ROME (AP) — Two years ago, a curious case landed on the desk of Italian prosecutor Roberto Di Martino in the town of Cremona.
Five players on the local third-division club Cremonese fell ill after a match against Paganese. One of the sick players crashed his car and club management reported the mysterious circumstances to police.
It turned out that Cremonese’s goalkeeper had been bribed by match-fixers to make sure his team lost. Unable to recruit teammates to join in on the fix, he decided the next best option was to drug them. So he put tranquilizers in the team water bottles, according to police. Italian soccer officials banned him for five years.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a six-month, multiformat AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through match-fixing, running over four days this week.
‘‘It sounds like a fairy tale or a novel. It’s absolute craziness, something unbelievable — but it’s all true,’’ Di Martino said in an interview with The Associated Press.
‘‘At the start it seemed like it was just for a few matches, then we figured out that it was pretty much a global system.’’
The investigation has thrust the 62-year-old Di Martino into the heart of one of the biggest match-fixing cases ever revealed: more than 210,000 tapped phone calls, more than 150 suspects under investigation, hundreds of matches analyzed in all four of Italy’s professional divisions, dozens of people arrested and scores more wanted all over the world.
Among those arrested in ‘‘Operation Last Bet’’ were former Lazio captain and Italy national team forward Giuseppe Signori and former Atalanta captain Cristiano Doni.
Prosecutors in Naples and Bari have opened related investigations. Di Martino feels like he’s hardly made a dent and is overwhelmed, especially since he has to also handle the routine daily work in his small office that has nothing to do with rigged soccer matches.
‘‘If I were working full time on this I could find out more, but I'm the leader of an office that also handles administrative matters. I lose more time for administrative matters than for trials,’’ he said.
Di Martino isn’t alone. Prosecutors in Germany have uncovered about 340 games that they believe were fixed, but they can investigate only half of them because they don’t have enough staff, a German investigator told AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss investigations with the news media.
Even if prosecutors can catch players involved in fixing matches, hunting down the international money trail has proved far more elusive.
‘‘These guys operate at a very global level. The police have no idea how to operate at a global level like crime does. They can do what they like, travel as they like,’’ said Chris Eaton, the former head of security at soccer’s governing body FIFA and now director of integrity at the International Centre for Sport Security, a Qatar-backed group funding research into match-fixing and ways to fight it.
When Eaton was at FIFA, the former detective and his handful of investigators opted to interview suspects and pursue cases across the world. Because he had few evidence-gathering powers and little support from national law enforcement agencies, FIFA had limited success.
Ralf Mutschke, a former Interpol manager who succeeded Eaton last year, has switched tactics, focusing more on education and prevention. National agencies investigate match-fixing, with liaison support from FIFA’s 209 members associations.
‘‘Everyone has a role to play,’’ Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble told the AP. ‘‘There has to be prosecution. There has to be prevention. ... There’s got to be internal work from FIFA. There’s got to be work from the legal betting agencies. It’s a huge problem, a huge problem.’’
In Italy, match-fixing by itself is not considered a serious crime.
‘‘It’s considered a minor type of fraud — sports fraud — which is penalized with sentences of a maximum of two years,’’ Di Martino said.
Furthermore, most sentences up to two years in Italy are routinely suspended. And many accused match-fixers face investigation and disciplinary action by sports federations before criminal prosecutions proceed.
While those involved in Operation Last Bet have not yet gone to a criminal trial, Italian football federation prosecutor Stefano Palazzi has already handed out numerous bans from soccer and punished teams by dropping them in the league standings.
Doni was banned from football for 5 1/2 years for allegedly betting on fixed games and Atalanta has been docked points — both last season and this season. Signori, allegedly a key link between money runners in eastern Europe and players who fixed matches, was banned for five years, even though he’s retired.Continued...