FIFA President Sepp Blatter has proclaimed "zero tolerance" for match-fixing, and FIFA has pledged $27 million to Interpol to fight it. Computer experts working for FIFA and UEFA — the European soccer body — monitor more than 31,000 European games and thousands of international matches every year, trying to sniff out the betting spikes that can reveal corruption.
So far, however, sports authorities are "proving to be particularly helpless in the face of the transnational resources" available to organized crime, according to a 2012 study on match-fixing. The report warned that the risk of soccer "falling into decay in the face of repeated scandals is genuine and must not be underestimated."
Some top soccer officials shy away from the dire warnings of academics and law enforcement officials. UEFA chief Gianni Infantino said in a statement that, on average, 203 games — 0.7 percent of the matches that UEFA monitors a year — show some signs of irregularities, "which does not mean they are fixed."
"It is a small problem, but it's like a cancer," Infantino said. "We don't say 0.7 is nothing. We say 0.7 is 0.7 too much. We can say generally that UEFA competitions are very healthy in this respect."
Match-fixing has been around for decades, of course, and is not limited to soccer. It has also infected sports like cricket, tennis, horse racing and even volleyball. The U.S. has its own sordid history of gambling scandals, from baseball's Black Sox in the 1919 World Series to a handful of point-shaving schemes in college basketball over the years, to an NBA referee taking money from a professional gambler for inside tips on basketball games, including some that he officiated in 2007.
Still, nothing approaches the scale of the match-fixing allegations now hitting soccer, because of the sheer number of games played and the enormous Asian betting interest in European games, according to David Forrest, an economist at the U.K.'s University of Salford Business School, one of the co-authors of the 2012 report.
In January alone, FIFA banned 41 players in South Korea from soccer for life due to match-fixing. That follows 51 worldwide bans last year — 22 of them for life — on players, officials and referees from Croatia, Finland, Guatemala, Italy, Nicaragua, Portugal, South Korea and Turkey.
FIFA bans include some elite figures in the sport. Antonio Conte, coach of the Italian club Juventus — a team whose winning tradition rivals that of baseball's New York Yankees — returned in December after a four-month ban for failing to report match-fixing.
Forrest's report said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., the war on terror relegated the fight against organized crime to a distinct second place, and that allowed gangs "to invest in new areas of the economy with relative impunity for nearly 10 years."
Eaton attributes the surge in match-fixing to an exponential rise in online gambling — "at least 500 percent, and likely far more" — in the last decade.
Criminals have targeted every level of the game: the World Cup, regional tournaments such as the Champions League, high-powered divisions like England's Premier League and Italy's Serie A, "friendly" exhibition contests between national teams, all the way down to semipro games in the soccer wilderness.
Criminals are always trying to find the sweet spot between how poorly the players are paid and how much bettors want to wager on a game, Forrest said. That's why fixers don't try too hard to target the Super Bowl, he says, because "the bribes would be so high to convince the athletes to join."
World Cup and European qualifiers that face uneven matchups are key targets because one team may "have no chance of getting into the tournament," Forrest said in an interview.
The same scenario applies to early rounds of major tournaments or late-season national leagues, where one team is desperately trying to either win a trophy or avoid being sent down to a lower league. Those situations propel teams upward into a whole new level of revenue or send them tumbling off a financial cliff.