“Athlone – At the heart of it!” chirps the slogan seeking to lure tourists to this historic, pretty and bustling riverside town sitting at the geographic center of Ireland.
Unhappily for the town’s marketing team, Athlone now sits at the center of something else – and it has nothing to do with tourism. The town’s struggling soccer club has become embroiled in a betting scandal that threatens to engulf the sport in the Republic of Ireland and is just one strand in a sprawling web of match-fixing allegations, irregular player trades and unusual club buyouts across Asia, Africa and Europe.
According to a leading sports integrity expert, this web has Fifa agent Mao Xiaodong and his Hong Kong-registered company, Anping Football Club Ltd, at its heart.
And what’s more, says Javier Mena, the latest revelations are “nothing new.”
The International Centre for Sport Security senior manager of sports intelligence says his team have been “aware of Mao for years.”
“Many years ago we saw some links between Mao and Wilson Raj Perumal,” says Mena, referring to the now infamous match fixer who has been jailed twice – in his native Singapore in 1995 and in Finland in 2011 – and who boasted of helping to rig up to 100 games, including Fifa World Cup qualification matches. “We have been watching Mao ever since.”
On May 7, Athlone Town, the oldest football club in the Republic of Ireland, called for a police investigation after receiving a report from Uefa, European football’s governing body, that highlighted “irregular betting patterns” around at least one of the club’s recent games.
It’s been a strange few months for Athlone fans. A year ago, the club was so short of cash that some players refused to play in one game in protest at unpaid wages. That all changed around early February this year, when an unidentified “Chinese Portuguese consortium” reportedly paid about US$500,000 for a 70% stake in the club. Suddenly, Athlone Town was stocked with foreign players and coaching staff. Unusual enough for Irish football, but more weirdness was to come.
Eric Mao, as he prefers to be called outside of China, has never formally admitted to being behind the investment. But he is Chinese and he does have connections in Portugal. He owns a football club there, Atletico Clube de Portugal. And the former manager of that club, Ricardo Monsanto, was appointed manager of Athlone straight after the February 2017 investment.
New Athlone players Dery Hernandez and Jose Viegas also came from Mao’s Atletico. New goalkeeper Igor Labuts had also played there too. And Atletico Clube de Portugal, just like Athlone, became the subject of a match-fixing investigation after receiving its new investment.
Currently the Athlone “irregular betting patterns” center on one game: an April 27 derby against local rivals Longford Town. Although only 407 people turned up to watch, there was more than a bit of interest in Asia.
Data collated by Sportradar, an agency that monitors suspicious betting patterns, was passed to Uefa and suggested hefty bets were placed, via unregulated Asian online betting portals, on at least two goals being scored in the first half.
Longford were winning 2-0 at half-time.
And then, the data suggested, even more money was put on four or more goals being scored by the final whistle. And even more on Longford hitting the back of Athlone’s net in the final 10 minutes.
Longford went 3-1 up in the 87th minute – for the uninitiated, that’s three minutes before normal stoppage time.
Just before the final goal was scored, Athlone’s new foreign coaches changed tactics and placed Romanian midfielder Dragog Sfrijan into the center of defense. By all accounts, Sfrijan – one of the recent foreign additions – didn’t fare too well, making a laughably absurd mistake and … well, the Longford striker scored the late goal.
Goalkeeper Labuts was said to be culpable too. A 2014 Uefa report said Labuts had played in 17 games that raised match-fixing suspicions.
But he prefers to say his mistakes against Longford were down to the fact that he’s just not very good.
“Maybe before I think I can play top level, but now I understand I’m not a top class ‘keeper,” he said after the match. “If I’m a top-class ‘keeper, I’m playing for Real Madrid.”
The winnings from the bets on the Athlone game alone were reportedly in excess of US$600,000. If correct, that suggests they exceeded the cost of the entire club
Another recent addition to Athlone, with both Romanian and Eric Mao connections, is Marc Fourmeaux. He was made Director of First Team Operations in March 2017 but, by trade and just like Mao, Fourmeaux is a football agent.
He does have hands-on experience of running a football club though: as general manager of Lithuania’s DFK Dainava. Under his tutelage, Dainava finished bottom of the top division in 2014 and were relegated having conceded 131 more goals than they’d scored, three-times the margin of their nearest rivals. Eric Mao has also been linked to DFK Dainava.
The winnings from the bets on the Athlone game alone were reportedly in excess of US$600,000. If correct, that suggests they exceeded the cost of the entire club.
“Fixing syndicates have been using front companies to buy minor clubs in Europe from at least 2013 and probably earlier,” explains Mena. “The pattern is always the same. They buy the club, they put in their own people, bring their own players over and they put pressure on the coach so they select the players they need.
“Typically, they use former footballers and former administrators … to recruit, to approach clubs, test out players who will accept bribes, referees that will accept money. They look for people who need money and people who will take money.”
At the heart of the problem exposed by Athlone is weak regulations to enforce transparency over club ownership, says Mena.
“We have been speaking to national governments, trying to raise awareness about the problem of ownership, about the importance of revealing the names of club owners, of the individuals behind the groups of investors. This is a common occurrence across the world.”
