A soccer referee named Ibrahim Chaibou walked into a bank in a small South African city carrying a bag filled with as much as $100,000 in $100 bills, according to another referee travelling with him.
The deposit was so large that a bank employee gave Mr Chaibou a gift of commemorative coins bearing the likeness of Nelson Mandela.
Later that night in May 2010, Mr Chaibou refereed an exhibition match between South Africa and Guatemala in preparation for the World Cup, the world's most popular sporting event.
Even to the casual fan, his calls were suspicious - he called two penalties for hand balls even though the ball went nowhere near the players’ hands.
Chaibou, a native of Niger, had been chosen to work the match by a company based in Singapore that was a front for a notorious match-rigging syndicate, according to an internal, confidential report by FIFA, the soccer’s world governing body.
FIFA’s investigative report and related documents, which were obtained by The New York Times and have not been publicly released, raise serious questions about the vulnerability of the World Cup to match fixing.
The tournament opens June 12th in Brazil.
The report found that the match-rigging syndicate and its referees infiltrated the upper reaches of global soccer in order to fix exhibition matches and exploit them for betting purposes.
It provides extensive details of the clever and brazen ways that fixers apparently manipulated “at least five matches and possibly more” in South Africa before the last World Cup. As many as 15 matches were targets, including a game between the United States and Australia, according to interviews and emails printed in the FIFA report.
Although corruption has vexed soccer for years, the South Africa case gives an unusually detailed look at the ease with which professional gamblers can fix matches, as well as the governing body’s severe problems in policing itself and its member federations.
The report, at 44 pages, includes an account of Chaibou’s trip to the bank, as well as many other scenes describing how matches were apparently rigged.
After one match, the syndicate even made a death threat against the official who tried to stop the fix, investigators found.
“Were the listed matches fixed?” the report said. “On the balance of probabilities, yes!” The Times investigated the South African match-fixing scandal by interviewing dozens of soccer officials, referees, gamblers, investigators and experts in South Africa, Malaysia, England, Finland and Singapore.
The Times also reviewed hundreds of pages of interview transcripts, emails, referee rosters and other confidential FIFA documents.
FIFA, which is expected to collect about $4 billion in revenue for this four-year World Cup cycle for broadcast fees, sponsorship deals and ticket sales, has relative autonomy at its headquarters in Zurich.
But The Times found problems that could now shadow this month’s World Cup.
FIFA’s investigators concluded that the fixers had probably been aided by South African soccer officials, yet FIFA did not officially accuse anyone of match fixing or bar anyone from the sport as a result of those disputed matches.
A FIFA spokeswoman said Friday that the investigation into South Africa was continuing, but no one interviewed for this article spoke of being contacted recently by FIFA officials. Critics have questioned FIFA’s determination and capability to curb match fixing.
Many national soccer federations with teams competing in Brazil are just as vulnerable to match-fixing as South Africa’s was: They are financially shaky, in administrative disarray and politically divided.
Ralf Mutschke, who has since become FIFA's head of security, said in a May 21st interview with FIFA.com that "match fixing is an evil to all sports," and he acknowledged that the World Cup was vulnerable.
"The fixers are trying to look for football matches which are generating a huge betting volume, and obviously, international football tournaments such as the World Cup are generating these kinds of huge volumes," Mr Mutschke said. "Therefore, the World Cup in general has a certain risk."
Mr Chaibou, the referee at the centre of the South African case, said in a phone interview that he had never fixed a match, and he denied knowing or having ever spoken to Wilson Raj Perumal, a notorious gambler who calls himself the world's most prolific match fixer and whom FIFA called one of the suspected masterminds of the South Africa scheme.
“I did not know this man,” Mr Chaibou said. “I had no contact with him ever.” Mr Chaibou said FIFA had not contacted him since his retirement in 2011. He declined to answer any questions about money he may have received in South Africa.
The tainted South African matches were not the only suspect ones.
Europol, the European Union's police intelligence agency, said last year that there were 680 suspicious matches played globally from 2008 to 2011, including World Cup qualifying matches and games in some of Europe's most prestigious leagues and tournaments.
"There are no checks and balances and no oversight," Terry Steans, a former FIFA investigator who wrote the report on South Africa, said of the syndicate's efforts there in 2010.
“It’s so efficient and so under the radar.” Referees for Sale As players from South Africa and Guatemala gathered for their national anthems, Mr Chaibou stood between the teams at midfield. He was flanked by two assistant referees who had also been selected by Football 4U International, the Singapore-based company that was the front for the match-rigging syndicate.
They were present because of a shrewd manoeuvre the fixers had begun weeks earlier to penetrate the highest levels of the South African soccer federation. A man identifying himself as Mohammad entered the federation offices in Johannesburg carrying a letter dated April 29th, 2010.
