BRUSSELS: Police raids across Europe on Wednesday sent shockwaves through Belgium’s top football league as prosecutors targeted the country’s biggest clubs over alleged fraudulent transfers and match-fixing.
A total of 220 police officers carried out 44 house searches across Belgium and in France, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia, Belgian prosecutors said.
“A great number of persons have been deprived of their liberty and taken in for a thorough interrogation,” said a statement from investigators.
The arrests focused on well-known football agent Mogi Bayat, the former manager of Sporting Charleroi, who was arrested in his home on suspected links to crooked transfer deals.
Club Brugge coach Ivan Leko, whose team is playing in the Champions League this season, was also arrested on Wednesday, a source close to the investigation said.
The headquarters of Club Brugge, Standard Liege, Anderlecht and KRC Genk, the current leader of the Belgian Premier League, were searched in the operation, the source added.
At Standard Liege, according to a report in the daily Le Soir, police seized contracts involving players Obbi Oulare, Michel Preudhomme and Dino Arslanagic that were all linked to Bayat.
Club Brugge and Anderlecht said they will fully cooperate with the investigation.
“Club Brugge has nothing to hide,” chairman Bart Verhaeghe told the daily De Morgen.
Anderlecht “gives its full cooperation and makes no further comments”, said spokesman David Steegen.
The house searches outside Belgium were mainly connected to the suspect transfer schemes, said prosecutors.
Cypriot police told AFP Wednesday they arrested a 52-year-old foreigner on a European warrant in connection with the case.
The offences were mainly committed in Belgium, but also in Cyprus and other European countries between 2012 and 2018, said Cypriot police.
Legal procedures are now underway to extradite the man to Belgium and evidence collected will also be handed over to the Belgian authorities.
Suspicion of match-fixing emerged during the fraud investigation, with a focus put on matches played in the 2017-18 season, prosecutors said.
The investigation started in late 2017 as a result of a report drawn up by the Sports Fraud Cell.
That entity had received a complaint from Westerlo football club, which currently plays in Belgium’s lower division 1B, following a Kortrijk-Mouscron match in March 2017, club president Herman Wynants told AFP.
Mouscron won the match and remained in the top league, relegating Westerlo.
According to media reports, Bayat had several players from Kortrijk and Mouscron in his client portfolio with another match involving Mouscron and Qatar-owned Eupen also under suspicion.
“I am asking for full transparency and cooperation from the football world to this investigation,” said Philippe Muyters, sports minister from Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flemish region.
“The athletes and especially the numerous supporters are entitled to a fair sport,” he said.
Number one in world
Bayat and his brother Mehdi are both major players in the Belgian football scene, an ascent that began when their uncle bought the Charleroi football club in 2000, local reports said.
Belgium’s national squad top the FIFA rankings and finished third at this year’s World Cup in Russia, but its national league is considered second-tier.
Top English Premier League star Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City rose to prominence at Genk, while Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku was a young star at Anderlecht.