A blight on the beautiful game

A Canadian journalist uncovers soccer’s dark world of match-fixing

When Declan Hill’s account of pervasive match-fixing in international soccer hit bookstores last year, the doubters popped up like spring grass on turf. FIFA, the governing body of the so-called “beautiful game,” dismissed The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime with a rhetorical wave. European sports commentators scoffed, while even Hill’s hometown paper, the Ottawa Citizen, brushed off his first-hand accounts of a match-rigger in Asia paying off players, referees and coaches as a “slash at the game” that “proved little.”

“It was as if because I’m Canadian, I couldn’t possibly be an expert,” says Hill, a seasoned investigative journalist who now lives in Britain. “There was an enormous amount of push-back.” But at least one man in a position of influence found Hill’s exposé compelling. Michel Platini, president of the European Football Associations (UEFA), ordered a copy of The Fix and read it carefully, says Hill, then quickly announced the formation of an “integrity unit” charged with ferreting out schemes to manipulate game results to the benefit of gamblers wagering on illegal networks in Asia. In October 2008, Platini invited Hill to a summit in Geneva to discuss findings with members of the newly formed task force.

Hill was careful not to give away his sources—“Some of these people would kill me if they thought I was co-operating,” he says. But he did offer ideas as to how UEFA might fight back, most importantly by monitoring betting patterns in places like Shanghai and the Philippines. And the results weren’t long in coming. Last week, German police stunned the soccer world by announcing the arrest of 15 people as part of a sweeping investigation into match-fixing in nine European countries, at levels ranging from third-division pro to Champions League qualifying games. At least 200 matches are under suspicion, but investigators say that’s a mere fraction of the rot caused by the Asian gambling interests Hill had documented.

While match manipulation is nothing new in sports, few in soccer grasped how important the most trivial matches in Europe have become to gambling interests on the other side of the world. With demand for gambling surging in countries like China, Thailand and the Philippines—and with electronic communication linking criminals around the globe—it was only a matter of time, says Hill, before manipulators would target Western games to create surefire cash windfalls.

Lower-level leagues may be most vulnerable because their players and officials are more desperate for cash. Among the games now under suspicion was a 5-1 loss by the second-tier Swiss club FC Thun to its rival Yverdon last April. One of Thun’s stars, Pape Omar Fayé, has been suspended by his team, and reports in Switzerland say an unknown number of Thun players received up to $22,000 to ensure the four-goal defeat. Hill himself has heard of fixers approaching players at an under-16 tournament held in Copenhagen in July 2008, with a view to rigging game scores (“Sixteen-year-olds from Denmark!” he marvels. “It really boggles the mind.”)

But the corruption occasionally reaches the top of the football food chain, too. The centrepiece of Hill’s book is the story of a Chinese fixer, whom he dubbed Lee Chin, who allowed him to watch as Chin met a middleman at a KFC restaurant in Bangkok, and arranged US$30,000 payoffs to eight members of Ghana’s national team in advance of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Sports cheats rarely seek to influence which team wins or loses; instead, they focus on goal differentials. In this case, says Hill, Chin paid to set down the point spreads by which Ghana would lose its matches against Italy and Brazil. The games finished precisely according to his plan: 2-0 and 3-0, respectively.

Hill has also chronicled the fixing of games in Germany’s top-level Bundesliga, while at least three of the games now under investigation by German authorities were qualifiers for the Champions League, a competition between Europe’s top club teams. All of this has led the former skeptics to wonder just how widely and deeply the corruption runs. And few seem comforted by the idea that the worst occurs in the backwaters of the sport. “Players with mega-salaries in the first division can’t be bought,” Franz Josef Wagner, a columnist with the German daily Bild, wrote this week. “So the cheating happens where the heart of soccer beats. The cheated fans are the ones who stand shivering on the sidelines every day in the wind, cold and rain, shouting things like ‘go on, shoot! pass the ball!’ ”

Hill has suggestions on how soccer authorities might turn back the tide. Distributing revenues more evenly between teams would remove the income disparities that cause players on some clubs to take bribes, he says. Leagues could also offer generous post-career medical benefits for players in middle-calibre divisions, under the proviso they will be cancelled if a player so much as speaks to a match-fixer without reporting the encounter. Whatever the bosses do, Hill sees the German investigation as “a good thing for the sport”—a signal that soccer’s season of denial is officially over. Now, at last, talk of a different kind of fix can begin.

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