Last time out the scum floating on the top of the cesspool was skimmed and the fear is real that to go much deeper means encountering the creatures with sharp teeth that lurk just below the surface. Addressing the real and widespread issue of match fixing (non-gambling related) will never be tackled in any constructive way by the authorities or by media. While it’s easier to target Kevin “The Viper” Sammut for alleged involvement in fixing a match and dishing out a long ban, it’s far more important for the governing bodies to clamp down on the real disease that rots the game without control. Far easier to point the long finger at “gambling syndicates” than look at how football, and sport, has been failed by those empowered to take care of the game at all levels.
In 2009 the Maltese FA took a very brave and positive step in investigating and relegating two clubs from their Premier League for corrupt practices. In the case of Marsaxlokk, they found that a committee member and a player had attempted to bribe the goalkeeper from Msida St. Joseph. The team who had been bankrolled to a Premier title in forthright style by Maltese tycoon Victor Sciriha were in a difficult position when he left the southern side to jump on board a bigger fish, Valletta FC. Without his cash they realised how tough it was to stay afloat and cheated to survive. Newly promoted Vittoriosa Stars (from the historical home of Maltese football on the Grand Harbour) were sent back down to the First Division for similar indiscretions made during their promotion push. In Malta it was made abundantly clear to me that it wasn’t down to the wage budget, there had to be a “prize fund” set aside for opposition players to insure against untoward results. It was win at all costs.
Now where do supporters and their betrayal come into this? Simple. A left fullback misjudges the flight of a ball, is caught on the turn and the winger nips by. The ensuing play, especially if it results in a goal, is almost always greeted by jeers from the stand as the conclusion is that the defender is on the take. Supporters are cheated from enjoying the game by never knowing whether or not the game is being played on the level. Player mistakes are scrutinised to such a degree that a simple mistake (forgetting that the majority of players are part-time) must mean the offender is throwing the match.
For me it came to a head when a former Eintracht Frankfurt youth star ended up in Malta and the night before the League Cup Final he received a phone call from a Maltese International Keeper (who had no dog in the fight) to tell him to have “an off day”. As soon as the FA were informed said Keeper said it was a joke, a wind up of a foreign innocent. Two weeks later it emerged that he’d done so on the orders of the right hand man of our final opponents President, the aforementioned mentioned tycoon. The FA turned a blind eye as their own Presidential election was being fought out and this was a non-story. We lost the final when our reliable central defender misjudged the bounce of a ball and allowed a striker to nip by and score. He was at fault for the second and even with the team battling hard, it was to of no avail.
The officials on the night were excellent, letting both sides away with some hard challenges and keeping a lid on any bust ups. However our supporters were steadfast in believing the game wasn’t on the level. They had collected a fund in excess of 30,000e for the players if they won, no pay out was needed. A couple of handy payments from the opponents meant the money was safe in the club account. Many in the committee claimed that we should have used the fund to “incentivize” the opposition.
So why would clubs be so desperate to win, or not lose? It’s too simple to say money. Of course winning promotion is important in terms of increased income through gates, tv, sponsors and even value of players to be sold. To win a top league (in Europe) means entry to the sacred cow of the Champions League. Even qualifying for the Europa League is vital for all the reasons given above AND the promise of European football and its “riches”. Selling advertising for a club about to play in Europe is a whole lot easier than for a team just dropping down a division and it’s much easier to sign that “special” player when you can offer him football in the top flight or in Europe, his agent will certainly think so. So the economic pressure on clubs is immense. Far better to have a full house of fans that retain real hopes of success or excitement than a handful of disgruntled yobbos who drag the club down further. This is the simplest of simple connect the dots I’m describing, though it seems to slip by FIFA, UEFA and the constituent FA’s at how supporters are being sold out under their very noses.
Club Presidents, committees and owners also have their personal pride to consider, and at times personal safety too. The real fear transmitted to me by the former long suffering President of Floriana was that there were enough crazies in the fanbase that he genuinely feared for his life. In most cases fear of supporter blowback is, pardon the double up, overblown. It really does come down to ego and an inability to those taking care of the club to separate fact from fantasy. Desperate to leave a legacy these people will do everything in their power, legal and illegal, to taste success. Success that will allow them to walk around a pitch waving to the fans, being cheered from the stands and for just that brief moment, feeling like they are important, indeed vital to the club. Such moments are very shortlived, as the saying goes, it’s a short way from a slap on the back to a kick in the backside.
Club success is one thing, we can boil it down to money, personal success and ego. But for nations, surely there must be more at stake. One would believe that there is greater control on national sides and funny business regards results, especially after the insanity of 1978 and 1982 (with 2004 a blip). Last time out I mentioned the disgraces of 1982 and 1978, 2004 and the inglorious night in Italia ’90. Four years later at international level there was high farce in a qualifying match for the 1994 Caribbean Cup. Home side Barbados took the field against Grenada needing to win by two goals, and they were on track until a Grenadian goal in the 83rd minute, putting the visitors through on goal difference to the finals. Three minutes later the Barbadians scored an own goal, thus putting the match into extra time (where a golden goal would count as double) in an oddity for the 1994 event. The Grenadians then figured that an own goal would put THEM through, so Barbados defended both nets for the remaining minutes. The successful cheats won the day with the golden goal to progress to the Cup Finals. Supporters were betrayed and the game a laughing stock.
