MONTPELLIER, France (AFP) –
France faced calls on Tuesday to crack down on sports betting, as arguably the world’s biggest handball star faced possible criminal proceedings over a high-profile match-fixing probe.
In a case that has dominated headlines in France for the last week, 18 people, including nine current or former players of league champions Montpellier, were being investigated after suspicious betting patterns at one of the club’s matches last May.
Among those under the spotlight was Nikola Karabatic, a double Olympic and world handball champion and one of the sport’s most recognisable stars, as well as his brother, Luka, plus their girlfriends.
The Karabatic brothers were met by a media scrum in the southern French city on Tuesday as they arrived in court to be questioned further by investigators, as prosecutors said there was enough evidence to back up their suspicions.
Judicial sources told AFP that Luka Karabatic’s television presenter girlfriend Jeny Priez and four others had been placed under formal investigation for fraud and released on bail after paying a surety of 13,000 euros ($17,000, 10,000 pounds).
The four others include a bar owner suspected of masterminding the alleged scam.
Montpellier state prosecutor Brice Robin told a news conference that there were “very strong suspicions” about the players in question and that they had “close links” with those who placed the bets.
“For anyone who doubts a pact, there’s material to ask very legitimate questions,” he said, adding that Priez had admitted to investigators that she had bet on the match for her boyfriend at his request and with his money.
According to lawyers for the other players, they accept having bet on the May 12 game against Cesson-Sevigne, despite governing body rules outlawing the practice but deny having thrown the match, which they lost 31-28.
The Karabatic brothers’ lawyer pointed out that neither played in the match and Montpellier had already won the league.
The scandal has tarnished the image of the fast-moving indoor sport, which is popular in France, Germany, eastern Europe and Scandinavia. France are reigning Olympic champions, having won in 2008 and in London this year.
Suspicious bets totalling 87,880 euros were placed, earning 252,880 euros, ringing alarm bells at betting firm Francaise des Jeux, as the sums were 40 times larger than normal and virtually all were on Montpellier being behind at half-time.
All of the bets were placed in three places — Montpellier, the northwestern city of Rennes and in the Paris region — and in sums of 100 euros, which allows the gambler to collect their winnings anonymously, investigators said.
France handball officials have vowed to come down hard on anyone found guilty, vowing “zero tolerance” for any transgressions of the players’ code, but former France coach Daniel Costantini said he was unsurprised at the allegations.
He said some top players in the sport had developed a sense of “invincibility” because of their recent success, while management had been lacking in reining in excesses.
After the successful defence of their Olympic title, for example, France players destroyed a television company’s set, with the damage put down to over-exuberance.
On betting, French sports minister Valerie Fourneyon said players and coaches all needed to be aware of the rules, particularly with the advent of on-line gambling.
“It’s a more important issue than doping because it’s easier to cheat to lose than dope to win,” she said on Tuesday, adding that she wanted to see curbs on betting on scores, particularly at half-time, betting offers and advertising.
“The state has to be more protective,” she added, particularly with the risk of gambling addiction and debt.