LIVERPOOL, United Kingdom - About a week before the Euro 2012 Soccer Championship was due to get underway in Poland and the Ukraine last summer Mario Monti, the outgoing prime minister of Italy, stood alongside his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, at a news conference in Rome and proposed that professional soccer in Italy be suspended for up to three years.
Monti, speaking as a soccer fan rather than the leader of Europe's fourth-largest economy, was upset by the latest match-fixing scandal that had befallen the country's most beloved sport.
Scommessopoli, which translates roughly as "Betting-gate," involved several former players from Italy's top soccer league, Serie A, as well as some prominent ex-players from the national team. Monti would have been aware that six years earlier another dark period of corruption -- dubbed Calciopoli -- had tarnished Italian soccer's reputation. And some years before that there was Totonero, which ended in mass arrests and a three-year ban for the legendary Azzuri striker Paolo Rossi.
"It's not a proposal by the government but a question I'm asking as someone who was passionate when football was still football," Monti said that May day in Rome. It was a cavalier and potentially incendiary proposal to make to a nation regards soccer as one of the sure-fire ways of consistently putting its best foot forward.
Especially for Monti, who has been Italy's caretaker prime minister for the past 14 months after the fun-loving Silvio Berlusconi was hounded out of office amid claims of economic mismanagement. When the dust settles over the political stalemate taking place in Italy right now Monti's centrist alliance will in all likelihood settle for fourth place in the general election. Italians are tired of his austerity measures. Suffice to say, he hasn't mentioned the soccer hiatus idea in public since.
And frankly he hasn't had to. Lately, the global state of soccer has been in a bad way.
There have been allegations of aggressive criminal gangs operating out of Asia, rumors swirling of fraudulent Internet betting syndicates with Eastern European middlemen and reports of rigged results from Budapest to Shanghai.
Recently, the Chinese Super League team, Shanghai Shenhau, was stripped of its 2003 league title for its involvement in a fixed result against rival club Shanxi Guoli. Authorities in Thailand last week launched an investigation into match-fixing claims over a November game between Buriram United and Army United. In January, 41 Korean players received worldwide disciplinary sanctions for the practice. In October last year, three Guatemalan players were banned from the game for life.
The recent surge in scrutiny follows the findings earlier this month of a lengthy investigation into the ugly side of the beautiful game by the European Union's police authority, Europol. "This is a sad day for European football," said Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, when the report was issued on February 6. The investigation cast doubt on the integrity of as many as 680 global soccer matches over the last few seasons, with the mostly unnamed implicated comprised of an ensemble cast of "425 match officials, club officials, players and serious criminals, from more than 15 countries."
The astonishing part of the story is that the scale of potential corruption is only starting to be understood.
Jermone Valcke, the general secretary of soccer's international governing body, FIFA, told CNN recently, "It's not just about Africa. It (match-fixing) is in Asia, it is in Europe, it is in North America, it is in Canada, it is in South America." And speaking to the Associated Press after the release of the Europol dossier, Chris Eaton, director of sport integrity at the International Centre for Sport Security in Doha, Qatar, said "Football is in a disastrous state," match-fixing is "absolutely endemic worldwide."
There are various numbers in circulation that attempt to quantify the magnitude of the depravity. Europol's 18-month investigation yielded a figure of just over $11 million for the relatively small number of cases it looked at. A broader FIFA estimate currently doing the rounds pegs it at a whopping $15 billion a year.
However Declan Hill, a leading authority on match-fixing who has a doctorate from Oxford University on the topic and spent time undercover in Asia infiltrating criminal betting gangs for his book The Fix, said that trying to estimate the size of the broader illegal gambling market is a bit like trying to estimate the size of the illicit drugs industry in the U.S.
"You know it's in the hundreds of billions but you don't know how many hundreds," he said. Meanwhile, the World Lottery Association has said it could be worth $90 billion. The Hong Kong Jockey Club said it could be closer to $1 trillion.
Still, on a recent game-day visit to Anfield, the home ground of the United Kingdom's Liverpool Football Club, the beautiful game had for some fans at least failed to lose its luster. Liverpool is part-owned by U.S. businessman John W. Henry, whose Fenway Sports Group also owns the Boston Red Sox. It would not be scandalous to suggest that Liverpool occupies a similar place in the U.K. soccer lexicon as Boston does to U.S. baseball. (Storied past, uneven recent record, passionate regional fan base.)
"In some places match-fixing may go on, sure," said Hew Collins, 62, a Swansea City fan, Liverpool's adversary on Feb. 17. "But football is still an attractive game and corruption of that kind is not something that worries us here in the U.K. We value fair-play too much."
Collin's sentiment was echoed by Frenchman Mickael Valognes, 20, who had traveled to Britain's northwest corridor to see the Liverpool Reds from the Paris area. "I just enjoy the football. I never think that there could be corruption going on in a game," he said. Although Valognes acknowledged that if two major teams were found to be guilty of match-fixing it would probably alter his enjoyment of the sport.
Mike, 67, and Jerry, 72, two longtime Reds devotees who preferred not to share their last names, coalesced around the following idea, spoken by Mike: "When we come to a match if we allowed ourselves to believe that games were fixed we probably wouldn't come. There'd be no point to it."
As it happens, immediately following Europol's report, Liverpool was briefly at the center of match-fixing allegations for a Champions League game they played against a Hungarian team in 2009. A Danish newspaper reported that Debrecen's goalkeeper, Vukasin Poleksic, was approached by a Singapore-based gambling group that wanted him to let in more than two goals. Liverpool won the match 1-0. Debrecen has since confirmed that an investigation by UEFA, which represents football associations across Europe, took place. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Liverpool.
"Nothing is bigger than 'fixing' for the fans," said Hill, on the phone from Canada last week. "You can have dope-taking, you can have issues to do with sex lives, you can have racism, you can even have corruption at FIFA. All that becomes part of the social issues and soap opera of modern sports.
"But if you talk about 'fixing,' that is a cancer to the credibility of the game," he said.
Note to Monti: Don't mention putting the whole thing one ice, either.
By Kim Hjelmgaard