The small man in the baseball cap looks like any other customer as he watches Euro 2012 in the busy coffee shop. It’s not until he turns and offers a wager that his real intention is revealed.
He is a “runner” for an illegal bookmaker, one of hundreds in Singapore, a foot-soldier in a loose criminal network which rakes in millions of dollars a day across Asia — and is at the root of a global epidemic of match-fixing.
“We just sit there and pretend like we’re watching the match, but actually we’re taking bets,” the runner, who does not want to be identified, said at a quiet, undisclosed location.
For him, big soccer events like Euro 2012 are lucrative enough to risk Singapore’s strict penalties of jail and the dreaded cane, which flays flesh from the buttocks and leaves prisoners unable to sit down.
He said there are hundreds of illegal betting operations across Singapore, each employing several runners who persuade punters to place bets, and then pay out winnings and chase up debts.
“Many [illegal bookmakers] fly by the night. So they open for a week, after that they close, take a break and then come back again,” he said. “Because it’s really illegal here — you get caught, it’s caning and jail.”
These are small-time hustlers, but from them, the money trail does not travel far before it is funding match-fixing in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and Europe — including Italy’s Calcioscommesse scandal — which has all been linked to Singapore.
When Singapore’s Wilson Raj Perumal, a virtuoso fixer whose schemes extended to organizing, and then rigging, international friendlies, was arrested last year in Finland, it exposed a web which is still being untangled.
On the eve of Euro 2012, SS Lazio captain Stefano Mauri was arrested and defender Domenico Criscito was axed from Italy’s squad over the Calcioscommesse scandal, which has been tied to Perumal’s alleged boss in Singapore.
Former Italy striker Giuseppe Signori was among those arrested last year. More arrests have been made in Hungary, where Perumal is now being held after his jail term for match-fixing in Finland.
Last year, Chris Eaton, then FIFA’s head of security, said Perumal had graduated from an “academy” of match-fixing in Singapore, where criminals closely linked to the illegal bookmakers learn their trade locally, before spreading further afield.
“Wilson Raj Perumal is not alone. There are others like him [in Singapore]. Singapore seems to feature a great deal in these [match-fixing] allegations,” the former Interpol officer told Singapore’s New Paper.
Fueled by a boom in online gambling, which means customers anywhere can bet on obscure games all over the world, match-fixing has now been uncovered in dozens of countries.
For bookmakers, it’s clear when a match is fixed, because of its unusual odds. These games are usually in smaller leagues, where low-paid players and referees are susceptible to bribes.
“The most important thing is to buy the referee. Once you get the referee on your side, you can instruct him what to do, for example with penalties and free-kicks,” the Singaporean runner explained.
Match-fixing in Italy is at the top of the illegal betting tree. At its base are Singapore’s runners, who work in groups of two or three, and report by phone to a shadowy bookmaker they never meet.