Bulgarian football's 'mafia links' exposed in cables

Some of Bulgaria's most popular football clubs have ties with mafia bosses, who use them to launder money, according to a US diplomatic document revealed by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

"Bulgarian soccer clubs are widely believed to be directly or indirectly controlled by organised crime figures who use their teams as a way to legitimise themselves, launder money, or make a fast buck," a January 2010 cable from the US embassy in Sofia to Washington noted.

Details of the cable, which handed Bulgarian football "a red card for corruption", were published Monday on the website of the Spanish daily El Pais.

"Nearly all of the teams are owned or have been connected to organised crime figures," the cable's author, current US deputy chief of mission to Sofia Susan Sutton, wrote.

A "sampling of the most well-known connections" compiled by Sutton included some of Bulgaria's most popular first league clubs, such as Levski Sofia, CSKA Sofia, Litex Lovech, Slavia Sofia, Cherno more Varna, Lokomotiv Sofia and Lokomotiv Plovdiv.

An alleged arms dealer, a proxy to a notorious Russian businessman and three assassinated crime bosses were among the team owners listed in the cable.

As a result, "allegations of illegal gambling, match fixing, money laundering, and tax evasion plague the league", the cable found.

Sutton cited the example of one club owner who allegedly bet against his own team to pay back debts, as well as recent tax administration findings that most players received, at least on paper, the Bulgarian minimum wage of 240 leva (120 euros, 170 dollars) per month -- although in some cases their actual pay was at least 70 times higher.

The document concluded that a successful operation to sever the mafia's links to football would be "a public relations coup" for Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, whom it described as a "soccer fanatic".