Four years on in Asia’s Tiger Cup, Indonesia’s Mursyid Effendi scored an own goal (despite the attempts to block him by Thai opponents) so that his side would lose 3-2 and not have to face Vietnam in the semi-finals (and have to move training bases). Many will remember laughing at clips from this match on shows like TransworldSport, though FIFA were less amused, Effendi was banned from International football for life and club football for a year. Fines were leveled against both teams for “violating the spirit of the game” and then…….life went on.
In the, otherwise, wonderful 2012 Olympics in London eventual women’s soccer silver medalists Japan deliberately and openly went out not to beat bottom side South Africa in order to have a better draw as group runners up and not have to play their next match in Glasgow. That they didn’t set out to lose seemed to draw little comment in an Olympics where four badminton pairs (2 x South Korean, Chinese and Indonesian) were hammered for trying to lose to gain better draws, FIFA, apparently, didn’t see anything wrong with match fixing and cheating, yet again. The supporters who battled to get Olympics tickets were cheated from seeing a proper game, especially as it wasn’t as entertaining as seeing one side trying to score an own goal and being blocked by the opposition from doing so. The farce was papered over, for now.
However let’s not get too downbeat on FIFA and the other alphabet soup of regional, national and local governing bodies in football. In some cases throwing, tanking or let us honestly say “cheating” supporters and violating all that is good about sport, comes down to rules and schedule. It’s vital to know who will play where and who once a group stage is over, it’s logical and everybody appreciates it. Most sports clubs or teams appreciate it too and life goes on. Though there are some occasions where efficiency, planning and knowing what is coming next leads to cheating. A very simple and true story (repeated weekly around the world): pro tennis players play as often as possible for as many points as possible to move up or maintain their ranking positions. Money is fine, though ranking points are vital, especially for those who have singles play aspirations. Most players have a tilt at doubles, some for fun, some for access to bigger tournaments (where hospitality is paid to those who qualify) and all to earn a few extra quid. However doubles is like that unwanted relative from down the country who sits beside you at the wedding and starts telling you about the price of heifers ad nauseum. It was grand when you were bored or stuck for someone to talk with, but when that special someone you’ve been making eyes at all night gives you a come hither signal (usually indicating that their pint glass is in need of refill) you just have to go, despite the possibility of inheritance from said bachelor farmer who is now talking about a.i. and cows.
A player needs to get from Montpelier to Kazan in a hurry as she has only a doubles semi-final to play in a lower rank French tournament as compared to being a seed in the higher level Russian event. The doubles match is on Friday evening and final on Saturday afternoon, meaning she can only begin her trip at the earliest on Saturday afternoon, but she needs to be in Kazan before Sunday midday to sign in and play on the Monday. According to the rules (ITF – International Tennis Federation) she cannot pull a sickie – as she’d be ruled out from the next tournament(s). She can’t give a walkover or she’ll be docked points, fined and not allowed play the following week (minimum). Plus her partner needs the points, and money, from a doubles win, but the single-minded singles player needs points from singles play as she has ambitions on a top-100 ranking and a place on her nation’s Fed Cup team. The pair, seeded 2nd, start the match at 1-4 odds and it’s a mixture of shock and disappointment that greets their 1-6, 0-6 defeat in 30minutes. The singles player nabs her cheque (she’d checked out of the hotel that morning), lifts her bags and leaps into the waiting taxi which whisks her to Mont-Med airport where she is just in time for the flight (booked by her mother the night before) to Paris and she arrived in Kazan Saturday late morning. Everybody yet nobody knew that she’d made the decision to throw her match from the get go.
This isn’t new or unusual and can be put down to competition rules being so inflexible that players have to cheat in order to have a successful career. Players don’t see it as cheating, of course, they see it as part of their job. They need ranking points and they go for them. They know there is no leeway if they’re late for sign in, even with the most desperate and real excuse (held at gunpoint by Nigerian bandits being one example), as they’re to follow the rules, and rules must be obeyed. Anything else just isn’t tennis.
And to end the roll of shame I am reminded of two hours I’ll never get back in my life. 2 hours that many readers will probably think are watching the latest offering from Sky, though this time it’s the Olympics and Ice Hockey. In the 2006 Winter Olympics Sweden threw their final group game to avoid the Czechs or Canucks in the quarter final, instead they got the battling Swiss and duly triumphed all the way to the Gold Medal. Anyone who had the misfortune to watch the broadcast live from Italy would at least realise that the Swedes were good at passing the puck and missing open goals. To see superstars like Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg tank so obviously left them with little respect amongst neutrals, though in their home nation they were Gold medal-winning heroes. But even they, the happy Swedes, were being cheated. Though thinking about it, the Olympics were held in Turin. Turin’s in Italy. What is it about Italy and dodgy results anyway?