A former Zimbabwean footballer is among 12 people who have been sentenced to prison in the UK for plotting to claim more than £450,000 ($586,000) in maternity payments for babies which did not exist.

According to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Liberty Masunda, 43, was sentenced to three years in prison after a jury in Wolverhampton city convicted him of conspiracy to defraud the government.

The 11 other members of the group were given sentences ranging from 14 months to seven years.

“As a result of their actions, there has been a loss to the taxpayer of £450,000 in false payments,” prosecutor Gurminder Sanghera said.

Masunda had played for Zimbabwe and South Africa’s Kaizer Chiefs as a striker.

The 12, including members of the same family and their partners and friends, made at least 158 fraudulent applications for maternity allowance over a 52-month period, the CPS said in a statement.

False maternity allowance claims, usually in the names of third parties, were submitted to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the CPS said.