- Four low-ranked players in custody
- Joint French and Belgian investigation
- Corrupt players were paid up to €3,000 to lose matches
- Armenian syndicate allegedly fixed hundreds of matches
- Mastermind is “Maestro”
- Unclear if raid is linked to Spanish police operation
French and Belgian police share investigation
French federal police have arrested four domestic tennis players and placed them in custody on suspicion of helping to fix hundreds of matches. The arrests resulted from a major Belgian investigation into match-fixing in Europe.
The police officers work for a special unit in the federal police that investigates gambling corruption in horse-racing and sports. They named the players as Jerome Inzerillo, Yannick Thivant, Mick Lescure, and Jules Okala. None had ever been ranked higher than 354th, the career best in 2012 for Inzerillo.
Lescure and Okala were both arrested on January 15 at a low-level ITF Futures tournament in Bressuire, a small town near the city of Nantes. Thivant and Inzerillo were arrested the same day. One of the players has allegedly confessed to the police that he had fixed around 25 matches.
French police expect to make further arrests in the coming days. More than 100 players are under suspicion, including an estimated 40 said to be French.
Belgian investigators believe players are working for a match-fixing syndicate run by Armenian criminals. They have already interviewed players in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, and Slovakia.
They intend to widen the inquiry to the US, Egypt, and Chile. Managers will be under investigation along with players.
Who is Maestro?
The leader of the Belgium-based gambling scam is an Armenian known as “Maestro.” His real name is Grigor Sargsyan, aged 28. He is currently in jail in Brussels, charged with money-laundering, forgery, violation of gambling laws, belonging to a criminal organization, and corruption.
The police allege that Maestro has paid up to 120 tennis players from more than half a dozen countries to throw their matches, or even agree to lose a set or a game. The quirkiness of tennis scoring means a player could lose a match just by losing a single game.
Tennis is wide open to match-fixing because of poor earnings in the lower tiers of the sport. The total prize money at the tournament in Bressuire, where Lescure and Okala were arrested, was just $15,000 (£11,616), with $1,500 (£1,162) for the winner.
The syndicate is thought to have paid corrupt players between €500 ($570; £441) and €3,000 ($3,400; £2,646) per fixed match.
Maestro is said to have placed thousands of bets by hiring mules for a few euros to wager small sums of money at widespread locations. Most of the bets were placed in Southeast Asia, and none would have been substantial enough on their own to attract attention from gambling watchdogs.
During the last year, Belgian police have arrested five other members of Maestro’s syndicate.
Corruption rife in Europe
It is unclear whether the French arrests are linked to last week’s bust in Spain. The Spanish Civil Guard and Europol jointly arrested 15 people from an Armenian syndicate, which is possibly an arm of Maestro’s ring.
Spanish police said that 28 tennis players were implicated in that match-fixing scam.
The chief executive of the French Tennis Federation (FFT), Jean-Francois Vilotte, said the scourge of match-fixing “cannot be solved by just one country,” referring to the two cross-border investigations. He added: “The fact there have been arrests shows that our alert systems work.”
FFT vice-president Alain Moreau said the corruption was of huge concern and the federation was putting new measures in place to curb the problem.
He said: “We’re putting in place domestic rules limiting the use of mobile phones on courts, we have introduced badges for these tournaments, with areas reserved for players so they can’t be approached or harassed.”
However, much of the problem lies in the spectator stands. Spectators linked to gambling syndicates such as Maestro’s text the scoring data in real time, often faster than match officials can transmit it to betting operators and broadcasters.
Moreau said: “They’re on their phones all the time and sending information. Since the start of [this] week we have spotted and chucked out seven of them, but they come back, we can’t ban them.”