US Embassy Cables: Bulgarian Soccer Receives Red Card for Corruption
Fresh diplomatic cables of the US Embassy in Sofia on WikiLeaks as published by the El Pais newspaper
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 6601
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC
RUEAWJA/DEPT OF JUSTICE WASHINGTON DC
RHMCSUU/FBI WASHINGTON DC 0281
C O N F I D E N T I A L SOFIA 000032
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/14/2019
TAGS: PGOV, KCRM, KCOR, BU
SUBJECT: BULGARIAN SOCCER RECEIVES A RED CARD FOR CORRUPTION
REF: 09 SOFIA 508
Classified By: CDA Susan Sutton for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).
1. (C) Summary:
Since the fall of Communism, Bulgarian soccer has become a symbol of organized crime's corrupt influence on important institutions. Bulgarian soccer clubs are widely believed to be directly or indirectly controlled by organized crime figures who use their teams as way to legitimize themselves, launder money, and make a fast buck. Despite rampant rumors of match fixing, money laundering, and tax evasion, there have been few arrests or successful prosecutions. As a result, the public has lost faith in the legitimacy of the league as evidenced by the drop in television ratings and match attendance. Recent scandals involving the most popular teams and the mass firing of the referee selection commission for a second consecutive year have deepened the public's disgust. The new government has started to investigate tax evasion and money laundering allegations against some soccer clubs, but, given the deep roots of organized crime in Bulgarian soccer, this has had little impact so far. Cleaning up Bulgarian soccer would be a public sign of the seriousness of the Prime Minister (himself a soccer fanatic) in combating organized crime.
THE FALL OF "THE BEAUTIFUL GAME"
2. (C) Bulgaria is soccer country. It has long been the most popular sport, and despite scandals and the migration of many of its talented players to wealthier European clubs abroad, it is still a Bulgarian passion. The pinnacle of Bulgarian soccer was the 1994 World Cup, when Bulgaria defeated Germany to advance to the semi-finals, eventually finishing fourth overall. To this day, many Bulgarians only half jokingly refer to this as the country's greatest accomplishment since the fall of communism. After the transition to democracy, popular teams previously owned by the municipalities and state institutions such as the military or the police were sold to the new business elite notorious for its close ties with organized crime and theformer secret services. Experts and journalists we interviewed claim that organized crime groups captured Bulgarian soccer in an effort to launder illicit profits and create a legitimate image. Today, nearly all of the teams are owned or have been connected to organized crime figures.
The following list is just a sampling of the most well-known connections.
3. (C) Todor Batkov, the proxy and front-man for the infamous Russian-Israeli businessman Michael Cherney, aka "Mikhail Chorny," owns the popular Sofia team Levski FC. The powerful business conglomerate TIM owns Cherno More Varna. The notorious Marinovs, aka "Margin brothers," who are on trial for murder, racketeering, and organized crime, own Slavia. Nickolay Gigov, an alleged arms dealer, owns Lokomotive Sofia, and Grisha Ganchev, a known money launderer and organized crime figure, owns Litex. Vassil Krumov Bozhkov, aka "the Skull" was the former owner of CSKA, one of the most important Bulgarian teams. The last three presidents of Lokomotive Plovdiv, which has been periodically owned by the crime group VIS, have been assassinated.
4. (C) Given the ownership of the Bulgarian soccer clubs, allegations of illegal gambling, match fixing, money laundering, and tax evasion plague the league. A large scandal erupted in September 2009 during the run-up to the match between Levski and CSKA, the most important rivalry in Bulgarian soccer. Immediately prior to the match, four Levski players were put on a plane to Moscow as part of a last minute transfer to the Russian team, FC Rubin Kazan. Shortly after Levski's 2-0 loss to CSKA, it became clear that the transfer was a hoax and that the President of Levski, Todor Batkov, had been defrauded of the Euro 200,000 transfer fee. The local press reported that the odds for CSKA winning the game fell dramatically before the announcement of the transfer, possibly indicating large amounts of money bet against Levski. Theories on what really happened vary, but the most popular are that Batkov bet against his own team to pay back debts, or that the new owners of CSKA orchestrated the transfer. Despite preliminary investigations into the case, there have been no arrests.
