Swiss FA dishes out fixing bans
When Swiss Football Association (ASF) officials were told by German investigators that 22 games in Switzerland's second tier last year might have been fixed, they were flabbergasted.
They could scarcely believe anybody was betting on those games, let alone conspiring with criminals to throw them - but they were and now nine players have been handed lengthy bans.
The worst offenders - five players from Gossau, Slavonija Bern and Thun - have been hit with indefinite suspensions that will last at least three years, effectively ending their professional careers.
These sanctions are the first to be dished out by a national federation as part of the European-wide investigation into match-fixing that was sparked by 50 police raids in four different countries, including the UK, last November.
Those raids, instigated by prosecutors in the German city of Bochum, were intended to smash an illegal betting ring that may have fixed 200 games in nine countries, although many fear that is a gross underestimate of the size of the problem.
No British games are under suspicion but there are 15 Champions League and Europa League games which might have been nobbled, as well as 29 fixtures in Turkey's top flight and a qualifying game for the European Under-21 Championships.
The extent of the conspiracy shocked European football's governing body, Uefa, and Peter Limacher, its head of disciplinary services, looked a broken man as he sat between two senior police officials during a dramatic press conference in Bochum last year.
Limacher at Uefa's press conference in Bochum. Photo: Getty images
"This is clearly the worst ever match-fixing scandal in European football," Limacher said. "We at Uefa are stunned by the magnitude of this."
Some might ask why European football's guardians were so stunned by the news - it's not as if they weren't warned. In the last five years alone, there have been two huge scandals on Uefa's patch.
First, there was the 2005 case of Robert Hoyzer (a corrupt German referee in cahoots with a Croatian gang). And then a year later Italy was scandalised when it emerged that four of the country's biggest teams - AC Milan, Fiorentina, Juventus and Lazio - were complicit in a staggering match-fixing conspiracy.
The last four years have seen fewer headline-grabbing cases but evidence of a growing threat to the game's integrity has been present for those willing to look: Canadian academic and journalist Declan Hill, author of "The Fix", has been trying to raise awareness of the threat for years.
But those warnings may finally have been heeded.
The news of the Swiss sanctions comes a week after Uefa officials visited Hungarian champions Debrecen to question eight players about their home defeat to Fiorentina in the group stages of this year's Champions League. The Hungarians lost a topsy-turvy game 4-3, having been 4-2 down after just 37 minutes.
A club official later downplayed the significance of Uefa's visit and claimed this was the best display in a disappointing group stage campaign by Debrecen. I didn't see enough of them to make a judgement on that - I vaguely remember the 1-0 home and away defeats by Liverpool - but I can say it does not fit the pattern of the games fixed in Switzerland.
David Ngog scored Liverpool's winner in Debrecen. Photo: Getty images
Urs Reinhard, the ASF's disciplinary chief, told me the most common scam there was for players to back their teams to lose by two clear goals. To place their bets the players would visit nondescript offices in Austria or southern Germany. A week or two later these offices would be vacated, making it difficult for investigators to follow the money trail.
Reinhard said one German-based individual had been identified as a common link in the conspiracy and prosecutors in Germany and Switzerland are building their case against him. He also the ASF had discovered that even friendly matches were being fixed.
"The whole thing came as a terrible surprise for us," said Reinhard. "And it really bothers me that we couldn't find out more about it."
A spokesman for Uefa later confirmed to me it was the extent of the Bochum conspiracy, and sums of money involved (£1.5m was seized in the November raids), that had proved so shocking to them last year. He also said that tackling the threat of match-fixing was "top of our agenda".
In terms of what happens next, we should expect more bans to be dished out by the national federations of the countries affected - the four mentioned already, plus Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia - while the criminal cases in Germany and elsewhere proceed at an inevitably careful pace.
The challenge for football and the courts will be tying it all together, because while a few hefty bans might make tempted players reconsider, only prison will stop the criminals who induce them into cheating fans, teammates and themselves.
All attention this weekend will justifiably be on the Champions League final, the highlight of the European domestic calendar, but the football authorities would be well advised to get their heads back in the game as soon as the party is over in Madrid.
Last year Uefa president Michel Platini described match-fixing as the "greatest danger to football". Nothing has really changed so far this year, although the fightback might have just started.