The syndicate targeted the Canadian Soccer League (CSL), a semi-pro league in Ontario and Quebec that serves as a feeder system for Canadian major league clubs.
CBC News obtained evidence of the match-fixing from hundreds of hours of police wiretaps revealed during a 2011 German court case into one of the largest sports-fixing scandals to hit Europe. The syndicate manipulated domestic league games around the world.
In Canada, interviews conducted by CBC News with dozens of players, soccer officials and other sources painted a picture of a semi-pro league in which players were routinely approached to fix games.
Stefan Conen, a lawyer representing one of the European fixers convicted in the Berlin court, not only admitted to CBC News that his client helped fixed a game in Canada, but says the syndicate targeted the CSL for a specific reason.
"It's easier to fix a game in the lower leagues, there’s less control, less attention to those games, plus the players earn less so they’re easier to compromise for money," Conen said.
Some CSL players earn only about $5,000 for a season of weekend games.
"If we don’t become rich here, then I don't know where we could become rich," the plotters were caught saying on the wiretaps.
Small matches, big business
One Canadian Soccer League player, who spoke to CBC News on the condition of anonymity, described how he was approached to fix a game outside a team dressing room.
"[The] guy called me over to the fence where the fans are and he's like, 'Wanna make some money?'"
The player said he has been repeatedly propositioned over the past couple seasons to fix games. "I get approached a lot and me, personally, I turn it down."
However, not all players turned it down, according to the wiretaps.
"I gave the money to [a player] who has family in Canada,” one of the fixers was heard saying. "The bagman went to see him in Canada."
Experts suggest the European crime syndicate concentrated on the obscure league in Canada because of recent trends in online betting.
"The betting industry is a global business. It's 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year," said Darren Small, the director of integrity at England-based Sportradar, a company that monitors sports gambling. "So the operators wish to offer a match for betting at any second of any part of the day."
Gamblers are not just betting on who wins the game, but by the number of goals scored, or even how many red or yellow cards will be handed out by the referee.
"A game in Canada may not be of any particular interest to a domestic audience," said Small. "But actually, abroad in Asia, in Europe, in other parts of North America, maybe in South America there may be an interest in that game because it is being offered live and there is an activity on it on the betting side.”
Canadian Soccer League games are available on dozens of online gambling sites, which allow wagers of up to 150,000 Euros ($180,000 Cdn) on a single game.
Toronto player denies taking bribe
Wiretaps also show that the crime syndicate targeted a Sept. 12, 2009, game in Trois-Rivières between its home team, Attak, and Toronto Croatia.
One of the fixers, a man identified as Zivko Budimir, flew to Canada a month before the game to make contacts and organize the details of the fix.
The documents state he helped arrange and deliver a bribe of 15,000 Euros ($18,000 Cdn) to former CSL All-Star and league veteran Antonijo Zupan to be shared with other people, including several unnamed players on his team.
Former Trois-Rivières player Reda Aggouram, who played in that game, told CBC News he had no idea that some players on the Croatia team were being paid to manipulate the game. He does remember scoring an easy goal.
“I remember my goal, it was the free kick for us. One of our players took the free kick, and then the goalie, he didn’t punch it away, he punched it in front of the net, and then I took the rebound,” Aggouram said. “I know that it was an easy goal for us. Normally, that kind of goal shouldn’t happen.”
Wiretaps show that Zupan and four other teammates agreed to lose by at least two goals, the required goal differential for the fixers to be able to cash in on their bets. During the game, Zupan missed a crucial penalty kick that would have tied the game 2-2 in the second half. The Attak won the game, 4-1.
Aggouram remembers being surprised. “I didn’t think we were going to win that game 4-1 because they were one of the best teams in the league” he said.
Zupan, who resides in Toronto and no longer plays professional soccer, said he had no idea why the match fixers talked about his involvement in their scheme on those wiretaps. He denied receiving any money.
“Nobody paid me,” Zupan said. “I don’t know. That’s my explanation.”
Crime syndicate pondered team purchase
The wiretaps show that just after midnight on Sept. 13, 2009, hours after the Trois-Rivières game, Budimir texted one of the syndicate leaders, Marijo Cvrtak, about their successful fix.
“At least something is right in this crappy life … Friend, if we don’t become rich here, then I don’t know where we could become rich," wrote Budimir.
According to the captured conversations between Budimir and Cvrtak, their interest in the CSL went beyond fixing just one game. Shortly after the match, Budimir phoned Cvrtak to plan how to fix another game in the CSL in “the future."
The wiretaps also show that Budimir had approached other players to determine everything from how much an average player makes in the league to what it would cost to purchase an entire team in the CSL.
“One can start a team there with $150,000 and play in the first league right away."
They also seemed pleased to hear how much they could wager on CSL games. “And one can bet $100,000 in Canada without any problems,” Cvrtak told Budimir, according to the wiretaps.
CSL chairman Vincent Ursini says that while he is personally not aware of any match fixing in his league, he did ask FIFA, the world soccer governing body, to investigate.
“We were told that FIFA was going to be handling this,” he said. “We were going to be informed as soon as they had findings.”
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