« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Graham Dunbar / Associated Press, Published February 18 2013

Much-investigated ref retires, denies fixing soccer matches despite many suspicious games

ZURICH – It was in the final minutes of a June 2011 soccer game between Nigeria and Argentina when the little green flags on computer screens in London started to change color.

Nigeria was leading 4-0 in the exhibition match of little significance, and more and more money was being laid down around the world on the possibility that one of the teams would score another goal before the game was over. Monitors hired by the soccer governing body FIFA to detect deviations from expected betting patterns – helped by computer algorithms – spotted something fishy.

The game’s 90 minutes of regular time ended without another goal. Referee Ibrahim Chaibou ordered additional time added to the clock – normal in most soccer games to make up for stoppages in play throughout the contest for injuries or other minor delays. He added six minutes – a substantial amount for such a minor game.

When that time ran out, the game continued, with the score still at 4-0. The clock reached 98 minutes.

That’s when Chaibou called Nigerian defender Efe Ambrose for touching the ball with his hand – an infraction that brought a penalty kick for Argentina.

Ambrose couldn’t believe it. Video replays showed the ball touching him halfway up his thigh, with his arm behind his back and his hand nowhere near the ball. The replay also suggested that Chaibou had a clear view of the play.

But the referee pointed straight to the spot and patted his elbow twice as if to confirm his call beyond any doubt. Nigerian players crowded around him, one even laughed. Argentina scored the penalty, and the game ended 4-1.

Within days, both FIFA and the Nigerian Football Association announced they would look into the possibility that the match had been fixed.

The profits from betting on fixed games are so vast that at least two organized crime groups have recently switched from drug trafficking to match-fixing, Interpol chief Ron Noble said.

Referees are tempting targets for match-fixers because their decisions can significantly alter a game’s outcome. Chaibou, 46, from the West African country of Niger, is one of football’s most-investigated international referees. Matches in which he officiated have been investigated by FIFA, the Nigerian Football Association and the South African Football Association. At least five of his matches have been flagged as suspicious by betting monitoring companies, an action that usually prompts FIFA and national football organizations to look into the possibility that it was fixed.

None of those have resulted in formal charges or sanctions, and Chaibou denies any connection to match-fixing.

Before the FIFA-South African investigation was completed, Chaibou turned 45 and was forced to retire from FIFA’s approved international referee list in December 2011 due to age limits. That also automatically canceled the investigation, since FIFA investigates only active referees, and no sanctions were issued.

“Ibrahim Chaibou left football before FIFA could launch any potential disciplinary action against him,” the FIFA media department said in an email.

Chris Eaton, a former security chief for FIFA, said the governing body’s investigators tried and failed to question Chaibou in the six months before his retirement, a development he called disappointing.

“People who have serious allegations of corruption against them ought to be properly investigated, if only to clear them of the allegations or confirm them,” he said.

FIFA, which has pledged a zero-tolerance fight against corruption in soccer, manages a list of about 2,000 elite referees and linesmen who are qualified to handle national team and international club matches.

In 2010, Chaibou was hired for matches in South Africa, Bahrain, Bolivia and Ecuador and small tournaments played in Egypt.

Many of them were organized by Wilson Raj Perumal, who has been convicted of match-fixing in Finland for Asian crime syndicates, and wrote about the fixes in a series of jailhouse letters to a Singaporean journalist in which he linked Chaibou to suspicious matches in South America. After serving his sentence and being released, Perumal has been helping law enforcement authorities in Hungary and Italy uncover rigged games.

Perumal’s company hired Chaibou to officiate at two games in 2010 – South Africa-Guatemala and Bahrain-Togo. The first was investigated by FIFA and the South African soccer federation; the second involved a team of impostors. Eaton said that when Perumal was arrested in Finland in February 2011, he had Chaibou’s number on his phone.

Chaibou also officiated two other games in South America – Bolivia-Venezuela and Ecuador-Venezuela – in October and November 2010, respectively, according to documents provided by FIFA. Both of those matches raised flags with betting monitors, according to confidential betting reports. In a letter written from jail, Perumal claimed the Bolivia match was “sold to an investor in China” – a euphemism for Asian crime gangs.

In Ecuador, the home team won 4-1, helped by penalties scored by both teams that were “similarly questionable,” according to a confidential betting monitoring report.

When asked by the AP whether he knew Perumal, Chaibou became combative.

“You already asked me this question last time. I told you I don’t know him. I don’t know him!” he said, his voice rising. “I told you I don’t know these people.”

In two previous calls to Chaibou, AP had not mentioned the name.

On Dec. 15, 2012, the South African Football Association announced that a FIFA report found “compelling evidence” that one or more of its games was fixed in 2010. It said referees hired by Perumal were thought to have manipulated its exhibition games before the World Cup for betting purposes, adding that no players were thought to have been involved. It did not name the referees. It has not imposed sanctions but the investigation continues.