Plans for an EU-wide legal approach to match-fixing and money laundering in sport are under way, with the European Parliament committee on mafia and organised crime holding a debate on the issue yesterday (17 September).

“Match-fixing might seem like a minor issue, but it is a serious problem in Europe” said Emine Bozkurt, an MEP (S&D) and author of a study on match-fixing and corruption in sport. “It is a form of crime with high revenues and excessively low sentences and detection rates.”

The complexity of sporting finances and illegal online betting rings offer ideal avenues for money laundering, with amounts running into the tens of millions of euros. However, the majority of member states do not have a definition of this type of fraud and match-fixing in criminal law.

Some countries have have minimum fines as low as €100 and maximum prison sentences as low as four years for those convicted.

European football’s governing body, UEFA, says it has undertaken official investigations in 19 of the 27 member states and four candidate countries.

The report by Bozkurt said "strong ties have been detected between the football establishment and criminal organisations, especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans."

A study by the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques said that in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia, criminals have infiltrated the clubs and federations and operate from within, while using the clubs as covers for a number of criminal activities.

Bozkurt said sport presented a “permanent risk of corruption”, due to little regulation, a vast network of online betting markets, and direct links with organised crime. Furthermore, because of the disparity in criminal sentences between member states, match-fixers habitually move their operations to those countries with the lower sentences.

State of play

Bozkurt and a number of organisations are calling for a cross-border approach to criminalise match-fixing, proposing an EU-wide legal framework as well as agreements amongst the main stakeholders to coordinate investigations.

A number of organisations have begun work to combat organised crime in sport, including the Council of Europe, which has drafted a convention on match-fixing, football’s worldwide governing body FIFA and Interpol, which agreed a €20 million partnership aimed at fighting the problem in Asia. Eurojust and Europol are also carrying out investigations.

Androulla Vassiliou, the commissioner responsible for culture and sport, said her cabinet was asking for EU funds under the 2014-2020 budget to combat “international threats to sport”, including match-fixing.

Bozkurt suggested the European Commission play a role in coordinating the different stakeholders and provide a platform for discussion. She also urged member states to include a harmonised definition of match-fixing in criminal law and impose sanctions for match-fixing including fines and confiscation.

This month, Michel Barnier, commissioner for the single market, announced the publication of an action plan to discuss "How to regulate betting and gambling in Europe".

Sporting integrity

The parliament debate follows the news this week that Antonio Conte, coach of Italian football club Juventus, has had his ban extended for failing to report fixing during a spell at Siena in 2010-11.

This was not the only high-profile case involving fixing over the past few months. This summer, authorities arrested 11 footballers in Italy, some in connection with bribes of about €600,000 to fix the result of a top division game between Lazio and Lecce. Matches have also been rigged in Belgium (Ye case), Germany (Hoyzer and Bochum case) and Finland (Tampere case).

Last year Pakistani cricketer Mohammad Asif served six months in a British prison for his part in a fixing scam. A number of other cricketers had also been sentenced following the scandal.

Some commentators are calling these high-profile cases just the ‘tip of the ice-berg.’