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Police track elusive figure in soccer match-fixing

Saturday - 2/16/2013, 3:22am  ET

FILE - In this Monday, May 28, 2012 file photo Italian prosecutor Roberto Di Martino talks to the media during a press conference he held in Cremona, Northern Italy. 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 got into an auto accident and club management reported the mysterious circumstances to police. (AP Photo/Simone Spada, Lapresse)

JOHN LEICESTER
AP Sports Writers

ROME (AP) -- At 5:45 a.m. on Nov. 4, 2011, when early risers would have been sipping espressos and buttering toast, a man dressed in black disembarked at Milan's Malpensa Airport after a 13-hour trip from Asia aboard a Singapore Airlines flight.

Italian court documents show he stayed in the country just 6 hours and 30 minutes, never left the airport, and then boarded a return flight to Singapore.

Why such a quick hop across the globe?

Italian authorities believe it was to deliver bribe money. They allege the suspected courier, who was under surveillance, delivered information and cash on behalf of a crime syndicate that fixes soccer matches.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a six-month, multiformat AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through match-fixing.

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Italy, a four-time World Cup-winning football power, has become so blighted by match-fixing that Premier Mario Monti has even suggested halting the professional game for two to three years to clean it up.

Italian prosecutors investigating dozens of league and cup games they say were fixed have followed a trail back to a figure who is thought to be in Singapore. In documents laying out their findings, prosecutors alleged that 48-year-old Tan Seet Eng is the boss of a crime syndicate that allegedly made millions betting on rigged Italian games between 2008 and late 2011, through bribing players, referees and club officials.

Italian authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Tan and list him as their No. 1 suspect, but they have been unable to take him into custody.

"Tan Seet Eng, nicknamed Dan, surfaces in all the European investigations examined, including the Italian one, so therefore he constitutes a common thread that links each criminal gang together," prosecutors stated in a 340-page court document detailing their investigation, which has been leaked to Italian news media. "He directs the aforementioned criminal gang."

Italian authorities have about 150 people under investigation, including Tan, but have yet to indict any of them, prosecutor Roberto Di Martino told The Associated Press last month. Italian arrest warrants cannot be served on Tan while he is in Asia.

Di Martino, who is leading the investigation from Cremona in northern Italy, said Tan will "almost certainly" go on trial in Italy, but likely in absentia. Italy has no extradition treaty with Singapore, but the Italian Justice Ministry said the Asian city-state could still send over a wanted suspect under "friendly terms" if it chooses. Di Martino said relations with Singapore authorities "have not been great. We had hoped for more."

"At first we actually thought they could be brought to Italy, but that calculation was wrong," Di Martino said. "If Tan Seet Eng goes somewhere else, he could be extradited, as long as there's an extradition treaty with that country."

In Singapore, police spokeswoman Chu Guat Chiew said authorities there are reviewing the information submitted by the Italians before deciding what to do, adding: "So far, Dan Tan Seet Eng has not been charged with any offence in Singapore."

Police have questioned dozens of people in Italy, searched the homes of players and coaches, and descended on the Italian national squad's training camp early one morning in May 2012. But Di Martino said the investigation has turned up only limited information about Tan.

"We don't know much about him. We don't know if he's a legitimate businessman involved in illegal activity, or if he's involved in money laundering," Di Martino said. "We're only interested up until a certain point; then it's Singapore's problem."

Much of what European law enforcement authorities have learned about Tan comes from a former associate, Wilson Raj Perumal. A match fixer, also from Singapore, he was arrested in Finland in February 2011, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for bribing Finnish league players. To Finnish police, Perumal portrayed the syndicate as a well-oiled and structured business, financed and led from Singapore.

The syndicate mainly places bets in China, Perumal said, according to a transcript of his May 18, 2011, police interview obtained by the AP. He said the group fixed "tens of matches around the world" -- in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas -- from 2008 to 2010. He estimated the group's total profits after expenses at "several millions of euros, maybe 5-6 million" -- $7 million-$8 million.

The syndicate leader decides which matches to fix and how much to wager, organizes the betting and the drops of bribe money, Perumal said in the transcript. He later identified that leader as Tan, according to the Italian court documents. Italian police traveled to Finland to interview Perumal, Di Martino told the AP. Perumal declined AP requests for an interview.

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