On January 17, the Associated Press reported that the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) “has identified links between match-fixing gambling syndicates being unraveled in Spain and Belgium that are thought to have paid off dozens of players and corrupted lower-level tennis tournaments on a massive scale.” Moreover, Pedro Felicio, the head of Europol’s Economic and Property Crime Unit, said that there are “strong indications” that the match-fixers were also involved in volleyball, beach volleyball, and basketball.
Europol and other European Union (EU) member states’ police forces have made these connections as the result of multiple operations they conducted in 2018 against match-fixing rings. In a June 2018 law enforcement operation, police made 129 arrests in Spain and France and broke up a match-fixing ring that, according to Europol, had “close contact with many tennis, beach volleyball, basketball, and ice hockey players,” and bribed about 20 players to fix match outcomes on which the group then bet.
In another June 2018 law enforcement operation, against match-fixing in Belgium, police disrupted an apparently more extensive operation that authorities believe “to have paid at least 115 low-ranked players in more than half a dozen countries to fix games, sets and matches in exchange for payments of 500 to 3,000 euros ($570 to $3,400).” That operation, according to the Belgian Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, involved 21 house searches in 12 Belgian cities and towns, detention of 13 individuals for questioning, and coordinated operations in Germany, France, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Netherlands, and the United States. To date, investigators reportedly “have questioned players in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Slovakia, and Bulgaria and are looking to question others, including both players and managers, in the United States, Chile and Egypt.”
In addition, Europol recently reported that the Spanish Guardia Civil (Civil Guard), with Europol’s support, arrested 83 individuals – 28 of them professional tennis players, one of whom reportedly participated in the 2018 US Open – in an operation that dismantled an organized crime group involved in fixing professional tennis matches. In that operation, police conducted 11 house searches in Spain in which they seized €167 000 in cash, a shotgun, and more than 50 electronic devices, credit cards, five luxury vehicles, and documents related to the case, and obtained freezes of 42 bank accounts and the balances therein.
One common element in each of these operations was the identification of Armenian nationals as key operators of the match-fixing rings. With regard to the operation in Spain, Europol stated that the Armenian ring members not only used an unnamed professional tennis player as the link between the gang and the rest of the criminal group, but after bribing the players “attended the matches to ensure that the tennis players complied with what was previously agreed, and gave orders to other members of the group to go ahead with the bets placed at national and international level[s].”
A second common element is the existence of evidence connecting ostensibly different match-fixing rings. Felicio stated that “cross-checks of suspects’ names, their contacts, company details, places and people they frequented and phone records” pointed to links between the groups.
Multiple countries’ police forces and Europol are continuing to cooperate in these disruption and intelligence-sharing operations. Just last week, Belgian investigators reportedly traveled to France for police questioning of four low-ranked French tennis players, who had been detained because of suspicions that they had been paid to fix matches by an Armenian national who allegedly ran the Belgium-based match-fixing operation.
Note: Match-fixing in professional tennis remains a blot on the sport that is difficult to eradicate. In its 2018 Report, the Tennis Integrity Unit, professional tennis’s global anti-corruption body, reported that during 2018 it had taken action against players and chair umpires for match-fixing, ranging from suspension to lifetime bans. While there are welcome indications that professional tennis is dedicated to enhancing its anti-corruption regime, private-sector efforts that necessarily focus on participants in professional tennis will have little effect on professional criminals who can reap substantial profits from match-fixing.
Furthermore, as this blog recently noted, criminal organizations are conducting match-fixing on a multinational scale in sports beyond tennis and football (soccer). The spread of match-fixing across multiple professional sports and multiple countries make it imperative that law enforcement agencies in Europe and other countries, especially the United States, closely collaborate on two fronts: (1) intelligence-sharing, including further exploration of linkages between match-fixing operations and Armenian organized crime groups; and (2) law enforcement efforts to target the match-fixing rings’ leaders for criminal prosecution and forfeiture of their criminal proceeds.