Match fixing in European football

From Champions League and Europa League betting to the domestic bribing of referees, match fixing has never been more to the fore and Alan Moore discusses issues affecting an entire continent.

I was tempted to have “corruption” rather than “match fixing” in the title of this article, though the use of the former word is far too wide for what’s to follow.  Indeed match fixing also needs to be refined a little to not have followers of the game pulling their hair out.  So, for the sake of this article, and the sanity of readers, I’ll simply define match fixing as “ensuring your own team gets the right result.”

The more reported match fixing is the type where “fixers” bribe players to make money betting on games and this is often seen as the only type of match fixing, and the scourge of lesser leagues.  It is, also, far less common than we are led to believe.  In a week when Juventus head coach Antonio Conte had his touchline ban reduced from 10 to 4 months for match fixing and after a summer of scandal from Italy, the facts and truths are too easy to airbrush from the scene.

In relation to the betting influenced problem, bookies are very wise in the ways of the world and with patterns being monitored (and insider information) they are not going to be stung too often.  No matter where the match is taking place, or at what level, there are very simple signals that pop up to have a contest pulled if something smells.  Also this side of match fixing has been conveniently overblown so that the far more common and destructive part of the disease runs rampant.  Is it a surprise than in Croatia you cannot have more than one Croatian league or cup match in an accumulator?  If the local bookies are wise, what does that say about what is going on?  Betting related match fixing is a handy stick to keep everyone in line and away from the real match fixing.

The most common side of match fixing is the one where a team owner/management are so desperate to win that they collude with officials or opposition players/coaches to get what they want.  I knew that my time at one club was finished when I was told by a trusted friend and colleague that with our new team manager (director) in charge that “we might lose one, but we’ll win the next two.”  The pride in my friend’s voice was unmistakable and when I saw how the new President was shaping up his committee, and the players being brought in and shipped out, I (as red top Sunday paper journo’s say when visiting a sex den) made my excuses and left.  The previous year there had been two teams relegated just after the start of the season for match fixing, the leagues in Malta (I was reliably told) were rife with it.  The Vice President told me bluntly that (when the club were struggling after a coach broke his contract and did a runner) “this time we won’t be able to afford to stay up.”  I asked him what he meant as we were all at the committee table and being open.

He elaborated without worry and told me four years earlier, trailing 0-3 in the last game of the season and relegated as results stood, they paid over 10,000 euros to an opposition fixer at half time.  The match ended 3-3, the opposition (who would have stayed up) went down and all was well with the world.  It was stay up and sin at all costs, damning the consequences.  This same club is now being run by one of the few people ever deemed unfit to own a club by the English FA, who he took over from a man whose two years in charge saw more odd results that were bankrolled by funds that originated in bundles floating off the coast.  He was following form as another former President was, until recently, doing time in jail for bribery related to drug trafficking and his successor magically managed to siphon club investment funds off to bolster his own sagging businesses while managing to take over part of the club grounds for his own use.  I felt despair that one club could attract so much negativity, though the fans were only happy so long as they won, or weren’t relegated.  Or didn’t lose to their hated rivals too badly.

It is a good laugh when odd results pop up when they’re not close to home.  Teams winning 12-0 when they need to turn around a 12 goal difference to win the league/stay up/qualify for Europe etc, just so long as it’s not in our league or against our team.  We grumble in a deciding match when officials almost walk the ball into the net for one team.  Or when a goalkeeper, so reliable all year, suddenly daubs his hands in butter or just gets his fingertips to a shot and a winning goal is scored.  What price a championship, a cup or survival?  Two years earlier FC Volga Ulyanovsk were involved in a neck-an-neck race for the Ural-Povolshky (Division 2) title.  Up against them were regional rivals and (then) moneyed club FC Volga Nizhny Novgorod.  In the build up to the game it wasn’t the quality of opposition players or injuries or suspensions that worried the men from Lenin’s hometown, it was whether the other Volga (now struggling in the Premier League) would play fair and NOT bribe the match officials.  There was no evidence that anything was amiss, though the idea that something like this might happen pointed to more than just smoke.It opened my eyes to what was going on around us and suddenly odd results stood out.

