ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A European police agency this week made what should've been a startling announcement that hundreds of professional soccer matches around the world may have been rigged by gamblers in recent years. But the news was greeted inside the sport less as a shock than as confirmation of a rampant problem. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now as he does most Fridays. Hi, Stefan.
STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: And first, tell us about this investigation.
FATSIS: Well, the headline was the scope of the findings by this agency, Europol. It said it found evidence of 680 games that might have been rigged, including 150 international matches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 380 games in Europe, including qualifying matches for the World Cup and the European Championship, and two games in the prestigious Champions League in Europe, one of which was played in England. Europol said that 425 referees, players, club officials and serious criminals from more than 15 countries were suspected of trying to fix games.
SIEGEL: Those are pretty big numbers. How would all of that match-fixing actually work?
FATSIS: Well, it's largely done by gambling syndicates in Southeast Asia that have contacts around the world. A syndicate identifies a match, sometimes its leaders posing as sports agents have actually arranged matches. The matches often in the lower division of the league or involves national teams from less developed countries where on-field officials and players aren't paid much. Fixers then pay bribes that lead to, let's say, a bogus call by an official, a botched save by a goalkeeper.
The gambling syndicates that ordered the fix make bets, heavy bets on these games, often during the games, as the score fluctuates, on online betting exchanges that are spread across Southeast Asia. It's sophisticated. It's hard to police. There are more than 10,000 pro and national soccer teams in the world. And of the $1 trillion a year in sports gambling, 70 percent is on soccer.
SIEGEL: Wow. What was the reaction to this news among the leadership of the sport of soccer?
FATSIS: Well, there's some defensiveness, of course, and also proclamations that the sport is doing what it can. FIFA's boss, Sepp Blatter, claimed that most of the matches cited by Europol had been dealt with. And indeed, that may be true because there have been match-fixing scandals in recent years in Italy, Germany, Turkey, South Korea, China, South Africa and other countries. What was missing from Europol's announcement were specifics: no names, no games.
But published reports in Europe said that the suspicious Champions League matched involved a goalkeeper for a Hungarian team that played at Liverpool in 2009. And I was reading about a bunch of suspicious games between national teams from Europe, Africa, South and Central America. U.S. teams have not been mentioned.
SIEGEL: Well, as long as we're talking about soccer, though, the U.S. men's national team on Wednesday began the final round of qualifying for the next World Cup, next year in Brazil, and it began with a loss: 2-1 to Honduras.
FATSIS: Yes. In San Pedro Sula, in Honduras. It was the first of 10 games against five other countries in the region: Honduras, Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama. The top three of those countries will qualify for the World Cup. This is never easy. Away games in Latin America are hot, they can be very hostile toward Americans. But expectations are high with good reason, not only has the U.S. made the last six World Cups, but their new coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, was hired and is being paid $2.5 million a year to push the U.S. up a rung or two in international soccer. The next qualifier against Costa Rica, next month in Denver.
SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Stefan.
FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis, who talks with us most Fridays about sports and the business of sports. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.