Match-fixing syndicates also don’t operate alone, he says. “One syndicate might recruit footballers in South America. Some in southern Europe. It’s akin to a business network with their own specialities, their own geographies. They play to their strengths.”
The 34-year-old Eric Mao appears to have many strengths. Coming from a solid establishment background, he was born in the Chinese capital and graduated in history from Beijing’s prestigious and staunchly pro-Communist Party Renmin University. He landed a coveted job working as a TV football journalist. From there he became a Fifa-licensed players agent, which means he can act as an intermediary in international transfers of professional footballers, and registered his trading entity, Anping Football Club, in 2011 in Hong Kong. It was around then that Mao forged a link with Chinese team Dalian Shide.
Shide had been, in the early 2000s, the most successful team in Chinese football. But in 2012, Shide suffered a very public demise after its billionaire owner Xu Ming was caught up in a political battle between incoming President Xi Jinping and a potential rival in Bo Xilai. Xu was jailed for bribes he admitted paying to Bo, and later died in jail under mysterious circumstances.
Mao later told Portuguese media that he helped incumbent manager, Portuguese Nelo Vingada, get back money he was owed after Shide collapsed. This act of kindness was rewarded when Vingada helped Mao buy a controlling stake in Atletico Clube de Portugal in 2013.
Like Althlone, Atletico Clube de Portugal is long on history but short on funds. Mao promised investment, stability and trophies. And installed Vingada as Club President.
A few months later, Portuguese newspaper Expresso got access to a Uefa report warning of the risk that Atletico may try to manipulate results.
The report stated that “in 2013, a Chinese company with potential connections to combined games bought a majority share of Atletico CP. In addition, Atletico CP has several people of interest in the team, some with extensive suspicious stories in the Betting Fraud Detection System.”
Another Portuguese newspaper reported that an associate of Mao, Xialong “Bruce” Ji, had been entering the changing rooms before games demanding the manager make wholesale changes to the team.
In 2014, an investigation into Atletico by Portuguese police and Interpol, was examining “gambling and other corrupt behavior.”
Romanian journalists Marius Mărgărit and Costin Ștucan say they have been studying Xiaodong Mao and his Anping associates, Xialong Ji and Xinxin “Nancy” Cao for months after Mao become involved with Romanian side, FC Clinceni, last year.
Writing in Romanian sports daily Gazeta Sporturilor, the pair report a now familiar story saying the Romanian team’s manager was sacked by Mao’s new administration in circumstances that caused a senior club official to complain to the Romanian Football Association’s Integrity Unit. According to Mărgărit and Ștucan, Mao also has connections with a team in Estonia.
Xiaodong Mao has club ownership connections back in China too. He is at the center of a consortium that owns Beijing Huaxia Guorui Football Club Co – Hong Kong-registered Anping Football’s Chinese name, 北京華夏安平體育經紀有限公司, translates as Beijing Huaxia Anping Sports Brokerage Co. And in 2015, this consortium bought Chongqing Lifan from motorcycle billionaire, Yin Mingshan. Yin had, according to Xinhua news agency, invested US$10 million in 2014 to get the team into the Chinese Premier League.
Unexpectedly, after the club had seen success and was valued at approximately US$200 million, Yin sold it to Mao’s consortium for something like US$4 million, saying only that he had simply had enough of football.
And in true “under new management” style, Chongqing Lifan promptly started bringing in new players and coaches. New first team coach was former French international Franck Dumas.
Sadly, in September 2016 Dumas was sentenced in France to three years in prison for tax evasion and told to pay back US$600,000 in unpaid taxes. The Judge suspended the sentence after hearing Dumas’ plea for mitigation: that his problems came about because he had become a gambling addict and, furthermore, had found himself in an “impossibly difficult” business situation.
It seems part of the conditions of his sentence are to stay in France. Avoiding China may be a good thing.
The Football Association of Ireland has said it is launching an investigation into the “irregular betting patterns” and is interviewing Athlone players. Local media has also reported that a specialist Irish government anti-fraud unit is about to launch an investigation of its own.
It’s a fair – as opposed to rigged – bet that few football industry observers or indeed fans from China, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Estonia and Ireland are bothering to ask what these “irregular patterns” are.
Followers of “the beautiful game” are asking a far simpler question: Why has it taken so long for these allegations to come into the mainstream public domain?
The Football Association of Ireland did not respond to questions relating to Athlone Town. Uefa would not answer questions on the Athlone Town incident, saying only that: “Uefa is completely committed to eradicating match-fixing, a disease that attacks football’s very core.”
“The Irish football association took action because Uefa put their noses into a report,” says Mena. “Many clubs are going through real financial trouble, which means many people do not care where the money comes from.”
Meanwhile, Uefa and it’s world-governing big-brother, Fifa, are facing much bigger problems, including irregular transfers and international money laundering.
“We have provided evidence at countless meetings… They are well aware of the situation,” Mena says. “But that is not their prime focus. The primary response is to protect the business. And for Fifa, business means the World Cup.”