An ugly mark on a beautiful game

Andrew Bucholtz
Andrew Bucholtz

It was a punch to the gut for those who follow the beautiful game, but perhaps one we should have been expecting.

Canadian investigative journalist Declan Hill, famed for his work with CBC Radio, CBC Television and the BBC Radio World Service on such weighty topics as the Mafia in Canada, ethnic conflicts in Iraq and blood feuds in Kosovo, ignited a global controversy with the Sept. 2 release of his book The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime, which details his investigations into match-fixing in soccer and suggests that four games in the 2006 World Cup may have been thrown at the whims of betting syndicates.

The World Cup is more than just a trophy. It’s the Holy Grail of international soccer, and the most widely-viewed sporting event in the world, surpassing even the Olympics. Every four years, diehard and casual soccer fans alike tune in for what’s almost a religious celebration. Now, Hill’s suspicions and the detailed evidence he presents of possible match-fixing in four World Cup matches enter the picture, suggesting that the priest is not only stark naked, but also kicks puppies—revelations that would cause most to question their faith.

Will we still be able to enjoy the beauty and purity of a top-class soccer match while wondering if what we’re seeing is real competition, or merely a result pre-ordained by a shady betting syndicate? Unless drastic action is taken to stamp out the corruption around soccer, it may be difficult to ever again have that level of faith in the game.

The integrity of competition is incredibly important to sports. The assurance that what we are seeing is a true contest between opposing sides where anyone can prevail is what separates professional sports from fixed entertainment like the WWE, where outcomes are decided in advance as per what makes the best story. Even the appearance of match-fixing casts a pall over an entire sport, one from which it is difficult to recover. Consider the recent accusations of NBA referee Tim Donaghy that the league intervened to stretch out a playoff series, which struck a blow to the sport even without conclusive proof.

We shouldn’t be shocked that this happened in the World Cup, though. Investigative reporter Andrew Jennings had already exposed the corruption and scandal within world soccer’s governing body in his 2006 book, Foul! The Secret World Of FIFA: Bribes, Vote-Rigging and Ticket Scandals, and the detailed investigations into match-fixing scandals in Italy, Germany and Brazil in the last three years alone suggested other deep problems within the system.

The incredible amounts of money bet on every World Cup match provide plenty of motivation for betting syndicates like the one Hill described to attempt to influence matches. Still, these investigations, important as they were, were not at the highest level. Logically, we should have guessed that these revelations were coming from the evidence of corruption throughout the sport, but questioning the integrity of the World Cup is almost sacrilege to soccer fans. It’s not easy to be the one who stands up and shouts, “The emperor has no clothes!”

The question is how to restore the fans’ confidence in the game. Hill told German news magazine Bild a force of professional investigators is necessary to eliminate the corruption, and that’s a good step in the right direction. However, FIFA head Joseph “Sepp” Blatter and his confederates are more concerned about getting rid of this story to preserve their image, and are even threatening Hill with legal action.

Shooting the messenger is the wrong move here. There are deep, deep problems within soccer, and perhaps Hill’s revelations are only scratching the surface of what’s really going on. Until a systematic international effort is made to remove bribery, match-fixing and corruption from soccer, the beautiful game will continue to get uglier.

A timeline of match-fixing in soccer

•November 1994 — Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, Wimbledon goalkeeper Hans Segers and Aston Villa striker John Fashanu are accused of match-fixing and charged with conspiracy to corrupt.

•November 1997 — Grobbelaar and his co-defendants are acquitted after two trials where the jury couldn’t agree on a verdict.

•November 1997 — A Malaysian betting syndicate sabotages the stadium lights during a English Premier League match between West Ham United and Crystal Palace. Under betting rules of the time, the score stood if the match was abandoned after halftime, allowing the syndicate to kill the lights when they stood to make a profit.

•December 1997 — The syndicate sabotages the lights at another Premier League match between Wimbledon and Arsenal.

•February 1999 — Three syndicate members and bribed security supervisor Robert Firth get caught trying to sabotage the lights before a Premier League match between Charlton Athletic and Liverpool. They are arrested. Three plead guilty to conspiracy to cause a public nuisance while the fourth denies involvement but is found guilty.

•June 2004 — 33 people, including 19 referees, are arrested in South Africa on match-fixing charges.

•January 2005 — German referee Robert Hoyzer is investigated for involvement with match-fixing and connections to Croatian gambling syndicates. He and another referee, Dominic Marks, are both arrested within two months.

•July 2005 — Italian Serie B club Genoa bribes fellow Serie B club Venezia to throw the final game of the season, allowing Genoa to earn promotion to Serie A. Genoa is relegated to Serie C1 once the plot is discovered.

•September 2005 — Two Brazilian referees are found to have accepted bribes to fix matches. Both are banned from refereeing for life.

•May 2006 — Italian police uncover the biggest match-fixing scandal in the country’s history, involving Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina. Four of the clubs are initially relegated to Serie B, but after appeal, only Juventus is relegated. The other clubs are assigned point deductions. AC Milan goes on to win the UEFA Champions League in the next season.

—Andrew Bucholtz

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