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Athlone Town: When Match Fixers Bought A Football Club

When you think of a mid-table, second-division League of Ireland club, the last thing that should spring to mind is match-fixing.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with Athlone Town. In late 2016, the League of Ireland’s oldest club was subject to an investment from a Portuguese firm called PRÉ SEASON, owned by Lisbon-based businessman José Francisco, although his colleague Eric Mao is understood to have been pulling the strings behind the company.

In February 2017, PRÉ SEASON brought in new players to Athlone connected to previous Mao clubs. These included the Latvian Igors Labuts and midfielders José Viegas and Dery Hernandez, all from Atlético Clube de Portugal, along with a Romanian central midfielder, Dragoş Sfrijan. The Romanian arrived from Bucharest-based second-league club Berceni.

Who is Eric Mao?

Simply put, Eric Mao is a cowboy. He is a FIFA agent who uses a pan-national network to invest in minor clubs across the EU, with a promise to transfer Chinese talent and blood the players through European teams.

“Eric Mao is a senior member and leader of a betting organization in Singapore, and a key member of the network. global match-fixing network”

The International Sports Security Center in Qatar in a press release revealed

The Chinese agent is at the centre of a match-fixing network. His strategy is to buy a troubled or bankrupt club and, following a minor investment, hire his players, coaches, and administrators, many of whom have been involved in match-fixing controversies in the past. He knows exactly who he will be working with before they are employed.

Mao’s gang then forces the team to lose matches by high margins as part of a betting scam, a strategy Athlone knows all too well. Using his company, formerly known as Anping Sports Agency, Mao and his entourage have been active in Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Latvia, and the Czech Republic.

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Why Athlone Town?

At the time of the investment, Athlone was struggling. The strategy was to buy a troubled or bankrupt club, with the agent and his entourage putting their cash down and staying for between six months and two years. During their period of supervision, the pattern is the same. The team loses matches by high margins, the morale at the club collapses, and the fans stop turning up to the stadium. Following this, the clubs usually face relegation or bankruptcy. Athlone filled the criteria for Mao’s strategy perfectly.

Unsurprisingly, Mao’s first season ended with Athlone Town finishing bottom of the league with 17 points and a minus 50 goal difference, which meant the usual strategy had worked a treat for the Midlands club.

But one match, in particular, was the beginning of suspicions being raised..

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The match in question

The game in question was Athlone Town’s 3-1 defeat to local rivals Longford Town on April 29th, 2017. Data collated by Sportradar, an agency that monitors suspicious betting patterns, confirmed large amounts were placed on the match on at least two goals being scored in the first half. Longford were winning 2-0 at halftime.

And then, even more money was put on four or more goals being scored by the final whistle. And again, even more was placed on Longford hitting the back of Athlone’s net in the final 10 minutes. Longford went 3-1 up in the 87th minute. It was hardly a coincidence.

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Igors Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan, two of the newcomers to the club after Pré Season’s investment, were subject to an investigation after the game and subsequently found guilty by the FAI, leading to 12-month bans from all football-related activities for the pair. They were found to have breached three FAI rules:

  • Rule 99: Bringing the Game into Disrepute
  • Rule 105: Manipulating Matches
  • Rule 106: Betting / Gambling

Labuts, Athlone’s goalkeeper at the time, was determined to clear his name following the verdict. The Latvian had ambitions to coach in the future and knew the accusation had bigger consequences than the year-long ban he had received.

Athlone

Part of the FAI’s case against Labuts rested on video footage of goals conceded in the 40th and 93rd minutes of the game, the first of which was a direct free-kick and the second a shot from open play.`

After losing an appeal to the FAI Appeals Committee, he then took his case to the Court of Arbitration (CAS) for Sport in Switzerland. Stuart Gilhooly, Stephen McGuinness, and Ollie Cahill, the Secretary and Player Executive of the PFAI, respectively, represented him there, along with barristers Patrick Marron and Paul McGarry.

The CAS panel ruled that they were not satisfied that the evidence presented proved Labuts was involved in manipulating the result, saying his errors showed “no sufficient proof to suggest that he was deliberately inadequate to influence the match in a certain way.” Citing the initial report from Uefa’s Betting Fraud Detection System, the panel ruled that the result of the game was manipulated.

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CAS upheld Labuts’ appeal and overturned the FAI’s November 2018 punishment.

After the ruling, Labuts commented,

“I thought this day would never come, I came to Ireland with the intention of making it to the Premier Division and I hoped to put myself in the shop window with Athlone Town.  I am not the best goalkeeper in the world but I thought with the right training and experience, I could improve my consistency levels and have a reasonable career in the League of Ireland”

“This was taken away from me by the FAI.  I understand completely that they had to investigate the match and I cooperated in full. It was hugely disappointing to me that I was implicated without any evidence of wrongdoing. I was guilty only of making a mistake which some of the best goalkeepers in the world have made, or worse in some cases. 

“To be crystal clear, I did not manipulate, have not manipulated and never would be involved in manipulating a football match. Integrity in football is the most important element of the game.  Without that, we have nothing. My name has been dragged through the mud by the FAI when it was clear from the outset that there was never enough evidence to maintain a prosecution.”

Igor Labuts on the appeal

Sfrijan called time on his career following the investigation in 2017 and Igor Labuts is back in Latvia, playing futsal.

All the foreign players the ‘investors’ brought to Ireland have since left the club.

