HELSINKI (AP) — A man from Singapore was sentenced to two years in prison Tuesday for bribing players in the Finnish soccer league in a case FIFA described as a breakthrough in the global effort against match-fixing and illegal betting.
The verdict against Wilson Raj Perumal and nine players from the local team in Rovaniemi, near the Arctic Circle, highlighted the reach of the billion-dollar betting scams that have rocked the sport this year.
Perumal was high on FIFA's list of suspects when he was arrested in February while using a false passport in Finland, triggering a probe that exposed the worldwide extent of match-fixing.
"The most significant part of the Finnish investigation has been the arrest of Perumal and the identification of his network and the way in which he operated internationally," FIFA security director Chris Eaton told The Associated Press. "His arrest has enabled us to put a more global context — and perhaps to alert a lot more people who otherwise didn't understand it — to the realities of match fixing as a global criminal activity."
FIFA has linked Perumal to "a conspiracy to fix matches in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central and South America," Eaton said.
Perumal has been linked to some notorious suspected fixes — involving a Zimbabwe national team tour of Asia, and a fake Togo team playing in Bahrain — including matches handled by a referee from Niger who's at the center of another FIFA global probe.
Perumal's case prompted FIFA to forge stronger links with Interpol and authorities in Asia, considered a hotbed of soccer corruption and illegal betting.
Yet it was in Finland, a faraway and unlikely setting, where Perumal's activities were exposed.
The Lapland District court said Perumal, who was also convicted of forgery and trying to flee from officials guarding him, netted about $210,000 for fixing results in Finnish league matches from 2008-11. The scam focused on the RoPS team from Rovaniemi.
The court handed suspended sentences ranging from six months to 20 months to seven Zambian and two Georgian players of the Rovaniemi team for accepting bribes of $15,000 to $56,000 each to affect the outcome of matches.
The court said 24 Rovaniemi matches were fixed, and that Perumal's involvement was proven in seven. It said he also fixed two other Finnish league matches, involving the Oulu and Mariehamn teams.
Perumal was "an associate" in a group of six people from Asia and Eastern Europe specializing in "manipulating football games globally," the ruling said. The syndicate allegedly made up to $2 million per game for match-fixing worldwide.
Perumal's role "included organizing games and tournaments, communicating with players, referees and other key persons, and developing new ideas regarding match-fixing," the court said.
Perumal's conviction is a second major defeat for fixers this year. A court in Bochum, Germany, jailed members of a Croatian-led syndicate who claimed to have fixed around 300 matches, including a World Cup qualifier and games in around a dozen European leagues.
Match-fixing scandals are also being investigated in Turkey, Italy, South Korea, Israel, Greece and El Salvador.
Eaton said FIFA had been "looking for Perumal for some time" before he showed up in Finland.
"We couldn't find him, quite frankly," Easton said. "He was not in Singapore. History will show that his arrest was, in fact, fortuitous. There was no police interest (in Finland) in Perumal for match-fixing. The interest was that he was in Finland on a false passport."
Prosecutors have said three other match-fixers were involved in the Rovaniemi case but they have not been able to establish their identities. They have also launched an investigation into Zeddy Saileti, a Zambian who played 16 seasons for RoPS before retiring in 2009. According to Tuesday's ruling, the players convicted in the case said that Saileti "instigated" the match-fixing at RoPS.
RoPS chairman Risto Niva said Saileti is believed to be in Zambia.
"These convictions are a very good thing," Niva told AP, adding that RoPS can now move on and "start fresh."
It wasn't immediately clear whether Perumal, who confessed to some of the charges, would appeal. His defense lawyer Pertti Poykko said Perumal did not want to comment on the verdict.
In Finland, first-time offenders who are sent to prison normally serve only half of their sentence, minus time served during the investigation. This means Perumal, who has no criminal record in Finland, could be released as early as February or March next year.
Last week, the Zimbabwe Football Association identified Perumal in its 160-page report into alleged match-fixing on national team tours to Asia from 2007-09. Officials, players and coaches were accused of taking bribes from betting syndicates to fix 15 matches. jZimbabwe captain Method Mwanjali and other players gave sworn statements admitting taking between $500 and $1,500 to lose matches by specific scores on a 2009 tour to Thailand and Malaysia.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter has said Zimbabwe players are facing life bans, and a FIFA team will visit the country next month to discuss likely sanctions, Eaton said.
Perumal came to worldwide media attention last September for allegedly sending a fake Togo team to Bahrain for an exhibition that the unwitting host easily won 3-0.
The referee in Bahrain, chosen by match organizers, was Ibrahim Chaibou of Niger. He is suspected of taking bribes to manipulate a string of international exhibitions, often by awarding penalties for hand ball violations. FIFA is investigating the exhibitions.
South Africa's 5-0 victory over Guatemala in May 2010 and Nigeria's 4-1 victory over Argentina last month are under suspicion.
FIFA said it was studying betting patterns during the Nigeria-Argentina match which "forms part of a wider ongoing FIFA investigation."
Jari Tanner reported from Helsinki; Graham Dunbar reported from Geneva.