KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- A co-ordinated police action has been undertaken across seven European countries in an investigation into suspected corruption in Belgian football.

The scandal was a major upset for the Belgian game only three months after the national team finished a best-ever third in the World Cup finals in Russia. It could prove even more damaging than the Standard Liege scandal of the early 1980s.

The federal prosecutor’s office said that 44 searches of premises in Belgium and 13 abroad had been staged by 220 officers in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia. A “large number of people” had been arrested.

League matches last season under investigation

A spokeswoman also confirmed the arrest of top agent Mogi Bayat. Belgian media also reported the detentions for questioning of fellow agents Dejan Veljkovic and Karim Mejjati as well as Ivan Leko, the Croat coach of Champions League contenders Club Brugge, former Anderlecht general manager Herman Van Holsbeeck plus two journalists and FIFA referees Bart Vertenten and Sebastien Delferiere and Bart Vertenten.

Delferière had been due to referee Saturday’s Nations League match between Georgia and Andorra. UEFA has replaced him with Cypriot Leontios Trattou.

Top clubs

The police investigation concerns fraud on commissions related to transfers of players, but also on matches rigged in Jupiler Pro League, the top Belgian division.

A statement added: “The judicial investigation covers activities carried out within the framework of a criminal organisation, money laundering and private corruption.”

Premises searched included offices of nine clubs (Anderlecht, Club Bruges, Standard Liege, Ostend, Kortrijk, Lokeren, Genk, Ghent and Mechelen) as well as the homes of “club officials, player agents, referees, a former lawyer, an accounting office, a coach, journalists and some possible accomplices.”

The investigation was launched at the end of last year in response to a report by the sports fraud unit of the Federal Police, which revealed “indications of suspicious financial transactions”.

Matches in the 2017-18 league championship were under scrutiny.

Justice Minister Koen Geens said: “Match-fixing undermines the integrity of sports. The Justice Department is working for a fair sport.”

This latest scandal threatens to be the largest corruption network uncovered on the continent since the Bochum case which brought match-fixers to trial in Germany for masterminding widespread corruption across lower divisions in central Europe on behalf of illegal internet betting rings.

Peter Limacher, then the head of the disciplinary department of UEFA, described it as the “biggest fraud scandal ever in European football.”

Initial indications from the Belgian authorities suggest that the latest scandal concerns both matchfixing and transfer system fraud.

The Belgian football federation said: “The URBSFA has noted the judicial inquiry, which was unveiled on Wednesday, October 10, and which concerns various individuals in Belgian football. If the Belgian federation is asked to contribute to the investigation it will, of course, do so in a transparent manner. No further comment will be made at this stage.”

The last major scandal in the Belgian game arose over matchfixing involving Standard Liege in 1982 who approached Thor Waterschei players before the final game of the season which they then won to land the league title.

Subsquently ceo Roger Petit, coach Raymond Goethals and eight senior players (Eric Gerets, Jos Daerden, Walter Meeuws, Theo Poel, Simon Tahamata, Michel Preud’homme, Gerard Plessers and Guy Vandersmissen) were suspended for varying periods.

The punishments deprived Belgium of key members of their team at the imminent European Championship finals in France.