Ayear that was meant to be dominated by celebrations marking the centenary of Lierse SK has instead turned into a scandal-ridden survival struggle for the Belgian soccer club.

For the past six months, Lierse, who play in the top Belgian division, have found themselves at the heart of a match-fixing criminal investigation that is also focusing on other Belgian clubs and having repercussions as far afield as Finland and China.

The consequences for the club have been dramatic. They have fired the players and coaching staff under investigation, considerably weakening their squad and their chances of avoiding relegation to the second division.

Meanwhile, supporters have filed a €1.9m compensation lawsuit against the club’s former coach, demanding their money back for having watched allegedly fixed matches. Finally, the Belgian football federation is set to announce shortly whether any board members of the club are suspected of having benefited from the betting scam, which could in any case strip the club of its licence for next season.

The scandal broke late last year when Brussels police were called to a hotel
by a woman claiming to have been molested by a Chinese entrepreneur, Zheyun Ye, who was staying there with a local football agent and a former player. During questioning, the woman also accused Zheyun of fixing matches in Belgium and Finland, but he was eventually released without charges.

However, he is now the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by Belgian authorities and is believed to be hiding in China. Shortly afterwards, Lierse’s chairman stepped forward, questioning whether €370,000 supposedly invested by the Chinese businessman in his club had instead been used to fix matches.

Prosecutors suspect that Zheyun, working on behalf of a Shanghai-based betting syndicate, managed to infiltrate a number of Belgian clubs in dire financial straits, as well as at least one Finnish club, AS Allianssi, which he has controlled since last year after pumping in €540,000. British and other betting companies collaborating in the investigation, including Ladbrokes and Betfair, have confirmed that at least 19 matches in the top Belgian division during 2004 and 2005 triggered disproportionately heavy betting on highly unusual outcomes.

Match-fixing is not a new phenomenon in European football – dozens of leading Italian players were found guilty in the Toto Nero scandal of the early 1980s, for example, and a scandal erupted in Germany last year. Belgium also has a rich history of football corruption, including a 1982 bribery scandal that helped Standard Liege secure the championship.

But judging by the number of investigations across Europe, criminal gangs appear to be increasing their reach across the continent’s football, in line with the increasingly large amounts of money attracted to sports betting. Gambling on next month’s World Cup is expected to reach a record €1.5bn.

The Belgian investigation is shedding light not only on how illegal betting syndicates could focus their efforts on influencing relatively obscure matches but also how easily a group of clubs, rather than just a few players, could become engulfed in a match-fixing scam once their limited financial structures fall apart.

In many respects, Lierse’s woes stem from their success. In 1997, the club stunned their larger rivals by winning the domestic championship and gaining entry to Europe’s most prestigious club competition, the Champions League. That triumph convinced the directors to spend heavily on players as well as on a new stadium that could accommodate 15,000 spectators, even though the town only has double that population.

“After winning that championship, people here forgot their strong and traditional roots and thought the sky was the limit,’’ says René Trost, a Dutchman who took over as Lierse’s coach last November just before the scandal became public knowledge. “They lost all sense of reality.”

Financial losses began to mount amid mediocre results on the pitch. By 2004, wages for players were regularly delayed, so that when Zheyun and his suspected Belgian acolytes showed up, he found a club desperately trying to balance their books in order to be allowed to stay in the top division the following year.When you have water up to your neck and somebody shows up ready to help you swim along, you are not going to think very hard about that offer,” says Trost.

Whether board members also got tempted by his money remains unclear. But the list of coaching staff and players placed under formal investigation – all of whom have since either left or been fired by Lierse – suggests that several layers of the club may have been infiltrated by the Chinese-led gamblers. Before finalising the list of people facing charges, police are combing through some 75,000 mobile phone calls made by people involved in the club.

Yet perhaps surprisingly, those Lierse players and staff who are not suspects in the match-fixing case say the betting scandal was a complete bombshell for them. Trost said that, even with hindsight, only one match in which he was involved late last year made him suspicious, a 5-0 away defeat at Excelsior Mouscron.

The following day the players were made to attend a special training session and watch a video of their abysmal performance. Trost dissected every significant moment of play. “Out of 90 actions that I singled out, 12 were good and the rest were really extremely bad,” he says. “It may now sound naïve, but I was just very upset and not thinking about whether the players had sold the match.”

Timothy Dreesen, a 19-year-old who was handed the captaincy in February, also insists that he never suspected “some of my good friends” among the players of fixing matches. “Sometimes one of these guys would get the ball and totally miss an easy control, but that’s really all I noticed,” he says.

Meanwhile, the fans appear to have rallied around what is left of the Lierse team.

Dreesen also praises the solidarity and heightened support shown by fans. They are known as “sheep heads”, the nickname given to the inhabitants of the town – which is actually called Lier – to mark their decision in medieval times to build a cattle market rather than a university.Even when we are losing now, they just keep singing, singing and singing,” Dreesen says.

Marc Denoel, president of the supporters’ club that is suing the former coach, says fans who spent money and weekends travelling to watch cheats play – if it turns out this was the case – should be compensated. However he is proud of the way his club responded to the allegations. He says: “We confronted this very difficult situation, we fired five or six players and we are now the cleanest club in Belgium. I’m really not sure that other clubs can claim the same.”

Some commentators argue that the Belgian football federation should have suspended this year’s championship given the amount of clubs, players and matches under investigation. But while the federation has promised tough sanctions and immediate relegation for Lierse or any other club found guilty at the end of the investigation conducted by a federal prosecutor, Trost argues that such measures would be too little, too late. Instead, he wants a ban on soccer betting.

“Whatever judges or the federation decide, this betting scandal is like a massive oil spill that will have a very deep impact not only on this club but on the whole of Belgian football,” Trost adds. “Every time a goalkeeper is going to let in a stupid goal, people in this country will be thinking that he sold the match.”

To try to turn the page on the betting allegations, Lierse decided to dismiss people placed under investigation, which has also had a dramatic impact on the pitch. In one recent match, the team fielded a 16-year-old goalkeeper who had been its fifth-choice player, because two of the more senior keepers were injured and two had been fired.

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