Shamik Das

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

After cricket’s match-fixing Hell, is football now the world’s most corrupt game?


TONIGHT on BBC Radio Five Live, the subject of cricket corruption will be to the fore once more - but it is the widely under-reported (at least in England) issue of football match-fixing that should be of greater concern.

Cricket, which was shaken to its core by the Hansie Cronje scandal of 2000, and reached a nadir with the Pakistan spot-fixing scandal of 2010, looks to have got its house in order - though problems, of course, remain, most notably with the IPL.

Indeed, it is the “Hansie Cronje Story” that is under the spotlight on Five Live this evening, so before venturing into the current football scandals, let us rewind to the start of the millennium and recall just what a seismic shock it was.

Here’s the BBC’s Mark Chapman, tonight’s presenter:

Marlon Aronstam dialled Hansie Cronje’s mobile on 17 January 2000. He told him he had a negative image and was perceived as conservative. They had never spoken before. Aronstam, a bookmaker, was cold calling the South African captain and yet, within hours, he was in a hotel room with him and offering 500,000 rand to a charity of Cronje's choice and “a gift”.

All Cronje had to do was to persuade Nasser Hussain and England to make a game of it on the final day of a Test ruined by the weather. Both sides were to forfeit an innings to give England a run chase. The following morning Hussain, unaware of the meeting, agreed.

Alec Stewart remembers a “tough run chase” as England won by two wickets. He doesn’t remember his exact score but he does remember the “bitter, bitter taste” when they found out just months later what Cronje had done.

Aronstam didn’t remember too much either as he sat across from me in a central London hotel room, more out of convenience I feel than the passing of time. “Cronje loved cricket but the money was a bonus...

“Without money the world doesn't run,” said the man who had asked for FA Cup final tickets to speak to me. Thickset physically and with even thicker skin metaphorically, I asked him if he felt guilty: “Nah, I don't believe I did anything wrong.”

Cronje knew he had sinned. “I could no longer live with myself or with the situation I had created,” he told the King Commission, an inquiry set up by the South African government into match fixing. There were around 40 people subpoenaed to give evidence.

Cronje’s statement was the only one televised. He ended his evidence in tears, a crumpled, broken, exhausted man who had to be helped out of the room.

To football, then - in particular Italian football, though, as we’ll see later, it’s a worldwide problem, if not yet, thankfully, an English one.

Today, Italy’s prime minister Mario Monti suggested Serie A take a three-year break to cleanse itself of shame, the spectre of corruption looming ever larger in the football-obsessed four-time World Cup-winning nation, six years on from the Calcio scandal and on the eve of Euro 2012.

Monti said:

“It’s particularly sad when a world which should be an expression of the highest values - sport, youth, competition, fairness - turns out to be a mass of foul play, falsehood and demagoguery.

“This isn’t a government proposal, but I wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea to suspend the game for two or three years.”

As I said previously, this is by no means solely an Italian problem - to which this extraordinary roll-call of shame on ESPN SoccerNet will attest:

The world’s most popular game is also its most corrupt, with investigations into match fixing ongoing in more than 25 countries.

Here’s a mere sampling of events since the beginning of last year:

• Operation Last Bet rocked the Italian Football Federation, with 22 clubs and 52 players awaiting trial for fixing matches;

• The Zimbabwe Football Association banned 80 players from its national-team selection due to similar accusations;

• Lu Jun, the first Chinese referee of a World Cup match, was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison for taking more than $128,000 in bribes to fix outcomes in the Chinese Super League;

• Prosecutors charged 57 people with match fixing in the South Korean K-League, four of whom later died in suspected suicides;

• The team director of second-division Hungarian club REAC Budapest jumped off a building after six of his players were arrested for fixing games; and

• In an under-21 friendly, Turkmenistan reportedly beat Maldives 3-2 in a “ghost match” - neither country knew about the contest because it never actually happened, yet bookmakers still took action and fixers still profited.

Soccer match fixing has become a massive worldwide crime, on par with drug trafficking, prostitution and the trade in illegal weapons.

Utterly incredible.

So what, then, is to be done?

I can do no better than quote you at length the wise words of CNN World Sport Anchor Pedro Pinto, who today blogged:

“In my mind, after what happened this week in Italy, it is clear that the future of football is at stake. Either something is done to clean up the sport, or fans will simply stop caring about what is still known as ‘the beautiful game’.

“I will be honest with you, I was shocked when 19 people, including Lazio captain Stefano Mauri, were arrested on Monday. Trust me, I am not so naive to think football is perfect. I have seen how corruption has tainted the game in various countries.

“Italy is not the exception, far from it. There have been cases of match fixing in Portugal, Germany, Greece, South Korea, Brazil and Turkey among other nations in recent years.

“However, what happened this week was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was not expecting to see the captain of a top Serie A team arrested in public.

“Furthermore, I was also stunned to see police forces raid the training centre of Italy’s national team looking for evidence linking international defender Domenico Criscito to the ongoing investigation. The whole scene was for me, honestly, quite simply shocking.

“So where do we stand? What can be done? There is no doubt that football’s governing bodies have to find a way to regulate the behavior of players, coaches, referees and officials.

“Can everyone’s phones be tapped? No, that is impossible, but authorities need to do more to ensure there is no foul play.

“What FIFA and UEFA need to do right now is invest heavily in their anti-corruption task forces and make sure they have the resources and the power to investigate the relationships between people in the game and betting syndicates and organized crime gangs.

“Football’s governing bodies make hundreds of millions of dollars every year. There is no excuse not to spend a large chunk of that cash on something which is threatening the integrity and future of the game. Action is needed, and it is needed now.”

Spot. On. I really couldn’t have put it better myself.

Without fair competition, without players performing to their best, their total, absolute best, each time they step out to play - if sportsmen take to the field of play and deliberately underperform, concede runs, get out, let in a goal, miss an open goal, sport, life itself loses all meaning, you lose faith in what you’re seeing; put bluntly: there is no point in continuing to watch, in the clean players continuing to play, in sports fans continuing to dream.

That, in a nutshell, is the real crime: the killing of hope. And it is that shame the cheats will have to live with.

May 2011: Champions League Final 2011 report
April 2011: World Cup Final 2011 preview


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