Athlone Town Today

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Playing in the second tier of the League of Ireland, Athlone finished in a respectable 5th place last season with 47 points, their highest points tally since returning to the division in 2015. Based in their 5,000-capacity stadium that was opened in 2007, Athlone are a team on the up. Having made some shrewd signings leading up to the new campaign, there is a positive vibe around the Midlands club about the season ahead.

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Appointed in June 2023, manager Dario Castelo has assembled a squad more than capable of competing around the top of the division this season. New signings such as Dean Ebbe, Shane Forbes and Peter McGregor will no doubt play a key role in the upcoming campaign beginning in mid-February.

In February 2023, Athlone announced a new partnership with USA-based Valeo Futbol Club aimed at improving and developing all of the League of Ireland’s teams.

Based in Newton, Massachusetts, close to Boston, Valeo FC already has partnership agreements with clubs in Portugal. It will lead efforts to transform Athlone’s youth academy into “a global football development centre of excellence for ambitious players and coaches.”.

A welcome addition to the club following the chaos that ensued around the club post-Mao’s departure.

History of Mao in Europe

In 2012, Mao started his career in international football. Due to his proficient English, he became involved in global sports deals at a time when Chinese investors were looking to buy teams in Europe. On January 29, 2012, Mao’s company Anping offered a deal to the double World Cup winner for Brazil, Ronaldo Nazario da Lima, for a five-year contract for his image rights across the Asian continent.

This indicated that Mao and Anping were already forging multi-million-dollar deals with arguably the greatest footballer of all time. A sign of the pulling power they possessed.

Atlético Clube de Portugal

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Mao’s business in China was far from a success, so he headed to Europe with a new venture, investing in crisis-ridden clubs. Atlético Clube de Portugal was his first European venture, based in Lisbon and in the Portuguese second league at the time. It was close to bankruptcy in 2013 when Anping Football Club Ltd. bought up to 70 percent of the club.

Mao’s right-hand man, Xialong ‘Bruce’ Ji, became the chairman of the board of directors and ran the club along with Xinxin ‘Nancy’ Cao. Bruce Ji attempted to influence the team selections and clashed with club officials. During his three seasons at the club, Anping brought in 67 players, mostly from foreign clubs, on free transfers.

As early as 2014, suspicions were raised when UEFA sent a confidential report to the Portuguese Federation announcing that Eric Mao was a “suspect individual” with links to the Asian betting mafia. This was the first red flag.

The new line-up of players caused anger at the club, forcing coach Jorge Simao to resign in June 2014 after only 12 matches. After two years of falling through the leagues, the club was insolvent and debt-ridden and stopped competing in 2017. A pattern that became common among Mao’s clubs over the years.

In June of that year, Mao disappeared overnight and was “never seen again,” according to Atlético’s current CEO, Ricardo Delgado.

Today, Atlético Clube de Portugal are in Portugal’s 3rd division and are aiming for promotion as they sit in the 3rd position under Portuguese boss Tiago Zorro.

Academica Clinceni

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In February 2016, Anping injected almost €100,000 into the Romanian second-league club Academica Clinceni. In a small town of 7,000 people, close to Bucharest, the investment was a disaster from start to finish.

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Italian Omar Scafuro was trusted with running the club; he was a former investor in Portuguese team Beira Mar and a friend of Eric Mao. Subsequently, Scafuro left Romania after one month. The Chineseman appointed former Romanian left-back Alexandru Dragomir as vice president. Andrei Marinescu, the goalkeeper for Clinceni, reported Dragomir to the Romanian FA after only a few weeks for attempting to fix a game. Dragomir informed Marinescu he would receive €1,000 or €2,000 for each fixed match.

The Romanian FA issued a three-month ban for Dragomir. But he continued to unofficially run Academica Clinceni until the end of the year. In 2018, Dragomir vanished.

To this day, Clinceni continues to survive, but due to its lack of funds, the club has become a satellite for major club FCSB Bucuresti, financed by ex-convict and former Member of the European Parliament, George Becali. The club currently play in Romania’s 3rd division.

FK Mohelnice

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In July 2017, Eric Mao invested in the Czech third-league club Mohelnice using a British shell company, Football Investment Limited, run by Premysl Buba, a Czech agent. This led to a flurry of seemingly irrational transfer activity and suspicions of match-fixing.

In early 2018, the Czech Football Association reported their findings about the situation to the police and the organized crime department launched an investigation of the club and its owners. In February, an unnamed Mohelnice player came forward as a witness, admitting to having been complicit in fixing a third-division match, being both blackmailed and offered bribes by a teammate to deliberately make defensive errors during the match.

Mohelnice ended the 2017/2018 season at the bottom of the league, having lost 22 games out of 30 played and were relegated. Unsurprisingly when you look at Mao’s track record. This is when Mao and his entourage moved on to their next victims.

The team is currently playing in Olomoucký KP, which is a regional football league.

Racing Rioja

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In August 2018, Eric Mao created a new club, Racing Rioja, in Spain’s lower league of the Rioja region. By this time, Mao’s deal-making was becoming public, so he chose to adopt a pseudonym (Fictitious name). Mao used the fake name ‘Arry’ (short for Harry Zhang).

As with the majority of the clubs noted, the results of the club were far from consistent until his departure in the summer of 2019. The club currently play in the 5th tier of Spanish football.

Since leaving the Spanish club, the whereabouts of Mao are very hard to track down with the possibility of the use of a different name being likely.

Mao’s legacy

Unfortunately, the arrival of Mao will live long in the memory of League of Ireland fans especially those of Athlone Town for reasons that we hope are dying out of the game.

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