lunedì 29 agosto 2011

RoPS' Christmas fairy tale shakes Finnish football

Rovaniemi is best known for being situated just eight kilometres from Santa Claus’ village and famous post office. There is no better place than the capital of Lapland (Finland’s northern region) to set a Christmas fairy tale, but not all have happy endings, despite appearances to the contrary. The story of Zeddy Saileti, a whole host of Zambian talents and RoPS is a case in point.

Zambian Saileti landed in Lapland for the first time in 1994, having accepted an offer to play for local side RoPS (Rovaniemen Palloseura), whose chairman Jouko Kiistala had fallen in love with African football after watching Cameroon striker Roger Milla’s exploits at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was Milla who suggested to Kiistala that Saileti, at that time playing in his homeland of Zambia, could be tempted to Finland.

“I knew nothing about Finland”, recalls Saileti, “until I went there in the winter of 1994 and I thought this was a God-awful place, where one could not play football. It was well below freezing and we practiced on a gravel pitch.” It was little surprise when the Zambian went back home, but Saileti popped up again in the more favourable spring to sign a contract with RoPS. From then on, the striker turned out with the Finnish side for 16 consecutive seasons, becoming a legend in Rovaniemi in the process. And when he hung up his boots at the age of 40, he was quickly offered the job of assistant coach.

In recent years, Saileti used his contacts to bring more Zambian players to RoPS, planting a little piece of the African country in Rovaniemi and enjoying unrivalled authority amongst the young hopefuls. “It is part of our culture”, explained the RoPS legend. “You respect your elders. I can tell a younger player to go and get me some food and he will do it.”

Despite RoPS becoming a yo-yo club, bobbing between Finland’s top flight the Veikkausliiga and the country’s second tier the Ykkonen, the story of this African footballing community based in the Arctic Circle looked every inch a Christmas fairy tale. However, last February the chance discovery of a fake passport would ensure the dark side of football in Rovaniemi – and Finland – would be uncovered.

Wilson Raj Perumal, a Singaporean who was based in London, found himself stopped by border guards while trying to enter Finland with a forged passport. The name of the Singaporean was not unknown to FIFA’s security officers, who suspected him of fixing international matches involving African and Asian countries. His arrest brought to light a network of match-fixers who had targeted RoPS, offering bribes to players to affect the outcome of matches between 2008 and 2011.

Soon seven Zambians and Georgians were found guilty of having accepted between €500 and €44,000 to fix RoPS matches. A Finnish court ruled that 24 of the Rovaniemi-based side’s games had been fixed – Perumal’s involvement was proven in seven. The Singaporean was handed two years in jail, while the players involved were all given suspended sentences, ranging from six to twelve months.

In Rovaniemi the scandal caused an earthquake of shock. “When we saw the players being taken away by the police, we had some serious talks with the team, but we didn’t really know what was going on”, said RoPS managing director Antti Hietakangas. Following the conclusion of the trial, RoPS sacked all the players that had been involved. “We won’t take any Zambians again, and I don’t think any other Finnish club will ever take a Zambian player [again]”, commented chairman Risto Niva.

All RoPS’ Zambians had been recruited by Saileti. One, centre back Stephen Kunda, quickly pointed the finger of blame at the former striker, accusing him of forcing his countrymen to fix matches. “All of us obeyed him without question”, Kunda revealed. “I don’t want to see that man again”, he added. Saileti, who moved back to his hometown Kitwe, has denied any involvement. Finnish prosecutors however are far from convinced and are pushing for the former RoPS legend to be extradited to Finland to face allegations he instigated match fixing at the club.

Finland’s Veikkausliiga became a target of Asian gambling syndicates in the second half of the 2000s. In 2005, a Belgian-Chinese betting cartel took control of Vantaa-based side AC Allianssi. Less than one year later they exited the club after fixing a game against FC Haka; Allianssi fielded a reserve side and lost 8-0. At the time a police investigation failed to find sufficient evidence of match fixing, however some years later the club’s former chairman Olivier Suray admitted that the game had been fixed. Allianssi were declared bankrupt in 2006.

On 6th May 2011, a Finnish court convicted Zambian brothers Dominic and Donewell Yobe of pocketing €50,000 in bribes to play “below their normal level” to help TPS Turku defeat the players’ club AC Oulu 5-0. The pair were given suspended seven month sentences and saw their contracts cancelled by their respective clubs (AC Oulu and, by then for Dominic Yobe, HJK Helsinki).

Lesser known leagues with a modest income, like Finland’s Veikkausliiga, have become the favoured targets of match-fixing organisations. And according to FIFA’s head of security, Chris Eaton, the groups operate with a long-term plan, recruiting players from poorer countries through the attraction of a contract with European clubs and then applying pressure to take part in the fixing of games. “These criminals invest in the development of players and officials and then they expect payment”, said Eaton. “They want their cut.”

This is something Finland’s Veikkausliiga knows all too well, a league ironically sponsored by a betting firm, Veikkaus.

Fonte: Inside Futbol

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