Match-fixing bust sheds light on foreign interest in Maltese league

Football insider says that it is foreign betting ‘associates’ who bring foreign talent to the Maltese leagues, who are in a better position to ‘own’ players and rig matches.

Foreign nationals gaining a foothold in the unimpressive Maltese football leagues are using their ability to bring star players from overseas, as a way of rigging matches so that they can make a killing on betting websites.

Earlier this week, two Maltese nationals and two Italians connected to Maltese football were named by Catanzaro police as forming part of a loosely-connected syndicate of match-fixers, who staked tens of thousands of euros on lowly Italian Serie D and Lega Pro leagues. Brothers Robert and Adrian Farrugia – the former at one time president of Msida St Joseph, the latter a team manager at Mosta FC, where Robert’s son Tyrone plays – have not yet been questioned by Maltese police.

But they were named as “financiers” of betting combinations by the Italian police, whose Operation Dirty Soccer originally started off as an investigation into a captain of the notorious ’ndrangheta crime organisation.

In a telephone interception, Robert Farrugia was heard telling Felice Bellini, his Italian associate, that Chinese gamblers had threatened to kill his brother after they lost €52,000 on the match between Aversa Normanna and Barletta.

Bellini, who has hopped from Qormi United, to Gudja FC and latterly Vittoriosa Stars, was however released from arrest on Friday after a Catanzaro magistrate said it should be a Lamezia magistrate to take ownership of the case.

Although there is no smoking gun of any wrongdoing, it is Bellini’s unpaid roles with Vittoriosa Stars and now Vigor Lamezia in Italy, that raise much interest about the role of these so called ‘technical directors’.

Robert Farrugia (right) told Felice Bellini that Chinese gamblers wanted to kill brother Adrian (left) after losing €52,000 on a Lega Pro match.
Robert Farrugia (right) told Felice Bellini that Chinese gamblers wanted to kill brother Adrian (left) after losing €52,000 on a Lega Pro match.
Felice Bellini - working now for Lamezia, but formerly of Qormi, Gudja and Vittoriosa - has been released from arrest
Felice Bellini - working now for Lamezia, but formerly of Qormi, Gudja and Vittoriosa - has been released from arrest

An insider who last spoke to MaltaToday in February says that it is betting ‘associates’ who bring foreign talent to the Maltese leagues, and they are in a better position to ‘own’ players and rig matches.

“Once they have the players under their control, they can strike deals with them for some unlikely 1-1 draw in the last 15 minutes of the match… that’s how the betting syndicates make their cash with Asian bookies to place bets from outside Malta. That’s why the betting combinations count: like the Serie D and Lega Pro, Maltese football is little watched, and nobody is going to suspect foul play when a team has a last-minute upset.”

For the first time ever, Operation Dirty Soccer and its interception of Robert Farrugia and Felice Bellini has confirmed the modus operandi of these international betting syndicates. The Aversa Normanna-Barletta game ended up 0-1, to the displeasure of Farrugia, suggesting that this was not the result he wanted. That’s because the syndicates who rig the games are handling very large amounts of money on very particular kinds of bets with very high odds, whose actualisation is imperceptible to the keenest of football supporters.

The player on the inside is key: “Maybe they are underpaid, maybe they can convince the back three to open the defence wide. They will comply because it will earn them money,” the insider told MaltaToday.

That is why even club committees are easily taken in by the prospects of the betting and match-rigging. When cash-poor clubs are not winning leagues anyway, what is another loss compared to the prospect of raking in €100,000 to pay off months of salaries?

That’s where Operation Dirty Soccer shows how clubs start to depend on the cash. In one interception of ’ndrangheta captain, Pietro Iannazzo tells a friend on the phone that he is giving ‘sports consultancy’ to Serie D club Neapolis.

“It’s a team of losers,” he tells his mate on the phone.

“[The manager] told me he wants to win the championship but doesn’t want to spend much. And I told him, ‘sure, but make sure to give me my cash upfront’… he said he doesn’t even pay his own players first, and indeed it’s not the players who make you win the championship.”

The criminal element does not surprise people close to the game. Another source who insisted on anonymity, said that when Floriana FC were approached by an Albanian consortium with ties to the betting industry, the Malta Football Association stepped in to warn the club against entertaining the Albanians.

“One of the men who sat at the table with the Albanians was once an Armed Forces of Malta soldier who was recently arrested and found guilty of attempting to loot a showroom in Gozo.”

He was given a suspended sentence.

“Unless the MFA steps up its game and starts blacklisting people with criminal records from associating themselves with football teams, betting interests will be the prime mover of national football,” the source said.

Take Ilir Pelinku, the former Albanian football coach who received a suspended jail term and was fined €500 for trying to bribe a goalkeeper before a 2008 international match. The MFA handed Pelinku and former FIFA referee Joe Attard a life ban. But on his LinkedIn profile, Pelinku still describes himself as a football agent.

Since 2012, the MFA has been using Swiss surveillance specialists Sportradar’s live betting analysis software to flag suspicious betting patterns. The MFA says that 32 out of 300 Premier League and Division One games were flagged as suspicious in the 2012-13 season, falling to 12 in the following season after the FA conducted its ‘Say No to Match Fixing’ campaign. Some €50 million and €20 million were placed in bets on Premier League and First Division games, respectively.

The parliamentary secretariat for sport and the Malta Council for Sport this week said they are monitoring the ‘calcioscommesse’ scandal together with the MFA’s task force. In Italy, the scandal led to condemnations from prime minister Matteo Renzo and President Sergio Mattarella.

MFA integrity officer Franz Tabone has been clear about the state of the game. He previously said that Maltese football was “infested by people who grade the game’s sporting spirit at the lowest” and that match-fixing had grown to such an extent that the public considered all matches to be of a dubious nature.

“Clubs finance their entire operation by manipulating matches, betting on them and the winnings going towards the club while also lining their own pockets. They are ruthless and unaffected by the harm they have caused people who wish to love and be involved in our football,” he wrote in one of his newsletters.