JOHANNESBURG — 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 traveling with him. The deposit was so large that a bank employee gave Chaibou a gift of commemorative coins bearing the likeness of Nelson Mandela.
Later that night in May 2010, 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 12 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 21 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,” Mutschke said. “Therefore, the World Cup in general has a certain risk.”
Chaibou, the referee at the center 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,” Chaibou said. “I had no contact with him ever.”
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.”
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,” Chaibou replied, according to Perumal’s memoir, “Kelong Kings.” (“Kelong” is Malay slang for match fixing.)
The memoir says Chaibou was paid $60,000 for manipulating the South Africa-Guatemala match.
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, Chaibou had reached FIFA’s mandatory retirement age, 45. FIFA has said it investigates only active referees, so its investigation of Chaibou stopped. “It took a while to get around to it, longer than we would have liked,” 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 Chaibou at the time, according to Steans.
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, 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,” 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 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,” 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.”