RUMORS OF MATCH FIXING
5. (C) Long-standing allegations of match fixing have probably done the most to damage Bulgarian soccer's reputation. According to the sports editor of the daily "Trud," Vladimir Pamukov, and sports journalist, Krum Savov, the most common match fixing schemes are bribing referees and paying off players on the opposing club to insure a team loses by a certain score. They argue that thanks to organized crime influences and economic disparity between the teams, match fixing has become an extremely common practice. This has caused many Bulgarians to view the outcomes of soccer matches like Americans view the predetermined outcomes of professional wrestling. Pamukov highlighted the fall in television ratings and crowds at soccer games as evidence of this disillusionment, claiming that prior to the transition there would be 10,000 people at games and now 500 to 2,000 show up.
6. (C) Journalists, critics and fans often cite illogical results and unexplainable play as the evidence of match fixing even though there have been few investigations and proven cases over the last twenty years. When there are arrests and evidence of corruption, cases often come to nothing or the accused are acquitted due to a lack of evidence. Ivan Lekov, a well-known former soccer referee and deputy head of the State Agency for Sports and Youth, was arrested in 2008 before TV cameras for allegedly orchestrating match fixing. Four former soccer referees broke their silence, claiming Lekov and the head of the Bulgarian Football Union's (BFU) referee committee applied pressure on them to fix matches. Following Lekov's arrest, the BFU dismissed the entire referee committee for the first time and passed a code of ethics for clubs. Despite these changes, match fixing has not dissipated and Lekov, often cited by the previous government as an example of its anti-corruption efforts, was acquitted due to a lack of evidence and witnesses refusing to testify. On December 14, 2009 the executive committee of the BFU, in what is becoming
an annual tradition, again fired the entire referee commission due to match fixing rumors. It also suspended two referees for poor officiating in recent league games, leading to even more suspicions. The Union of European Football Association (UEFA), the governing body of European soccer, also is investigating Bulgarian referee Anton Genov for his alleged involvement in fixing an international match. According to the UEFA, there were obvious irregular betting patterns prior to the international friendly match on November 14, 2009 in which Genov awarded four penalty shots during Macedonia's 3-0 victory over Canada.
NEW GOVERNMENT MAKES SOME PROGRESS
7. (C) Despite nearly universal recognition of the problem, few actions have been taken to prevent organized crime groups from dominating Bulgarian soccer. Upon taking office, the new government started to go after the most obvious tax evasion and money laundering schemes. In September, the Bulgarian National Revenue Agency (NRA) announced that eight of Bulgaria's top soccer clubs owed at least USD six million in unpaid taxes. NRA agents also discovered a commonly known phenomenon of soccer clubs paying, at least on paper, first division players minimum wage, approximately USD 170 per month. This blatantly contradicted tabloid photos of soccer players and their pop-star wives driving around in expensive cars and dining at the most exclusive restaurants. The NRA is currently checking whether the property of 261 players matches their declared income. The former president of CSKA, Alexander Tomov, and three co-defendants were also charged with embezzlement of USD 28 million in their official capacity at the CSKA soccer club and the Kremikovtzi steel works.
8. (C) Comment:
Organized crime has had a destructive impact on Bulgarian football, mirroring to some extent how it has destroyed Bulgarian's faith in other institutions. The new government has started to attack some of the soccer clubs' most overt corrupt practices. Given the public's interest in soccer, which still is weekly tabloid fodder, a successful operation against OC bosses in charge of soccer teams would be a public relations coup. Going after the OC bosses, if successful, would be a public and popular campaign that would demonstrate the seriousness of the new government and its soccer-fanatic Prime Minister in combating organized crime. Government actions against soccer clubs would directly challenge the criminal bosses who have previously enjoyed virtual impunity and would seriously test the strength and resolve of Bulgarian law enforcement and courts.
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