The letter offered to provide referees for South Africa’s exhibition matches before the World Cup and pay for their travel expenses, lodging, meals and match fees, taking the burden off the financially troubled federation.
“We are extremely keen to work closely with your good office,” the letter read.
It was signed by Perumal, the match fixer, who was also an executive with Football 4U. The offer sounded strange to Steve Goddard, the acting head of refereeing for the South African Football Association at the time.
An amiable, heavyset Englishman who sometimes used a table leg for a walking stick, Goddard had had an eclectic career in and out of soccer. He sang in Welsh choirs and worked as a sound engineer for an album made at Abbey Road Studios.
He knew that FIFA rules allowed only national soccer federations to appoint referees. Outside companies, like Football 4U, had no such authority.
Several days later, Mr Goddard said, Mohammad returned and offered him a bribe of about $3,500, saying he was holding up the deal.
Mr Goddard said he declined the offer. Nevertheless, other South African executives moved forward with Football 4U. At least two contracts were drafted, giving Football 4U permission to appoint referees for five of the country’s exhibition matches. The FIFA report called the contracts “so very rudimentary as to be commercially laughable.”
One contract, unsigned, bore the name of Anthony Santia Raj, identified by FIFA as an associate of the Singapore syndicate. The other contract was signed by Leslie Sedibe, then the chief executive of the South African soccer federation. In an interview, Mr Sedibe said that someone from Football 4U had lied to him about the company's intentions, and that the FIFA report belonged "in a toilet."
“It is the biggest load of rubbish,” he said. Santia Raj could not be reached for comment. Investigators found that South African soccer officials performed no background checks on “Mohammad” or Football 4U.
The company was already infamous: It had attempted to fix a match in China about eight months earlier. Mohammad turned out to be Jason Jo Lourdes, another associate of the Singaporean match-fixing syndicate, according to the FIFA report. Lourdes could not be reached for comment.
The report said the South African soccer officials were “either easily duped or extremely foolish.” But their behaviour “inevitably leads to the conclusion” that several employees of the federation “were complicit in a criminal conspiracy to manipulate these matches,” the report said.
Fixers are attracted to soccer because of the action it generates on the vast and largely unregulated Asian betting markets. And if executed well, a fixed soccer match can be hard to detect. Players can deliberately miss shots; referees can eject players or award penalty kicks; team officials can outright tell players to lose a match.
Most fixed bets are placed on which team will win against the spread and on the total number of expected goals.
Gamblers often place large bets in underground markets in Asia. By some estimates, the illegal betting market in Asia amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
The South African federation, troubled by financial difficulties and administrative dysfunction, was a ripe target.
Once Football 4U had insinuated itself, the syndicate was able to switch referees at the last moment, and it had access to dressing areas and the sidelines.
“The situation was ideal for the criminal organization using Football 4U to exploit these vulnerabilities and to offer money to SAFA staff, who were themselves suffering financial hardship,” the FIFA report said.
Perumal did not respond to requests for an interview. But he wrote a memoir, published in April, that captured his brazenness and provided details consistent with FIFA’s report.
He wrote that his group offered $60,000 to $75,000 to Chaibou and his crew for each exhibition match they would fix.
“I can do the job,” Mr Chaibou replied, according to Perumal’s memoir, “Kelong Kings.” (“Kelong” is Malay slang for match fixing.)
The memoir says Mr Chaibou was paid $60,000 for manipulating the South Africa-Guatemala match. The day of the match, Mr Chaibou walked with Robert Sithole, a South African member of the officiating crew, to a Bidvest Bank in Polokwane, about three hours northeast of Johannesburg, Mr Sithole said in the report.
Mr Sithole told investigators that he watched as Chaibou deposited a “quite thick” wad of $100 bills, perhaps as much as $100,000, though Mr Sithole could not be certain of the amount. Mr Chaibou said he wired the money to his wife in Niger, according to the report.
A woman at the bank gave Mr Chaibou a gift of coins bearing the likeness of Mandela, an apparent reward for “having deposited a huge amount of money on this account,” Mr Sithole told FIFA investigators.
Hours later, Mr Chaibou arrived at Peter Mokaba Stadium for the match. Another referee from Niger was scheduled to officiate.
Instead, Mr Chaibou took the field.
That night, only seats in the lower bowl were full, but the crowd of about 25,000 was noisily expectant. As the match began, FIFA’s Early Warning System, which monitors gambling on sanctioned matches, began to detect odd movements in betting. Gamblers kept increasing their expectations of how many goals would be scored, a possible sign of insider betting.
Before the match, the betting line had been 2.68 goals, an ordinary number, said Matthew Benham, a former financial trader who runs a legal gambling syndicate in England. By kickoff, the expected goals rose drastically, to 3.48, and then to more than 4 during the match, Mr Benham said.
