As a soccer player banned for match-fixing seeks to have Football Federation Australia permit him to rejoin the game, a former FIFA integrity official warns such a move would make a mockery of the fight against corruption in the sport. By Jack Kerr.

FFA, FIFA, match-fixing and sports integrity

He landed at Tullamarine just before kick-off, scrambled through customs, raced to the taxi rank and told the driver to head for the stadium. He was writing the inside story of an international match-fixing syndicate for a major American sports network, and the final chapter was waiting for him here on the other side of the Pacific – he was about to see a fixed game in action.

The trip to Melbourne’s sports and entertainment district seemed unbearably long. The AFL’s second semi-final was about to get under way at the MCG, and Geelong and Port Adelaide supporters were out in force. But the reporter hadn’t flown halfway around the world to watch Australian Rules football. He was heading to the Kevin Bartlett Reserve in Burnley, for a soccer match. 

The club he was going to see was Southern Stars, a team barely known even in its own outer-suburban neighbourhood, but one that could – like many obscure Australian sports teams – attract big money on the massive, semi-legal betting markets of Asia. The game was the last the team would play before Victoria Police swooped, arresting a fixer and the coach, along with player after well-credentialed player. There were enough arrests to nearly fill a team sheet, and all of them flown in from south-east England or central Europe. It was a talent-packed side, and one that made millions for those pulling the strings: first by losing match after match, then, when the odds were stacked against them, by going for the win.

It’s now three years since Nick McKoy, a defensive midfielder with a bumper CV from England, pleaded guilty. He was given a $1500 fine by the courts and a lifetime ban by international governing body FIFA. Now aged 30, and still living in Melbourne, he’s itching to play the game again and recently approached local football authorities about getting his ban lifted.

McKoy has already had his conviction overturned, after a magistrate in 2014 was moved by his story – that he had been lured to Australia on a lie, then forced into fixing. She likened his situation to “modern slavery”. But should he succeed in persuading FIFA and Football Federation Australia that he’s worthy of a second chance, some sports integrity experts believe it will be a hammer blow to the fight to keep the game clean.  

“Australia should be taking a tough stance against match-fixing and any person involved with match-fixing,” says Mike Pride, a former Australian Federal Police officer and ex-FIFA sports integrity investigator specialising in match-fixing. The courts barely gave the guilty players a slap on the wrist, he says, and football needs to stand firm. “McKoy, by his own admissions, was involved with fixing these matches. Why should he have his lifetime ban overturned?”

While the Southern Stars case has been revered as one of world’s best-run match-fixing stings, Pride wonders how much bigger it might have been. As events were unfolding in Melbourne, Pride was digging into a much bigger scandal the fixers were working on throughout England. At one point during his dealings with the syndicate, he was shown a contract purportedly signed by the management of an Australian club that granted control of player selections to the fixers for half of the season. He also had a revealing conversation with the syndicate’s kingpin, Wilson Raj Perumal, about their operation in Australia and their plans for the 2014 season.

“I’m going to dump all these players on a working visa in Australia – especially in Brisbane,” Perumal can be heard saying in a recording of the call. “And I’m going to get about three or four boys to play in each club in Brisbane. These boys are all good players, okay. And they are going to voluntarily go to the club and say can I join you, because I’m on a working visa ... So we have another one year to make money.”

The players in question were from across Europe, including France and Belgium, and Perumal says they would be making him “marginal money”, in order to avoid catching the eye of Sportradar. The betting and match-fixing monitoring outfit had just started keeping an eye on Australia’s state leagues, after it noticed so many players it was closely monitoring in England migrating.

When asked if his players could guarantee a result, Perumal responded: “That is the purpose of why they are going down there. These players, it’s like a horse race, like what I told you. If you let a class one horse race against a class four horse, he’s just going to canter and win the race. So if I’m going to put four or five horses down there, I will definitely be able to achieve the result.”

David Forrest, an English academic and expert in this field, says it would be surprising if the Southern Stars have been the only team fixing in Australia. “For every case that comes to light, you expect there to be ones that don’t,” he says, “because it’s so hard to prove.”

For a start, Forrest says, no one was monitoring betting odds in Australia prior to the Southern Stars case. Then there’s the extraordinary popularity of Australian sport with punters in Asia, where most of the betting on fixed matches takes place. Liquidity – in other words, a sizeable betting market – is like camouflage, he says.

But it can’t hide everything, and where it does show something wrong, such data is now more powerful than ever. That follows a case in July this year in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) between the European football confederation and an Albanian club. The CAS found that a ban on KS Skenderbeu should be upheld, even if it was based almost entirely on suspicious betting data from Sportradar. As with the AFL’s anti-doping tribunal finding against Essendon, the Albanian club learnt that the world’s sports court need only be “comfortably satisfied” that a misdemeanour had taken place for sanctions to occur. Forrest – who has previously assessed the validity of Sportradar for European football authorities – testified in the case.

In Britain, the individual betting records of one player recently led to him being banned. “A pattern is discernible of larger bets being placed on matches involving one particular team,” wrote England’s Football Association in its report on AFC Hornchurch’s Lewis Smith, whose betting was described as both “prolific” and remarkably successful. He was found to have bet on “several other matches where betting activity was flagged as suspicious”, while “others closely associated with him placed identical bets on identical outcomes in certain matches. The suggestion that the associated bets were in some way purely coincidental is fanciful.”

The matches Smith bet on mostly took place in 2012-13. At the end of the season, he flew across the world for three games with the Southern Stars. There, he played alongside several old teammates, including McKoy. Though McKoy had only played three games himself with Hornchurch, it was in one of them, against a team called Chelmsford, that Smith was found to have bet on his own team to lose. They did. England’s FA points out there is nothing to suggest a fix occurred in that game, merely that such a bet creates “an inevitable erosion of trust and confidence in a fair and impartial result”.  

Via social media, I reached out to an old teammate of both Hornchurch and the Southern Stars. He was glad to hear McKoy was attempting to get his ban overturned. I asked if he had anything to say that could help his former teammate’s attempts to get his ban lifted. Was McKoy’s situation different? He replied with an emoji spouting tears of laughter. It was the last I heard from him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 12, 2016 as "Penalty shootout".

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Jack Kerr is a dual Australian Sports Commission Media Awards winner who writes about the business of sport.

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