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Asian Soccer / February 17, 2020

Graphic: Casting a net over European football clubsOn April 29, at 10:01 p.m., soccer fans Simon Miller and Paul Langley lost their faith in the sport.

The Irish men were sitting in City Calling Stadium in Longford, Ireland, and their team, Athlone Town FC, was behind 1:2. In the 80th minute of play, a Facebook message alert popped up on their mobile phones. A man who had been monitoring football bets for years wrote to them that the odds had just shifted dramatically and it seemed likely that another goal would soon be scored.

They both sat motionless as they watched the drama unfold on the pitch. Athlone's Portuguese coach, Ricardo Cravo, shifted Romanian midfielder Dragos Sfrijan to the defense, they say, and Latvian goalkeeper Igors Labuts suddenly began pressing forward on every corner kick, a potentially suicidal move that keepers generally only reserve for their team's final attacks of the match. But the show reached its climax in injury time: When a long ball flew into Athlone's half, Sfrijan clumsily jabbed at it, missing entirely, they say. And keeper Labuts, they continue, completely whiffed on the rather easy save.

"It looks like somebody made some money today, " a fan wrote on the internet. Hong Kong's Asia Times newspaper would later write that winnings from the bets on the Athlone game had exceeded $600, 000.

European football association UEFA expressed alarm over suspicions of "undue influence" during the game and Irish national football governing body FAI launched an investigation, with the police also looking into the case.

The appeal of football lies in the impossibility of predicting the outcome of the match. Champions League clubs can be eliminated by amateur teams in cup matches, there are surprise champions and lucky shots can decide a game. That thrill is what makes the game so exhilerating.

Fast Money

But what happens when a team plays not with the goal of winning but with that of executing illegal agreements? Or if mistakes take place deliberately and a game is intentionally lost? At that point, it becomes organized crime rather than a game.

The global betting market is extremely lucrative. Around the world, some 1 trillion euros in bets are placed annually on sporting events, a sum almost as high as that of all German exports. Around 70 percent of those bets are placed on football. The business keeps growing, with new bookmakers popping up all the time, frequently located in tax havens like Malta or Gibraltar. The big players are often based in the Philippines or China.

The world's largest bookmakers allow you to bet on just about any aspect of football: on the result, of course, but also on goals, goal scorers, penalty kicks, throw-ins, yellow and red cards and even which player takes care of the kick-off. And the bets can be placed on matches all over the world. In the 2009 betting scandal in Germany, it emerged that attempts had been made to manipulate 32 different matches - from Germany's second division right down to youth leagues - and those efforts actually succeeded in a number of instances.

When you install actors on a field, rather than football players or referees, who follow an invisible script that has been pre-arranged in secret, earning millions in fake bets can be remarkably easy.

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Founded 130 years ago, Athlone Town is Ireland's oldest football team and plays in the country's second division. There was a time in the 1970s when the club would go up against teams like AC Milan in the UEFA Cup and fans in the town of 21, 000 would love to see a return to those days of success. The UEFA Cup anthem, the floodlights, the global stars and the big money: This aspiration drove the club into the hands of people who turn the dreams of officials, players and fans into business.

In February, the Portuguese firm Pré Season, a business registered in the town of Amadora near Lisbon, became a part owner of Athlone Town FC. Investigators believe a man named Mao Xiaodong is behind the deal, one of the most notorious match-fixers around. Known in the scene simply as Eric Mao, he has achieved a certain amount of fame in the football underworld. His business model, experts believe, involves buying a stake in a time as an investor before then hiring new players or coaches. He then begins betting on a grand scale and the players instructed by his people ensure that the outcome of the game matches that of the betting slips.

Via the whistleblowing platform Football Leaks, DER SPIEGEL has obtained a confidential report originating from the Qatar-based sport security firm ICSS. The report notes that "Eric Mao is a high-ranking match-fixing organizer and the leader of a match-fixing syndicate in Singapore and also a key member of a global match-fixing network." He's a partner of the infamous match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal.