Like most Nepali football fans, Sarbendra Khanal was bitterly disappointed when the country crashed out of World Cup qualifying in 2011. But the veteran investigator was also suspicious.

The Himalayan nation was never expected to reach the World Cup in Brazil, or even come particularly close. But after results like the thumping 9-0 defeat toJordan, something seemed amiss.

“Every time I watched a match, it always seemed to end in a zero for Nepal,” Khanal, chief of the Metropolitan Police Crime Division in Kathmandu, told AFP. “I just couldn’t understand why we kept losing.”

His hunch was confirmed by suspicious betting patterns reported by the Sportradar monitoring service, which has a partnership with the AsianFootball Confederation.

And it led to a money trail that has now left six people, including Nepal‘s former captain, goalkeeper and a coach, facing match-fixing claims that could earn them life sentences for treason.

Five of the accused, who all deny involvement in match-fixing, were released on bail at a court hearing on Tuesday. The sixth, a physiotherapist, has been charged in absentia.

With Nepal‘s soccer chief Ganesh Thapa also being probed by FIFA for alleged embezzlement and bribery, and the world body itself convulsed by corruption claims, the six are not the most high-profile footballfigures currently facing accusations.

But they could be the most heavily punished after prosecutors opted for treason charges rather than other options which carry lighter sentences.

“Stealing doesn’t really cover it… this case is about people who played on behalf of millions of Nepalis and agreed to lose matches again and again,” Khanal said. 

– Betting syndicates –

Khanal, 49, began his investigation after he was promoted to head the crime division this year. He started with former defender Anjan KC, who became a coach after injury cut short his career.

The 28-year-old’s lifestyle and close ties to Dinesh ‘Chari’ Adhikari, a local gangster who died in a police shoot-out last year, immediately raised suspicions.

“He frequented casinos, spent huge amounts on imported cars and big houses… he was living beyond his means and we were wondering where the money came from,” Khanal said.

A scan of KC’s bank account revealed transactions between the coach and suspected match-fixers based in Singapore and Malaysia.

According to the charge-sheet seen by AFP, sums ranging from $1,000 to $7,000 were deposited in accounts belonging to the coach, four players, their relatives and the team physiotherapist — all courtesy of the alleged overseas betting syndicates.

The discovery was followed by a coordinated series of arrests last month. 

In addition to KC, skipper Sagar Thapa and goalkeeper Ritesh Thapa, defender Sandip Rai and former team-mate Bikash Singh Chhetri were also taken into custody on allegations of match-fixing over a period of eight years. 

“We believe that KC was the ringleader, he knew which players needed money and he targeted the ones who would agree to lose matches,” Khanal said.

The case covers the World Cup qualifiers in 2011 as well as games with Bangladesh and Afghanistanplayed at a regional competition.

– Fake illnesses –

A physiotherapist, Dejiv Thapa, was also charged with treason in absentia, after records showed that he had received at least $1,000 from Malaysian footballer and suspected match-fixer, Kesavan Pattan.

Police said the physiotherapist helped team-mates fake illnesses and falsified fitness claims as part of the alleged scam.

Khanal declined to reveal the total number of transactions uncovered by police but said: “Each player was paid about $5,000 per match… they must have made hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last eight years.”

Investigators in Kathmandu are eager to make an example of the suspects, who were charged on Sunday under a 1989 act against unlawfully jeopardising Nepal‘s sovereignty, integrity or national unity.

“They undermined their country, they undermined the game and they committed treason many times,” Khanal said.

Nepal are currently 192nd in FIFA‘s world rankings — out of 207 teams — and have already been knocked out of the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

It means that the only way is up for Nepal and their long-suffering fans, who have much to gain from a clean-up of their football team.

“It’s saddened and shocked me on a personal level, as a fan of football… but we now have a chance to clean things up and a guilty verdict would help us do that,” Khanal said. – Agence France-Presse

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