Was it just me?  Had this followed me from Croatia where one of my closest friends stood near heart attack and watched as his side NK Sibenik capitulated to local rivals so that their charge for the title could go on.  Everybody knew what was happening though even as gates continue to decline clubs and the HNS (Croatian FA) still stay silent.  It’s not a recent issue, back in 1966, in the semi-final of the “Marshall Tito” Cup for Dalmatia, a 0-2 deficit became a 3-2 win for Hajduk Split with the half-time offer of a new set of jerseys to host club Dinara Knin.  The “stolen” game grew in legend, though personally knowing one of the players on the day and what he was told by the trainer during the break, gave me a jaundiced view of the beautiful game.  It led me to question what was happening and the further into the game I got, the more instances or stories seemed to crop up.  Yet it’s not just in one country, or region or level.  It’s widespread, accepted and we all play a part in it.

The Irish are complicit.  Anyone remember the 1-1 kickabout with Holland at Italia ’90?  While it can be argued that this isn’t match fixing in the purest form, a result was guaranteed for the benefit of both sides on a nod and a wink.  Glory came to all in the group, except Egypt.  You look up and it’s all around.  Espana ’82, the first World Cup I really remember, mainly for England’s failure and Northern Ireland’s success, and we have West Germany and Austria.  West Germany needed to win by one or two and Austria not lose by two (because of Algeria’s success against Chile earlier).  The Germans  scored early and then both teams shamelessly passed the ball to one another for the rest of the match.  Four years earlier in Argentinian World Cup the hosts whipped a good Peru side 6-0 when needing to win by four goals.  The 2004 European Championships when Sweden and Denmark acted the mick on the way to a 2-2 draw, a sufficiently good enough score-draw that allowed both teams progress at the expense of Giovanni Trappatoni’s Italy.  And in other sports (ice hockey for example) teams have contrived to lose in order to gain a better draw for the next round.

I stated earlier that this is conveniently overlooked in the battle against corruption or match fixing in football.  Gambling and bookmakers are a much better way to steer the focus away from historic problems that will never be fixed in our game, and sport in general.  This isn’t a case of Matt LeTissier punting a ball to row Z to win a bet, this is cheating in it’s purest form and creating a playing field unsuitable for viewing.  Far easier to single out a “shady” group who make money in betting schemes than actually addressing an immorality that reaches to the very core of football.  Of course it boils down to money in the end as much as it does to glory.  Calciopoli in 2006 came out of big clubs wanting to stay big, make the Champions League and line the owners pockets.  It made sense to ensure the “right” officials were on patrol for you.  Stoke City and Burnley deliberately played out a draw so that both could stay in the Football League at the expense of Newcastle and Blackburn.  Sound unfamiliar?  Well, it took place in 1896 and things have changed on the surface since then.  Finding out about such disingenuous practices helped wipe out one of the defining periods of my life.

In one of the seminal moments in my sports career I left the confines of the official area and stood up with fans in the “Gay Block”, Gay being the sound made by Germans for the word “G”.  Our club, struggling at the foot of the Bundesliga lined up against a powerful HSV side whose forward line was headed by a former local hero Tony Yeboah.  Our Eagles went two goals up and looked confident way above recent form.  The side was strong enough to be mid-table but lack of discipline and Board in-fighting meant no stability around the place.  Truth be told, the Diva Von Main was close to financial collapse as the 1998-99 season played out.  Once HSV pulled a goal back through Yeboah, a deep gloom descended along with rain on the May Hesse night.  We held out until the 2nd minute of injury time before Dutchman Hoogma equalised.  It was the end.  Just the 2nd point gained in six matches and the players waved goodbye to teary fans, throwing shirts into the crowd and doing a full lap of the pitch.  Off the field things took shape and there was a determination to at least go down fighting.  This was instilled in the players and staff, a major fan promotion was put in place to fill the ground for the rest of the season.  It was privately seen as a pre-cursor to a promotion fight for the next year, as the club were putting in place a financial structure to help us survive and positive energy would do far more than fan warfare and depression.

