By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian police have charged six men, including several Britons, as the result of an operation to smash an international matchfixing ring centred on a second-tier club in suburban Melbourne.
The multi-million dollar racket, embroiling the head coach and a number of players at Victoria Premier League team Southern Stars, had links with betting syndicates in Malaysia and Hungary, police told a Melbourne court on Monday.
Police named Malaysian national Segaran "Gerry" Gsubramaniam and Britons Joe Woolley and Reiss Noel among the six charged with rigging matches in the 12-team league in Victoria state.
Goalkeeper Woolley and Noel both played for AFC Hornchurch in London before leaving the club in July to play for the Stars. Police declined to name the other three charged.
Gsubramaniam, 45, was described by police as the linchpin of the Australian operation and a go-between between the team and off-shore betting syndicates.
"... On a worldwide scale (Gsubramaniam) is not the bigwig, Australian-wise he is," Detective Scott Poynder told the court.
Gsubramaniam was considered a flight risk, police said, and had been remanded for another bail hearing on Friday.
Woolley and Noel, along with the other three charged, would also appear at the same court on Friday, police said.
Those charged could face sentences of up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of matchfixing.
The charges follow the arrests of 10 people across Melbourne on Sunday in an operation sparked by a report of irregular betting patterns surrounding Stars matches.
Four of the arrested were released pending further enquiries.
The case has sent shockwaves across sports-obsessed Australia, where rival football codes have already been rocked by anti-doping investigations involving players, coaches and officials in recent months.
Southern Stars President Ercan Cicek said a man had approached the cash-strapped club with the offer of providing players who would play "for free".
"Our committee members are thinking, 'Oh beautiful, five players for free, we're not going to pay anything, it's a big, big bonus'," Australian Associated Press quoted Cicek as saying.
"We (were) never thinking about (the) betting side or the other side, (that) he's going to take money somewhere," Cicek added. "We were thinking about only our club, what's the advantage for our club?"
Club Secretary Tony Kiranci said the Stars were "shocked with the alleged matchfixing".
"No one from the committee is involved in any way," he said in a statement. "We had no idea this was going on. The club is run by honest, hardworking volunteers."
With one round left to play in the regular season, the Southern Stars are bottom of the table with one win, four draws and 16 losses.
Their solitary win was over the league's current leaders Northcote City last month.
"I did question how is it possible that they won against us," Northcote City vice president Chris Nicolaidis told Reuters by telephone. "But we just lost fair and square on the day."
Police estimated betting winnings in Australia and overseas in relation to the case at more than A$2 million.
David Gallop, chief of national soccer governing body Football Federation Australia (FFA), said the money was "placed mainly overseas".
A spokeswoman for the Football Federation Victoria, the governing body of the state-based league, said she only become aware of the case when contacted by an Australian newspaper on Sunday.
"We have been told by Victoria Police that no other club (in the Victorian Premier League) is involved in matchfixing," she told Reuters.
The arrests form the latest in a string of matchfixing scandals around the world in a year when Europol said it had cracked a syndicate accused of having manipulated 380 games between 2011 and 2013.
In February, the Australian Crime Commission (ACC), the country's top criminal intelligence agency, released an incendiary report into "widespread" doping in Australian sport and also warned that local athletes were at risk of being co-opted into matchfixing by organised crime syndicates.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford and Nick Mulvenney)