ROVANIEMI, Finland (AP) – Nine players from Zambia and Georgia and a Singaporean man accused of bribing them went on trial Thursday in a match-fixing investigation that has rocked the Finnish football league.
The probe centers on Wilson Raj Perumal, a Singaporean also suspected by world governing body FIFA of fixing international games involving African and Asian national teams.
Finnish prosecutors say Perumal offered the players bribes of ?470,000 to fix matches in an international betting scam that targeted the local team in Rovaniemi, a northern city near the Arctic Circle.
''Perumal has been part of an Asian-based organization involved in match-fixing around the world,'' chief prosecutor Maija Mononen told The Associated Press. ''According to what he has told us the organization made between ?500,000 and ?1.5 million per game.''
Mononen said there were three other suspected match-fixers involved in the Rovaniemi case but investigators had not been able to establish their identities.
Perumal, who was arrested in February, is also accused of attempting to bribe players at two other Finnish league clubs, entering Finland with a fake passport and trying to flee from officials guarding him.
He was guarded by two police officers as the charges were read in the Lapland District Court, where the trial is expected to continue for several weeks. Sporting a graying goatee, he remained silent, staring at the floor and fidgeting with a pen.
Perumal's defense lawyer Pertti Poykko said Perumal has confessed to many of the charges, including some of the bribery allegations, while denying others.
''Basically, he admits to most of the charges but in one alleged case he was not in the country at the time and in another case he denies having had anything to do with it,'' Poykko said.
The players - seven Zambians and two Georgians - were charged with accepting bribes of ?11,000 to ?50,000 each to affect the outcome of matches. In cases where the desired result was not achieved, the money was paid back to Perumal, according to the charges.
Prosecutors demanded a prison term of two years and four months for Perumal. They also asked for 19 to 23 months for six Zambian players, and suspended sentences for another Zambian and two Georgians.
In addition, the Rovaniemen Palloseura football club, which fired the players after the investigation started, is demanding ?213,000 in damages for loss of advertising revenue and salaries for new players signed to fill out the roster.
The Finnish league, which is far removed from the big money and public attention of the bigger leagues in Europe, has been overshadowed by match-fixing scandals since it kicked off in May.
Three-time champion Tampere was suspended from the league after team officials acknowledged accepting ?300,000 from a Singaporean company but were unable to explain why they took the money.
On May 6, two Zambian brothers playing for AC Oulu were convicted of taking ?50,000 in bribes from Perumal to play ''below their normal level'' in a 5-0 loss last year.
And on May 25, IFK Mariehamn said its Kenyan former goalkeeper was suspected of taking ?50,000 in bribes in connection with two matches the club lost in 2010.
The Finnish scandal appears to confirm that betting fraud worth millions of dollars is more widespread than previously feared.
FIFA has stepped up its response in recent weeks after being criticized for lagging behind European authority UEFA in acknowledging the problem.
The world football body believes Perumal organized an infamous match last September, sending a fake Togo team to Bahrain for a friendly that the unwitting host easily won 3-0. Perumal also has links to fixing involving Zimbabwe national team matches played in the Far East.
In Rovaniemi, club officials say the match-fixing scandal came as a shock.
''When we saw the players being taken away by the police we had some serious talks with the team but we didn't know what really was going on,'' managing director Antti Hietakangas told The AP on the eve of the trial.
Finnish police have said that they are also investigating ''several other foreign fixers'' of matches but have declined to give details pending results of the Rovaniemi probe.
''There is serious speculation that this really is just the tip of the iceberg,'' Hietakangas said.
Finland is attractive to bettors in other parts of the world during the summer when bigger leagues in Europe are in their offseason, he said. The Finnish league runs spring-autumn because of the harsh winter.
Many foreign players, especially from Africa, come to the Finnish league to play for modest wages by European standards, but with hopes of getting transferred to a bigger league. Rovaniemen Palloseura has recruited players from Zambia for more than 15 years, but Hietakangas said the match-fixing scandal had forced the club to reconsider that strategy.
''We will try to build the team first and foremost from Rovaniemi footballers, then players from Lapland and after that from the rest of Finland,'' he said.