As 2009 rumbles on towards its conclusion, it is fitting that football has managed to throw up the betting scandal – a strange hybrid of the two main events to mark this year: the financial crisis and swine flu. Here, we have a something just as poisonous and widely spread as the latter, with the same root cause as the former – the fallibility and greed of man.
When Peter Limacher announced on Friday 20 November, that the German authorities were investigating 200 games in nine countries, the football world took a deep breath – this wasn’t Calciopoli, a scandal limited to Italy, or Germany’s 2005 Robert Hoyzer affair, centred around a single person – this was widespread corruption involving potentially dozens of people from across Europe, united in destroying the integrity of a sport loved by millions. It was staggering – and yet as the days have gone on, more games have been deemed suspicious, more countries have become embroiled and more arrests have been made. Pandora’s box is decidedly open.
Germany has failed to react strongly enough
Germany sadly is the highest profile victim – a country with seemingly well-established structures of football governance, but one that has failed to react strongly enough to past match-fixing scandals. This time though, it seems like a comprehensive approach is being taken, tackling the problem head on. Canadian journalist Dr. Declan Hill, author of the book The Fix (or Sichere Siege in German), says that this is down to the diligence of the German police, who no longer trust the DFB to adequately address the problem. »This time, the German football authorities have been deeply embarrassed«, he says. »On the Thursday when it came out that the German organised crime unit had found all this match-fixing, the President of the DFB said, ‘Don’t worry none of the games have been fixed in Germany.’
»That means that the German cops don’t trust the German football authorities any more, because on Friday he was deeply embarrassed [by the revelations]. The investigators indicated clearly, ‘We don’t trust these guys. We’re keeping this information until we do a public press conference and we’ve done out arrests. We are not collaborating with these guys any more. We had enough of them with the Robert Hoyzer affair. We had enough of them with the William Lim affair.’ The German football authorities are not interested and have not been interested in fully uncovering what has been going on and the German cops knew that this time around.«
»You only get to sell your credibility once«
With such widespread problems, it was imperative that German police move swiftly, before the problem became endemic in football here. Fans of big 1. Bundesliga clubs may be grateful their teams have not faced any accusations – but such clubs are in no way immune, and it is only stamping on the problem now that prevents the spread of fixing higher up the league pyramid. Says Hill: »People say, Bayern Munich or Wolfsburg, or other big teams aren’t being approached – ok – but where do they get their players from? They come from youth teams, they come from the Second Division, they come from leagues like Croatia. They might not be fixing now in the Bundesliga – and I’m not sure that’s true – but you could still lose your league in five years, because we’ve confirmed that fixers are fixing youth games and the teams feeding the big clubs. You don’t get to be a virgin again. In other words, when you take money from a fixer, you don’t get to refuse the next time. If you take money as a young German player in a youth league for a small team, and you show up at Bayern Munich, you don’t get to say to the criminals, ‘I think I’ve retired from fixing now’ – all they have to do is leak your name to officials or tell the papers what you’ve done – you only get to sell your credibility once.«
The vulnerability of football then is significant and although England has so far not been implicated in the current investigation, Hill accuses the football authorities there of complacency: »The English are studiously ignoring the problem«, he says. Burying its head in the sand, England is hoping to avoid the match-fixing contagion sweeping the rest of the continent.
»England haven’t investigated this, and they don’t have a security unity at the Football Association«, says Hill. »There is an extraordinarily efficient and effective gambling monitoring system at work in the UK feeding information back to the Asian fixers. I’ve been in bookmakers offices when really prominent Premier League players phone up to place their bets. We’ve seen all the weird odds movements on lower English leagues of exactly the same kind that have been seen in Germany.«
Hill: »It’s a resolute English racism«
Stuart Mawhinney, a spokesman from the English Football Association strongly refutes claims that they are in denial about the problem: »We are not complacent about the threat«, he says. »There is also a distinction to be made between ‘irregular betting patterns’ and ‘match fixing’ and we have not had any firm evidence of match fixing to date.« Hill believes though that there is a distinct English mentality at play, preventing them from taking action on the same scale as the Germans: »It’s a resolute English racism. You guys will not listen to a foreigner. The only people you believe are upper class English guys with stupid accents«, he says. »If the English police did the type of investigation that the Germans have done, they may not find as large a network there, but without doubt they find things going on.«
Mawhinney says plenty is being done in England to combat the menace of fixers: »We couldn’t compare ourselves to other countries, or speculate on the reasons [why Germany has been affected and not England]«, he says. »We have specific rules in place on betting in football. We have close links with the association of British bookmakers, the Gambling Commission, betting exchanges and memorandums of understanding with larger betting operators. We have a specific integrity panel designed to deal with this issue. We provide guidance and education to clubs, players and coaches at all levels of the game in this country. Representatives take part in club visits to provide advice and also pamphlets on these issues. We work with the Professional Footballer’s Association [England’s players’ union] and their education programmes, more specifically to advise youth and junior players.« What’s more, says Mawhinney, the FA will be paying close attention to how the investigation in Germany unfolds: »We always seek greater understanding of the scale of these issues, and look to gain best practices from other associations in handling these issues.«
»Nothing has been done to protect these international tournaments«
It is safe to say then, that the integrity of the sport will remain firmly in the spotlight this year, not only with the ongoing German investigation, but with the first World Cup ever to be held in Africa on the way, and before that the popular African Cup of Nations. With competitions as august as the UEFA Champions League affected, should we be fearful too for the integrity of these tournaments? Hill’s response is immediate: »Of course«, he says. »You only need to see what Rheinhardt Fabisch had to say about what was going on at the last African Cup of Nations [where as coach of Benin he was asked to fix a game], or what FIFA themselves says happened at the Women’s World Cup. Nothing has been done to protect these big international tournaments, but it would only take a matter of weeks to improve security. For some reason though, I haven’t been invited to FIFA’s emergency meeting on Wednesday!«
Will Sepp Blatter and company take action in his place?