndicate. And the joint AFL-Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority investigation could attract police involvement if there is seen to be any criminal involvement or if illegal substances were imported into Australia.
Police are so concerned that they have had preliminary discussions about setting up a sports corruption squad to deal with code infiltration. But they believe at this stage the codes themselves should be aggressively dealing with the threats.
Ashton certainly believes match fixers will already be looking for likely targets in Australia. “I would be surprised if people were not being groomed here,” he says.
Police say that of all the sports, racing and AFL are the two to have developed the strongest integrity units, while others, particularly soccer, have left themselves exposed.
Asian gamblers are punting about $2 billion a month with legal and illegal bookmakers and increasingly, due to similar time zones, Australian sport has become a growth industry.
The international seminar was told that A-League soccer and Big Bash League Twenty20 cricket were particularly vulnerable. “Soccer is at the greatest risk and then cricket, ” says Ashton, adding that it is inevitable there will be attempts to fix matches here.
He says the threat has increased because a large number of international players are imported for the competitions, some of whom could already have relationships with match fixers.
He says the syndicates had talent scouts who groomed players as young as 13, providing them with sporting gear and coaching, only to call on them to fix a match when they turned professional.
Police also say sports have to develop integrity checks on sponsors and high-rolling supporters who can infiltrate clubs. Police know some overseas soccer teams have effectively been bought by the match fixers.
With the latest investigation into Essendon and possibly other clubs involving high-performance staff, the AFL will examine its own due-diligence protocols concerning staff and contractors employed within the industry.
Ashton says sports identities dabbling in illicit drugs are prime blackmail targets for match fixers. “It begins as a friendship and then turns nasty.”
As soon as the player is persuaded to perform a small favour, the demands become greater. “It may start with inside information on injury status or player position and then move to exotic betting such as first or last goal.
“It will not start with throwing a game but a spot-fix, which would be seen as more socially acceptable.
“Spot-fixing will be a huge risk for players here. Drop a mark, bowl a no-ball, miss a shot – that is a real risk.”
So much so that Ashton and racing integrity commissioner Sal Perna have helped the AFL produce scenario videos to show players how they could be compromised by betting syndicates.
For the past three weeks AFL officials have visited clubs, lecturing players on gambling, doping, illicit drugs and the dangers of being groomed by crooks.
Demetriou says: “We have beefed up the education programs to remind players about the pitfalls of organised crime.”
Users, including sports identities, caught on police phone taps buying small amounts of drugs from major dealers are not to be targeted. And the codes cannot be warned that their stars may be compromised, as tap material cannot be passed to non-law enforcement bodies.
Last month Perna asked the state government to change the laws so police could pass on information from phone taps that could expose race-fixing gangs. The AFL has also written to the government asking for the same deal.
Police want to cooperate but they cannot under present legislation. But Ashton says sporting codes would have to prove that they could hold such information securely before police would provide operational intelligence.
However, he says, information on phone taps gathered as part of serious crime investigations could be used to start separate police investigations into match fixing.
A recent example was how the homicide investigation into the 2011 murder investigation of trainer Les Samba stumbled upon information that a Cranbourne race may have been fixed.
In the current soccer scandal, detectives from a German organised crime taskforce investigating a Croatian gang connected to drugs and prostitution picked up links to match-fixing pivotal to the VETO inquiry.
And while the AFL has embraced the gambling dollar it is also well aware of the risks. The integrity unit monitors betting trends, investigating any suspicious activity.
Sport in Australia is no longer a game but a big business and there are crime syndicates looking for a slice.
If sporting codes want to chase the cash, they are duty-bound to spend some of it protecting the integrity of the competition. That’s why they call it a level playing field – John Silvester