The questionable calls began early. In the 12th minute, South Africa scored on a penalty kick after a Guatemalan defender was called for a hand ball even though he was clearly outside the penalty area.
At halftime, the two assistant referees from Tanzania “looked shivering, nervous,” Mr Sithole said in the report. He was part of the officiating crew.
In the 50th minute, Guatemala was awarded a suspicious penalty kick for a hand ball, even though a South African defender stopped a shot in front of the goal with his chest, not his arm.
Mr Goddard watched from the grandstands, where he noticed others seemed just as incredulous about the refereeing. A South African broadcaster kept looking in his direction in disbelief.
A fellow South African soccer official repeatedly turned to Mr Goddard with open arms, as if to say, “What about that?”
In the 56th minute, another debatable penalty kick was awarded to South Africa, which resulted in the team’s fourth goal in a 5-0 rout.
The FIFA report stated plainly that “we can conclude that this match was indeed manipulated for betting fraud purposes.”
South Africa had one more warm-up match, against Denmark on June 5th, before it opened the World Cup. While expectations for the team soared, some officials in the South African soccer federation had grown concerned about the refereeing.
The night before the match with Denmark, several South African officials delivered a stern lecture to the appointed referees, who were from Tanzania and had been selected by Football 4U. Nothing inappropriate would be tolerated, they were told.
Ace Kika, one of three South African federation officials present, was vehement. He later complained to investigators that men connected to Football 4U had consistently tried to enter the referees’ dressing room at halftime of the exhibition matches.
The morning of the Denmark match, the scheduled chief referee withdrew, citing a stomach bug, although the report described him as “clearly alarmed.”
A substitute referee was needed - fast. Given the officiating in the Guatemala match, Goddard already had another referee on standby.
"I was prepared for anything to happen that afternoon," he said in an interview. He persuaded Matthew Dyer, a respected South African referee, to officiate, even though it was unusual for a referee to work a match involving his home country. But when Mr Goddard arrived at the stadium, he found a familiar figure already there - Mr Chaibou. As the teams prepared to take the field, Mr Dyer was hidden away in an unused room to perform his warm-up exercises.
Mr Chaibou received a massage and completed his own warm-ups, but that was as far as he got.
As Mr Chaibou waited in a tunnel to lead the teams onto the field, Mr Goddard said, he put his hand on Mr Chaibou’s shoulder and told him: “I am kicking you out of the match. You are joining me in the grandstand.”
Another South African soccer official said he locked Mr Chaibou in the referees’ dressing room while Mr Dyer took the field instead. South Africa won, 1-0.
In Perumal’s memoir, he wrote that the fixers had wanted three goals in the match, and that $1 million “went up in smoke.”
He also wrote that Mr Goddard was “a big troublemaker.” After the match, as Mr Goddard drove away from the stadium, his cellphone rang. It was Perumal, who had once been convicted of assault for breaking the leg of a soccer player in an aborted match-fixing attempt.
“This time, you really have gone too far and, you know, we’re going to eliminate you,” he said, according to Mr Goddard. Perumal later bragged about the episode, the report said. But in his memoir he said that he had threatened only to sue Mr Goddard for breach of contract, not kill him.
The South African officials made no written report of the threat and did not alert FIFA or the police at the time. But Mr Goddard said he took the threat so seriously that “to save my life,” his colleague, Kika, suggested that they allow the Singapore syndicate to pick the referee for the next day’s exhibition match between Nigeria and North Korea. Under duress, Goddard said, he agreed.
“That was basically to save my neck,” he said in an interview. That night, at 8.26pm, Kika sent an email granting permission for Football 4U executives to appoint the referee.
Kika declined a request for comment. The referee in the Nigeria-North Korea match made several questionable calls. FIFA investigators could not confirm whether it was Mr Chaibou, but they said the referee was definitely not the Portuguese official who had been assigned.
The referee took “a very harsh stance” in giving a red card for a seemingly lesser infraction, and he later took “a very liberal stance” in awarding a suspicious penalty kick, the report said.
Nigeria won, 3-1. If the Singapore syndicate was not shocked by the result, many bettors were. “We were absolutely trashed in that game,” said Benham, the professional gambler.
“It made no sense at all in the betting market.” As South Africa faced Denmark on June 5th, the United States defeated Australia, 3-1, in another exhibition.
According to an email from Perumal to Kika on May 24th, the Singapore syndicate asked to provide referees for the match. In an interview, Goddard said that Football 4U proposed using three referees from Bosnia and Herzegovina who, according to the FIFA report, would later receive lifetime bans from soccer for their involvement in match fixing.
Mr Goddard said he had warned American and Australian officials of Football 4U’s intentions. Ultimately, South African referees officiated the match. US soccer officials said they did not recall receiving any warnings about fixers or a change in referees.
