EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a six-month, multiformat AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through match-fixing, running over four days this week.
ZURICH (AP) — Soccer is falling under a cloud of suspicion as never before, sullied by a multibillion-dollar web of match-fixing that is corrupting increasingly larger parts of the world's most popular sport.
Internet betting, emboldened criminal gangs and even the economic downturn have created conditions that make soccer — or football, as the sport is called around the world — a lucrative target.
Known as "the beautiful game" for its grace, athleticism and traditions of fair play, soccer is under threat of becoming a dirty game.
"Football is in a disastrous state," said Chris Eaton, director of sport integrity at the International Centre for Sport Security. "Fixing of matches for criminal gambling fraud purposes is absolutely endemic worldwide ... arrogantly happening daily."
At least 50 nations in 2012 had match-fixing investigations — almost a quarter of the 209 members of FIFA, soccer's governing body — involving hundreds of people.
Europol, the European Union's police body, announced last week that it had found 680 "suspicious" games worldwide since 2008, including 380 in Europe.
Experts interviewed by The Associated Press believe that figure may be low. Sportradar, a company in London that monitors global sports betting, estimates that about 300 soccer games a year in Europe alone could be rigged.
"We do not detect it better," Eaton said in an interview with the AP. "There's just more to detect."
Globalization has propelled the fortunes of popular soccer teams like Manchester United and showered millions in TV revenue on clubs that get into tournaments like Europe's Champions League.
Criminals have realized that it can be vastly easier to shift gambling profits across borders than it is to move contraband.
"These are real criminals — Italian mafia, Chinese gangs, Russian mafia," said Sylvia Schenk, a sports expert with corruption watchdog Transparency International.
Ralf Mutschke, FIFA's security chief, admits that soccer officials had underestimated the scope of match-fixing. He told the AP that "realistically, there is no way" FIFA can tackle organized crime by itself, saying it needs more help from national law enforcement agencies.
The growing threat has prompted the European Union's 27 nations to unite against match-fixing.
"The scale is such that no country can deal with the problem on its own," said EU Sport Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.