By Igor Nitsak
KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian police raided 35 football clubs and arrested at least one football referee on Tuesday in a massive operation against suspected match-fixing.
The raids took place four days before the capital Kiev hosts Saturday’s Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool, the biggest soccer fixture in Ukraine since it co-hosted the European Championship in 2012.
The targeted clubs represent 67 percent of all professional clubs in the country and include five clubs in the top division — FC Zorya, Vorskla, Zirka, Olimpik and Olexandriya.
Details of the operation and alleged wrongdoing were announced at a news conference by authorities in Kiev. The investigation was managed by Francesco Baranca, an Italian who heads the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) Committee on Ethics and Fair Play.
“This is a historic day for Ukrainian football. This is just a beginning. We hope this time it will not end up with the administrative fines. I am very thankful for Baranca,” FFA President Andriy Pavelo said.
“I am sure this will set a good example for Ukrainian and world football.”
The operation uncovered five criminal groups and registered 57 cases of match-fixing involving 328 people, officials said.
“The criminal groups consist of football club owners, players, referees, coaches, commercial structures, and civilians”, Arsen Avakov, head of Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was quoted as saying.
Evidence presented at the news conference included videos and audiotapes of phone calls.
“Media have been speculating about suspicious games. We have been collecting and documenting the proof for over a year. We have demonstrated only certain facts we have. This is to provide a signal that we will get rid of such games,” said Serhiy Knyazev, the head of the National Police of Ukraine.
Ukrainian football comprises 52 professional football clubs organised into four divisions.
In 2015 the Ukrainian government passed an anti match-fixing law that makes the activity a criminal offence.
The prosecutor’s office will now determine how many of those suspected of wrongdoing will be charged.
(Editing by William Maclean)