There has been talk of sports betting before, and it has not subsided this year. Saulius Žentelis, one of the founders of Reo Vilnius football club, has followed the suite of Vladimir Romanov and dubbed Lithuania's A league the 'betting league.' Basketball-dedicated on-line forums have been buzzing with rumours about set games, prompted by Žalgiris Kaunas' defeat by Rūdupys Prienai.
That's hardly news in Lithuanian sports. The bogeyman of gambling is so entrenched in the psyche of sports fans that any unexpected score send many into outrage, hysteria, and panic. The reaction is not always justified, but one must admit that sports betting manipulations are an increasingly serious threat to professional sports.
“The problem is here already and we must do something about it,” Linas Kvedaravičius, Sakalai Vilnius basketball club director, says. “This problem of complex nature should be addressed not solely by sports people, but by bookmakers, too, who should be interested in preserving good reputation of their trade, and the state that should perfect sports funding laws so that it is sufficiently financed and scrap-and-saving players do not need to earn an extra buck by betting.”
Liutauras Varanavičius, former president of the Lithuanian Football Federation (LFF) and its current vice-president, thinks that Lithuanian laws make it more difficult to solve the betting problem. It is complicated even to initiate an investigation, since if some Asian bookmakers make some money by setting a game in Lithuania, there might be no aggrieved party in this country. Moreover, it is almost impossible to pinpoint an illegal gain of money, as clever people bet sums under the legally-set limit.
“We hope that after signing the new Council of Europe Convention regulations, Lithuania will be forced to stick to them, as we are sick and tired of trying to prove that betting fraud is a crime,” the LFF vice-president says.
On the other side of the divide, betting crooks have no need of inventing new laws. They have their own systems – some of which are rather simple, while others are masterpieces of ingenuity.
Schemes behind several scandals that befell Lithuania's football clubs were rather simple. In some cases, there was a perfect match – UEFA draw would bring together opponents neither of which had anything against some profitable foul play. Even if luck did not give one an accommodating rival, a team could still make some money by letting the opponents score more points than bookmakers expect.
It has been rumoured that this is exactly the scheme employed by Ekranas Panevėžys in 2007, in a match with Valerenga Oslo in Norway. After a draw at home, the Lithuanian team lost the second game 0:6. That was exactly the score that was heavily bet upon and many suspected that Ekranas did their best to allow that exact number of goals. A veritable desert for conspiracy theory adepts was a post-game fight between club director Tomas Sitnikovas and coach Virginijus Liubšys.
Players of the Kaunas club raised some suspicions after a UEFA Champions League game with Albaniam Dinamo Tirana. After winning first half 2:0, they let Albanians score three goals. After the game in Kaunas, some players unofficially hinted that they took money offered by Dinamo, reasoning thus: who cares, we'll make it up in Tirana.
The game in Tirana, however, concluded 0:0. There have been talks that the Albanian club, run by a local betting mogul, tried buying Kaunas players off on one more occasion. They allegedly entered the Lithuanians' locker room with a suitcase full of cash and said: the final score must be 4:4. This time, the Lithuanians refused. According to the players, the deal was known to the club's then owner Vladimir Romanov, who later declared a war on the “betting league” and pulled out of Lithuania's highest division.
“I do not want to ponder on whether Romanov has a moral right to talk of betting. It's only between him and his conscience,” Varanavičius says about his former employer at Ūkio Bank and his main supporter running for Lithuanian sports chief.
Janušas Loputis, who once ran FC Žalgiris Vilnius, has never talked about dirty betting games. But the Vilnius club has raised many eyebrows under Loputis.
In 2005, some serious suspicions were raised by a game between Žalgiris and Egaleo Athens in the now defunct Intertoto Cup. Žalgiris won the game in Athens 3:1, but then lost 2:3 at home. Betting dynamics in the run up to the game was more than unusual.
Players who were in the club back then put it simply. Loputis, according to them, made a deal with Greeks that Žalgiris would have a 2-point edge in the first game. And then club managers decided to use the trick again – in Vilnius, it was Egaleo's turn to win.
Some Žalgiris players were told they must lose, but still get into the next round. Greeks, meanwhile, allegedly decided to outsmart their opponents: they allowed Žalgiris to score twice and then, knowing that Lithuanians would give them three goals, pushed hard against Žalgiris, knowing full well that the latter would not risk attempting a third gaol. Loputis' team had a heated game in the last minutes, but Žalgiris managed to hold the field.
In all these cases, the Lithuanian clubs, even though coming under suspicion, were not punished for fraud.
One possible outcome
While European sport bodies work hard to punish foul play, Lithuania has so far had only one case of real sanctions being brought against sport fraudsters. These were basketball players Vidmantas Užkuraitis, Vytautas Buzas, and Rimas Varanauskas of Naglis Palanga, who bet against their team. They were punished with fines of several thousand litas and a suspended disqualification.
At the time, many sports fans grinned at such measures – they said that the players had claimed more money at bookmakers' than later spent on fines.
“According to the laws that were in effect back then, if they hadn't admitted their guilt, they could have hardly been punished at all,” Kvedaravičius believes.
Mindaugas Balčiūnas, general secretary of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, says that mild punishment was offered because no-one knew exactly how to deal with such cases – even FIBA could not provide any specific guidelines. Lithuania's basketball world seems indifferent to the threat of sports betting, even though it was last season's public secret that players in some clubs live off sports betting. Club owners, who did not pay their salaries, were happy to overlook it.
Football players, meanwhile, are under the radar of an international betting prevention system – UEFA closely follows all suspicious games and informs national federations. After Dainava Alytus defeated Reo Vilnius 3:2 in A League first-round game, there were talks that Lithuania received such a warning.
“Certainly not,” disagrees Ričardas Zdančius, manager at LFF games and events department. “This year, thank god, has been calm so far.”
Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian club leaders have agreed to exchange their black lists of players engaged in betting. “But now they find jobs in Asia that is not so amenable to requests for information,” Varanavičius smiles.