GOIANIA, Brazil—When Hugo Jorge Bravo received information over what has since blown up into a major alleged match-fixing scandal in Brazil, the lifelong soccer fan and full-time police officer felt there was only one thing to do.
He started his own investigation.
But this case was very different from any other in the career of Bravo since it involved his beloved Vila Nova, a second-tier Brazilian club where he has been president since 2020.
His investigations led to action by Brazil’s federal police and the district attorney’s office of the state of Goias, with the country’s lower house of Congress also getting involved.
Charges of alleged manipulation of sports competitions have so far been filed against 15 players across the top two tiers and local leagues, including two Vila Nova players—defender Gabriel Domingos and midfielder-striker Marcos Vinicius Alves Barreira, who both had their contracts at the club terminated.
“It was my duty. From the get-go I said we would not just let it slide, I wanted to get to the bottom of this,” Bravo told The Associated Press at his Vila Nova stadium office, which is lined with trophies, his police cap and a baseball bat with the word “results” written on it.
“I never thought this was going to be so big.”
The wider investigation of the attorney’s office in Goias showed that players were allegedly offered $10,000 to $20,000 to perform specific actions, like receiving yellow cards and giving away penalty kicks. Alleged criminals would then profit on betting sites.
The investigation, which started in November, focused on three matches based on Bravo’s evidence. Since then it has grown to 11 games in the second half of 2022 and the first three months of this year. More matches could be added to the list as the probe widens.
Last year, Bravo said he received information that one of his players had been approached by gamblers to give a penalty to Vila Nova rival Sport Recife during the first half of their league game. The player was accused of failing to deliver because he did not play, which allegedly triggered criminals to put pressure on him after they faced big losses.
Bravo offered his findings to the state of Goias district attorney’s office, led by Fernando Cesconetto.
“If it weren’t for him there would be no investigation,” Cesconetto said. “What he did was brave. I never heard any club president doing what he did.”
Bravo kept his initial findings among a few Vila Nova board members for days as he decided to investigate the case himself. His first decision was to try and get gamblers to unwittingly send him evidence by messaging apps.
The suspects appeared to be so confident in their scheme that they believed the Vila Nova chairman would pay the alleged debts of any of his players who were involved.
“It was a matter of honor to go deep into this, I said it on day one,” Bravo said. “I wanted them (the alleged criminals) to believe I was there to sort it all out, save the day. And they did believe me.”
At least two terabytes of data, including videos, print screens, voice notes and documents, are under analysis at the Goias state court.
“His investigation started at his own club, and without it we would not have gathered so much more in our probe,” Cesconetto said.
Eduardo Bandeira de Mello, a lawmaker and a former chairman of Flamengo, Brazil’s most popular club, says without Bravo’s investigation “no one would take notice, this gang would be acting today.”
De Mello will be one of the key members of a congressional inquiry which opened on Wednesday. Brazil’s federal police also opened an investigation into the case, which makes it more likely there will be cooperation with foreign authorities if evidence is found against anyone playing in foreign leagues.
De Mello told the AP this week that the congressional inquiry will be key for the investigation’s visibility.
“This will have an educational effect,” he said. “Any young athlete who tries to get into a scheme like this will think twice.”
De Mello chaired Flamengo when Colorado Rapids midfielder Max Alves played for the club. Alves was named in the earlier probe, though not charged, and his Major League Soccer club suspended him. Alves has not commented publicly.
As for Bravo, he has been widely praised.
“It is true we would have nothing if he didn’t use his police background to unveil the scheme,” de Mello said. “Vila Nova is a very popular club in Goiania, it is the club of the people there. It is a big responsibility to come forward like this. He did the right thing by investigating and then going to the authorities.”
Bravo, who is likely to give testimony at the congressional inquiry, is in the media spotlight but says nothing else has changed. He remains a policeman during the day, goes to church frequently and attends Vila Nova games.
He has no regrets.
“It was my duty, both as a policeman and a club chairman,” he said. “What could I have done differently?”
Image credits: AP