Albanias leading club, Skenderbeu, are accused in a leaked Uefa report of having routinely manipulated games for betting purposes and may be banned for an unprecedented 10 years

In Korce they love their football team and that is why, on 21 February, thousands of the Albanian city's dwellers gathered to sing for Skenderbeu. The rally stretched far down the main avenue, one poster standing out among scarves and flags. Its message was clear:” Do not kill our dream .”

Everything Skenderbeu have achieved is on the verge of being discredited by the most extraordinary match-fixing inquiry of all time. A leaked Uefa report has recommended the six-times national champions, who competed in the Europa League group stage this season, are prohibited from its competitions for an unprecedented 10 years; if the governing body's control, ethics and disciplinary body concurs, almost a decade of progress will come to a shuddering halt.

Uefa has not built such reports, written by two of its ethics and disciplinary inspectors, public but it has circulated widely in Albania and has been find by the Guardian. It brought the population of Korce on to the streets and its contents are damning. It concludes Skenderbeu” has been fixing football matches like nobody has ever done before in the history of the game”, alleging the club have essentially operated as a vehicle for organised crime, and shines a light on the detail that underpins Uefa's match-fixing inquiries. Uefa did not corroborate or deny the document's authenticity.

Skenderbeu have previously received punishment for match-fixing, a year-long suspension from European rivalry served in 2016 -1 7. That was upheld by the court of arbitration for athletic( Cas ), as an” administrative measure” in a two-step Uefa process; the present investigation sorts the second stage and is part of a more serious” disciplinary measure “.

The suspension came after Uefa's betting fraud detection system( BFDS) identified 53 matches involving Skenderbeu- spanning friendlies, domestic fixtures and European club competitions- allegedly manipulated for betting intents between November 2010 and April 2016. The lawsuit focused on four games: two from the 2015 -1 6Champions League qualifying rounds and two from that season's Europa League group phase. Skenderbeu were, based largely on the BFDS's processes, banned. The new report adds fresh evidence from a panel of coach-and-fours while employing an external company to reconfirm its findings in an effort to press the case for a most severe punishment.

Skenderbeu are accused of” manipulation attempts to obtain criminal betting gains on a stunning global scale”, earning millions of dollars. The report alleges the club have” no respect for the integrity of the game” and that they contrived a highly organised structure intended to harvest huge sums through lottery. It is an accusation the club have denied.

” KF Skenderbeu's legal department is following the necessary procedures for the questions in question and carries confidence that the instance will be closed successfully ,” read part of a statement on Facebook after the report's existence became known.

The report argues two group stage games, at Sporting Lisbon and at home to Lokomotiv Moscow, are of particular concern. Skenderbeu lost 5-1 and 3-0 respectively, both matches' outcomes following rapidly intensifying betting patterns virtually to the letter.

The former insured a commotion of” exuberant and illogical” wagers built for six or more goals to be scored with Sporting 4-0 up late on; the latter, according to the report, became subject to a rush of highly suspicious, and accurate, wagers when Skenderbeu were a aim down with five minutes left. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing from Skenderbeu's opponents.

Skenderbeu,
Skenderbeu, in red, take over Reformer in Albania in a Champions League qualifier in 2015. The return match is among those to feature in Uefa's investigation. Photo: Armando Babani/ EPA

The best-known of the ties is a Champions League second qualifying round, second leg against the Northern Irish side Crusaders on 21 July 2015. Skenderbeu had won the home fixture 4-1 and went 2-1 up in the return. There followed what the report terms” some outrageous suspicious live bet” totalling” a minimum of several hundreds of thousands of dollars “; Skenderbeu ran scant danger of losing the affiliation at this stage and confessed twice in the last 10 minutes, with Crusaders also having two aims disallowed. A tweet from the Crusaders goalkeeper, Sean O'Neill-” If there is not a Uefa investigated by our game tonight, then there is something wrong”- is among the evidence submitted.

The BFDS utilizes algorithms and mathematical models to assess betting motions around games, which are “escalated” for further inspection if irregular patterns appear. Skenderbeu have had more than twice as many games intensified as any other club since the system's inception in 2009. Uefa has enlisted a British firm to conduct anonymised analysis of betting data regarding 10 of those games; the results almost total similarity to those of the BFDS and are central to the report's conclusion.

Another cornerstone will be the findings of an “expert panel” whose members included the Leicester City assistant manager Michael Appleton. They were asked to review incidents from alleged “appalling” and “embarrassing” play against Crusaders to” a few suspicious moments” in another cited game against Dinamo Zagreb.

The situation allegedly developed after Agim Zeqo was appointed Skenderbeu president in January 2010. At that phase the club risked relegation. They survived, proceeding to win the league five years operating; such reports shows the first of their games to be “escalated” occurred in November 2010.

Contacted by the Guardian, Zeqo said:” I vehemently deny that any match-fixing passed during my tenure as KF Skenderbeu's president. I stand ready to face such allegations openly in public, including any court of law if necessary .”

The current Skenderbeu president, Ardjan Takaj, who succeeded Zeqo in 2012, and the former Albanian finance minister Ridvan Bode are said to have been influential to the alleged scheme. The latter is stated by the report to have been a key donor. He allegedly holds” the power, the connections and the knowledge to influence Skenderbeu's matches, and … has done so over the years “.

Takaj is accused of targeting friendlies for illegal gain and using relationships with Skenderbeu players to impact their on-pitch actions. A labyrinthine section of such reports focuses on Takaj's business dealings, exploring links between Skenderbeu and betting companies in which he allegedly is, or has been, involved.

Both men deny match-fixing. Bode told the Guardian he had never supported Skenderbeu financially. He said the allegations were built with” reckless ease” and continued:” I was never part of and have never been aware of any attempt to influence any match's outcome .”

Takaj told the Guardian the allegations about his business participation were “decontextualised”, and continued:” I have never been involved, directly or indirectly, in any activities aiming to manipulate the outcome of the match, neither[ have] people related to me .”

The 40 -year-old goalkeeper Orges Shehi, whom such reports alleges profited from match-fixing through his actions, remains in the team. The defender Tefik Osmani, accused similarly, is still around too and both issued denials to the Guardian. Shehi said:” I believe in the values of sport and of sportsmanship and have tried all my career to give an example for the next generations .” Osmani said:” I entirely deny these allegations .”

Takaj is determined to clear the club's name and told the Guardian:” A 10 -year sentence is in practice a capital punishment .”

It does not help Skenderbeu that Albania's football federation last year stripped the club of its 2015-16 title, also deducting 12 phases for 2016 -1 7, for match-fixing at national level. Another appeal to Cas is believed to be pending.

A further strand of the report's argument is that, since the Cas hearing in July 2016 , no Skenderbeu matches have been intensified. Skenderbeu must wait for Uefa's decision and came for the purposes of the spotlight when the governing body announced last month that its disciplinary inspectors had received death threats after such reports was leaked. The club distanced itself from those but they underlined the unsavoury nature of the case.

A letter by Sotiraq Filo, the mayor of Korce, to the Uefa president, Aleksander Ceferin, concluded by asking Ceferin and Uefa not to” kill the resurrected hope of an entire nation for football “. If Skenderbeu are found guilty this time, then responsibility will lie closer to home.

Additional reporting by Ermal Kuka

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