“FIFA dismiss the possibility that players or officials could be open to temptation, saying no player would want to do anything but their very best at a World Cup…FIFA says the security will be so tight that players, managers and officials will not be contactable”.
This quote was FIFA’s (governing body of world soccer) reply to an article from the World Cup 2002 by the London Evening Standard claiming that FIFA had not established specific rules to limit access to players. It clearly establishes how out of touch FIFA is in regard to what is really going on in the world’s most popular sport.
The statement ignores the fact that the global phenomenon of gambling and match-fixing is infiltrating and corrupting soccer (and sports in general) around the world. In Asia — where it reportedly started — and Eastern Europe many of the leagues have effectively collapsed because of this corruption. Now the fixers are moving in to Western Europe and North America.
Match-fixing occurs when a match is played to a predetermined result, violating the rules and often the law. The most common reason for this is in exchange for a pay-off from gamblers.
In his book The Fix, Oxford University researcher Declan Hill investigated the multi-billion-dollar Asian gambling industry, interviewed more than 200 people, including men who claim they have bribed their way into changing the results of some of the biggest games in the sport and travelled across four continents to corroborate their stories. He found soccer leagues where mobsters have fixed more than 80 per cent of the games and have infiltrated the game over the past 20 years — all the way to the top international matches, namely, the Under-17 World Cup, the Under-20 World Cup, the Olympic soccer tournament, the Women’s World Cup and the Men’s World Cup.
According to the Journal of American Foreign Policy, in Asia alone, the gambling industry (legal and illegal) is estimated to generate US$450 billion a year. A study of its structure and operations reveals why.
Illegal gambling ladder
The Runners: At the bottom rung are thousands of low agents who work for the local bookies and collect money from losing bets and pay off winning bets. They are the link between the bribee and the actual fixer.
Fixers: The international fixes are run out of Asia by fixers who defraud the sports betting world. Their local partners in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Australia fix the actual games by working as their runners.
The Overlord: At the top rung are influential businessmen with the money to back the more expensive fixes and provide the protection muscle to make sure the network runs smoothly.
Using these methods the syndicate has fixed games all around the world.
How matches are fixed
The players: The first task for the fixer is to gain access to the players. This is done directly or more often through “runners” (different from those who work for bookies) who are former players who attract less suspicion to get access. But they cannot fix the games themselves. They need someone directly on the team who is a ringleader and influential player. He is like a “project manager”. His task is to win over not the whole team, but at least three players, preferably a goalkeeper, a defender and a striker who play near the goal and have the greatest impact on the game.
The fixer then has to fix the market and fix the game to ensure the greatest profit. He has to encourage bettors to bet for the fixing team, for example, by spreading a rumour that there is an injury to a key player on the other team and then he bets heavily on the other team. The key here is to place your bet as late as possible so as not to change the odds. This he does by signalling in subtle ways to his team in the final minutes before the game as to whether he wants them to “open up the game” — lose or play hard to win. But it is not just players who are targets.
The referees: A Croatian fixer known to be a master of his craft admitted to bribing referees to manipulate European Cup matches in the 1980s and 1990s and an investigation in the 1970s for the
Sunday Times newspaper found that a Hungarian agent was working to fix matches for the Italian team Juventus. Referees were given money, coats, Rolex watches, perfume, expensive clothes, and stylish pens.
Very often referees are offered and accept “female bribes”. Before arbitrating some of the biggest games, they will get a visit in their hotel room from a beautiful woman who passes herself off as a translator and frequently the offer comes from the female herself in return for spending time with them. As one referee in Malaysia puts it, “No matter where you are in the world, money will not always get you, but sex will.”
Few people at the top have ever been arrested. But 15 El Salvadorian players were banned for life for fixing several national team matches; in Finland, a group of Zambian players playing for local teams were found to be taking orders from fixers and it’s the same situation in dozens of different countries from Europe, North America and the Middle East. In Italy between 2011 and 2015 more than 20 teams were investigated for fixing, with four teams being relegated from Serie A (the top Division) and various officials imprisoned or banned. Fixers had moved past corrupt players and referees to the very officials who organise the sport.
The officials: An official inquiry report into match-fixing in the Zimbabwean national team found that fixes involved senior soccer executives and officials. And a FIFA report prior to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 found that there were corrupt officials inside the South African soccer association.
In 2014 the head of FIFA security admitted the likelihood of match-fixing at the World Cup in 2014. He outlined various measures to combat it but they all depended on the help of national soccer officials — the very people the Zimbabwean and South African reports had shown to be vulnerable.
Since then FIFA itself has been plagued by findings of bribery and corruption and resignations. So before implementing reforms the governing body must first get its own house in order. In the meantime the match-fixing goes on.
Victor A Dixon is a sportswriter who lives in Pompano Beach. Send comments to the Observer or