James M Dorsey profiles the Singaporean mastermind who spun African football into the extensive web of his global match-fixing operation.
For this 47-year old engineer of Tamil origin, Togo’s friendly, against Bahrain, in September 2011, was a relatively routine “match” – one of many he fixed. But it was the game that marked the beginning of Perumal’s end.
Curious about Togo’s poor performance, losing 3-0 to a team they were vastly superior to, led investigators and journalists to dig deeper into the game, only to discover the West African nation fielded a fake team.
The trail led to Perumal, after a Bahraini Football Federation official disclosed the match was arranged by “a Singapore-based, FIFA-approved agent”.
A handsome, charismatic man, who was a ‘runner’ for Chinese syndicates at the core of global match-fixing, Perumal blamed his demise on the ruthless nature of his business. The irony of that statement is clearly lost on him.
He claimed the pupils that learnt the dark arts at his feet subsequently turned against him, in a bid to take over his empire. “I was not intelligent enough to spot the wolves,” Perumal wrote, in a series of letters to Mohammed Zaihan of Singapore’s The New Paper, who originally broke the match-fixing story.
But betrayal may just be one reason for Perumal’s downfall. The fact that he became a chronic gambler, albeit not a very adept one, did not help. He piled up losses and in order to compensate for them, he short-changed the syndicate bosses. Perumal kept large sums, advanced by his bosses to fix matches, in the hope the team he was supposed to bribe would win legitimately and with the pre-agreed score.
Perumal was, according to FIFA investigators, over $3m in debt. His demise began when he fled Singapore, to evade serving a five-year prison term, for running over a policeman in 2009.
Relocating to a London neighbourhood with a large Tamil community, near Wembley Stadium, residents recall the man they knew as “Rajamorgan Chelliah” or “Uncle Raj” as being well dressed, quiet and polite.
They only discovered his real identity when he was arrested at Helsinki airport, in Finland. The Finns were tipped off by one of his disgruntled associates, as Perumal tried to leave the country on a false passport. In custody, Perumal had little compunction about fingering his former associates, whom he blamed for his travails.
“I would have admired my enemy if he had brought the sword to my heart instead of my back,” he said in one of his letters to The New Paper.
Perumal’s methods were simple: he bribed players and referees, as well as cash-starved football associations in Africa, eager to play in all-expenses paid friendlies.
He projected himself as a sympathetic promoter, acting on behalf of front companies that arranged friendly matches. “Most football associations are broke. When you go up to them with an opponent who is prepared to … play a friendly, they welcome you with open arms. They don’t realise what is hidden beneath,” he said in one of his letters to Zaihan.
This modus operandi enabled him to become a big player in the illicit match-fixing business, rigging hundreds of games across five continents and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent gambling winnings for Asian and European syndicates, in a global business that had grown exponentially.
FIFA claims Perumal perfected his approach in the late 1990s, in countries like Ghana and Zimbabwe, upping the ante by buying off national FAs. His most recent detention in Finland was simply an addition to his rather long rap sheet. Perumal was first convicted in 1983 on charges of housebreaking, theft, forgery, cheating and match-fixing.
Twelve years later, he was jailed for paying a team captain to lose a match and a Singapore court subsequently sentenced him in 2003, to a 16-month jail term, for bribing a referee. The tip-off that led to his eventual arrest in Finland may not have been just an attempt to take over his business.
Perumal originally went to the Nordic country to purchase Rovaniemi, a club in the local championship, which featured many African players and had proven to be an extremely profitable tool for the syndicates. But the sale also offered him an opportunity to pocket extra cash he badly needed, to retire some of his gambling debts.
Instead of transferring the $500,000 fee the syndicate agreed, to acquire the club, Perumal paid just $200,000 – keeping the remaining $300,000 for himself – which prompted an angry exchange between the club and his superiors in Singapore. Perumal’s double-dealing, even amongst thieves, rapidly jeopardised his standing with the syndicates, subsequently undermining his “credibility” in the football underworld.
That was further eroded after criminal colleagues suspected him of tipping off FIFA about the fixing of two matches in the Turkish resort of Antalya – Latvia against Bolivia, and Estonia against Bulgaria.
But, in fact, it was the betrayal, by one of his associates, Anthony Santia Raj, which prompted the Latvian Football Federation and FIFA to question the arrangements for the friendly.
Chris Eaton, FIFA’s security chief at the time, notified London-based gambling watchdog Sportradar. A subsequent analysis of the betting pattern for both matches left little doubt that they had been fixed. Based on Sportradar’s conclusion, FIFA contacted Santia Raj and Perumal’s fate was sealed. Reportedly under protective custody in Hungary, after spending a year in jail in Finland,
Perumal – wanted on criminal charges in several other European countries – is assisting the authorities in unravelling the global web of corruption, violating the Asian syndicate’s code of Omerta (silence), which is reportedly punishable by gruesome death. “I hold the key to Pandora’s box,” he said in one of his letters to Zaihan. “And I will not hesitate to unlock it.”