The FIFA report gives no indication that the game was manipulated. "We've never heard anything about this before and have no reason to doubt the integrity of the match," said Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation.
Even if it could not place referees in the US match, Perumal wrote in his memoir that the Singapore syndicate walked away from the South African friendlies “with a good four to five million dollars.”
Shrugging at the Evidence Perumal remained in South Africa until June 30th, 2010, deep into the World Cup, according to the FIFA report. Perumal wrote that he offered a referee $400,000 to manipulate a World Cup match, but that the referee declined because he thought Perumal had a “loose tongue.”
After the World Cup, a freelance journalist, Mark Gleason, reported suspicions among some African soccer officials that exhibition matches had been rigged. FIFA did nothing at the time.
In fact, FIFA did not investigate the suspicious games for nearly two years, until March 2012. By then, Mr Chaibou had reached FIFA's mandatory retirement age, 45. FIFA has said it investigates only active referees, so its investigation of Mr Chaibou stopped. "It took a while to get around to it, longer than we would have liked," Mr Steans, the author of the report, said in an interview.
At the time, FIFA’s investigative staff amounted to five people responsible for examining dozens of international match-fixing cases, he said. The group has no subpoena power or law enforcement authority. Investigators spent only three days in South Africa and never interviewed the referees or the teams involved, the report said. An unsuccessful attempt was made to interview Mr Chaibou at the time, according to Steans.
FIFA officials in Zurich received the report in October 2012 and passed it to the soccer officials in South Africa; it had little meaningful effect there.
A few South African officials were suspended but later reinstated. And no one was charged with a crime even though FIFA had found “compelling evidence” of fixed exhibitions and apparent collusion by some South African soccer officials.
“We never got to speak to the referees, which was sad,” said Mr Steans, who operates his own sports security firm. “It would have tied up a lot of loose ends. I’m sure they would have given us some relevant information.” Mr Sedibe, then the chief executive of the South African soccer federation, shrugged off the report as a politically motivated witch hunt.
“Why is it taking so long to get to the bottom of this?” he said. “Why not refer this matter to the police to investigate and bring closure to it?”
Three months after the suspicious South African matches, Perumal was linked to another daring scheme. In September 2010, he organized a match in Bahrain in which the opponent was a fake squad claiming to be the national team of Togo, in West Africa.
The referee for that match? Mr Chaibou.
The presence of Football 4U and Mr Chaibou made soccer organizers uneasy. In 2011, a South African official, Adeel Carelse, said that after being misled by some in his national federation, he learned that Mr Chaibou was about to referee an under-23 match in Johannesburg. Mr Carelse said he raced across the city with a car full of South African referees to replace Mr Chaibou's crew at the last minute.
Mr Chaibou retired to Niger in 2011.
Perumal was arrested in Finland in 2011 and found guilty of corruption. He was given a two-year sentence, although he was released early.
He was arrested again in Finland in late April for his continued role in match fixing. Since the South African episode, Steans has left FIFA. He said the investigative staff in Zurich had a docket of about 90 match-fixing cases worldwide.
To seriously combat match fixing, Mr Steans said, FIFA needs at least 10 investigators working full time on monitoring the manipulation of games, and two offices in each of its six international soccer confederations.
“You need the local intelligence and local knowledge on the ground,” Mr Steans said. “You need to be talking to sources face to face to get live information that helps you counter match fixing before the fix happens.”
A FIFA spokeswoman said Friday that the Zurich staff now included six investigators and that FIFA worked with a broad network of law enforcement officials including Interpol. Delia Fischer, the spokeswoman, said that for the World Cup, 12 security officers would be assigned to each stadium, with the monitoring of potential match fixing among their duties.
In addition, Fischer said, a security staff of 18 will be on hand from FIFA headquarters in Zurich. Mr Mutschke, FIFA’s security chief, said on the organization’s website that a primary concern about fixing is the third and final game of the group phase of the World Cup, when a particular team has been eliminated or has already qualified for the second round.
“Prevention is not something where you can see easy success stories the next day,” Mr Mutschke said in the FIFA.com interview. “So we are investing in long-term solutions, and we certainly need the help of our member associations as well to be successful in the end.”
In late 2012, an elite anticorruption police unit, called the Hawks, said it was investigating potential corruption linked to the match-fixing scandal inside South Africa’s soccer federation, including a possible bribe of about $800,000.
But in March, president Jacob Zuma of South Africa said he would not form a commission to examine charges of match fixing, leaving the matter to FIFA.
“I’m disappointed for South African football,” Mr Steans said.
“I’m disappointed for football in general because when these things happen to the game, they need to be investigated and the truth found. And two years, well, four years since this happened was way too long.”
New York Times