MONTPELLIER, France (AFP) –
France faced calls on Tuesday to crack down on sports betting, as the world’s biggest handball star was charged with fraud in a high-profile match-fixing probe.
France’s double Olympic and world handball champion Nikola Karabatic of the Montpellier club, and three other professional players, were among 11 people charged after suspicious betting patterns at one of the club’s matches last May.
Among those also under the spotlight was Karabatic’s brother, Luka, and their girlfriends. Neither of the brothers played in the match under investigation and Montpellier had already won the league.
Nikola Karabatic, arguably the indoor sport’s most recognisable star, was “charged with fraud”, according to one of his lawyers, Jean-Marc Phung.
He was released on bail, the amount of which was not revealed, and was barred from meeting any club officials or anyone else involved in the case, tantamount to “being made unemployed”, Phung said.
“Did I bet? No, I didn’t bet,” Karabatic told examining magistrates, according to another of his legal team Eric Dupont-Moretti.
“Did my girlfriend bet? Yes. Did she tell me about it? Yes. Why did she bet? She’s been following the Montpellier team for two years, she knows the league.
“It’s a nightmare for me because handball is my life and that of my father before me.”
Dupont-Moretti said he would appeal the ruling banning the Karabatic brothers from playing.
The other players charged with fraud were Karabatic’s Montpellier teammate Primoz Prost and Paris St Germain duo Samuel Honrubia and Mladen Bojinovic.
Legal sources earlier 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).
The four others include a bar owner suspected of masterminding the alleged scam.
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 scandal has tarnished the image of handball, which is popular in France, Germany, eastern Europe and Scandinavia. France are reigning two-time Olympic champions, having defended their gold from Beijing 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.