By Paul Gardner
Europol forced itself into the news last week -- the soccer news, that is -- with a quasi-apocalyptic announcement that was not actually news at all.
We were informed that Europol has extensive information on a vast network of illegal gambling on soccer -- a global network it seems, based in Asia. Actually, Europol has told us this before. So why is it telling us again?
A word or two about Europol. It operates out of The Hague, Netherlands, where it is based in a huge and quite remarkably ugly building -- “brutalist” seems altogether too benign a term to describe its architecture. Inside this eyesore, labor Europol’s 800 staff members. Yes, eight hundred.
There is a sturdy logic to Europol’s function. In a world where borders are increasingly porous, policing can no longer limit itself to single countries. Crime operates internationally, policing must do the same.
It lists its chief “Areas of Expertise” as “drug trafficking, illicit immigration networks and trafficking in human beings, illicit vehicle trafficking, cybercrime, money laundering and forgery of money.”
No mention of gambling, or soccer, it will be noted.
Europol, says its website, is “the European Union’s law enforcement agency.” Which doesn’t sound right, not for an organization that admits it has “no direct powers of arrest.” What Europol does, evidently, is to investigate, collect evidence and then to inform the legal authorities in EU countries about what they have uncovered. Analysis, says Europol, is “at the core” of what it does.
Which brings us closer to the mystery of Europol’s non-news news announcement. It begins to look like a public reminder -- even a despairing cri de coeur -- to those European countries that it deems are not listening, that are not taking action.
The Germans, in 2009, did act, arresting 17 people and seizing around $1.5 million in cash and “other assets.” But the announcement of the swoop -- “over 50 raids in four countries” and the arrests was significantly short on details. No one was named, nor were any of the 200 allegedly fixed games identified -- though it soon became clear that they were games from lower leagues involving little-known teams.
The ring-leaders, said the Germans, had been caught, but that seemed hardly to matter given the atmosphere of menace that was painted: The ominous phrase “tip of the iceberg” was used.
But ... details. Where were the details? They were not to be found -- for the plausible reason that this was an ongoing investigation, and more arrests could be made. But there was said to be evidence of some $15 million in profits by illegal gambling cartels.
Which, it seems to me, is where the biggest problem lies. At first hearing, that’s a lot of money. But is it? Estimates of the amount of money bet daily -- mostly on soccer -- have been as high as $3 billion. The bulk of this comes from the Far East, where the appetite for gambling, particularly among the Chinese, is depicted as voracious.
The background, then, is that of a multi-billion dollar activity: According to one expert, the three largest -- legal -- betting houses in Asia each handle $2 billion worth of bets a week, while journalist Declan Hill, author of “The Fix,” a book dealing specifically with illegal gambling, calculates that Asian gambling, both legal and illegal, is a $450 billion-a-year industry.
Alongside those figures the amounts paraded by the investigators are negligible. The discrepancy is clearly to be seen in the latest Europol report, which credits the gambling syndicates with $11 million in profits and $3 million in bribes during 2008-2011 period.
In short, whatever may be the looming menace of widespread gambling, the latest Europol report does not make a very convincing case. The report seems to be based heavily on old cases and an investigation that has already been reported, and it is short on names and games and most details. It is difficult not to question the validity of a report that raises the specter of game-fixing, but totally fails to give any details of what sort of fixing is involved (e.g. is it result-fixing, or is it the much simpler spot-fixing?), and also omits to explain how the fixing was accomplished.
At a more fundamental level, one might even ask whether the report is saying that any games have been proved to have been fixed. It talks of 680 games have been identified as “suspicious.”
Just one hint of a specific game was allowed to slip through the lack of details -- a tantalizing reference to a Champions League game in England.
This was evidently meant to shock people. A top game in England? Probably it did shock -- for a few hours. But the game was quickly identified as that between Liverpool and the Hungarian club Debrecen, played in 2009. A game that had already been investigated by UEFA because the Debrecen goalkeeper was known to have talked with supposed match-fixers. He was duly given a two-year ban (for failing to report his contact with the gamblers), but that was all -- Debrecen later stated that the UEFA disciplinary committee had established that “no bribery, betting fraud or the influencing of the match took place” in any of its games.
If it was Europol’s intention to cause increased attention to the gambling situation by hinting at English club involvement, it appears to have backfired.
What I have written here is in no way intended to belittle any possible threat of widespread game-fixing. But from virtually all reports, the heart of the illegal gambling problem lies in the Far East, in Singapore. Beyond the immediate remit of Europol. It is in Asia that any effective police measures will have to be taken. A utterly frustrating situation for Europol.