Only three days later I went up with the club to take in the match with Werder Bremen, who were also struggling but safer than us.  A magnificent performance with goals from fan icon Alex Schur and Tomislav Sobotzik came in the 2nd half before Marko Bode pulled a goal back.  This time we held out for 2-1 and returned to Hesse feeling like something was happening.  A week later and I was on the running track behind the goal when former Swindon, Barnsley, Sheffield United and Middlesboro player Jan Aage Fjortoft opened the scoring before half time.  That it was against high flying Borussia Dortmund had the fans delirious.  Within five minutes of the restart Sobotzik popped up again there were no more scores.  Needing to win all remaining matches after the draw with HSV was the task our boys were taking on with aplomb.  The impossible was becoming possible and I leapt from bed each day to go fight the good fight.  We were going to do this.

A week later I missed the first quarter hour of the game due to looking after some execs and emerged into the Gelsenkirchen air to see that Schalke were already 2-0 up.  Our special guests were thinking of returning to the bar but then up popped Jan Aage to leave it balanced at 1-2.  The second half kicked off and our side were all out on the attack, it paid off when the referee awarded a penalty.  Up stepped Sobotzik and it was all square.  From then on it was give and take until veteran Olaf Janssen netted the winner.  Driving back to my home in Marburg I discussed with a colleague and my ex of just how we could stay in the top flight.  Our last match would be against Kaiserslautern who were in a straight fight with Borussia for 4th place.  The number four played a central part in our tale.  After HSV we had four matches left.  We needed four wins.  The last match of the season had to be won by four goals (and Nurnberg to lose and Rostock not win) to stay up.  It would all come down to a hot May day in the Waldstadion against Michael Ballack and co.

With word coming through from Nurnberg that the home side were 2-0 at half time there was an air of optimism in the boardroom, even if Rostock were ahead 1-0.  If Nurnberg lost by one goal and we won by four we’d stay up having scored more goals over the season, however it was 0-0 in Frankfurt.  A tough situation was about to get surreal.  Chinese International striker Chen Yang scored a couple of minutes into the 2nd half and the packed Stadium was rocking.  A defensive lapse saw Eintracht concede a penalty, which was converted, yet still we refused to lie down.  From the kick off the Eagles attacked and Sobotzik popped up to make it 2-1.  Once word came through that Bochum had equalised and taken the lead against Rostock, the crowd were chanting “Relegation no more”.  And then came 15 minutes of madness.  One of the greatest goals I’ve seen in the flesh was scored by Marco Gebhardt to push us 3-1 ahead.  The old ground was rocking and even a policeman nearby to where I was standing (behind the Kaiserslautern goal) telling me that it was 2-2 in Bochum didn’t bother me.

Uwe Schneider volleyed home our fourth and with scores as they stood we were staying up and Nurnberg or Rostock would go down.  It was only later that evening I found out what really happened next.  Rostock scored and led 3-2, then Nurnberg pulled a goal back and we were down.  There were two minutes left, precious little injury time and we were relegated with the other pair safe.  We were down until handsome Jan Aage popped up.  We roared for a freekick when the diminutive Westerthaler was brought down by the last defender, but the ball had broken loose to the Norwegian.  Play was waved on.  Fjortoft seemed to miskick (he did a stepover) with his right as the keeper dove, then coolly slotted home with his left for 5-1 and salvation.  Until later that night I don’t remember much and the match stands up alongside Ireland’s win in Stuttgart and a Dundalk cup comeback to beat Sligo 3-2, both in 1988.  Until a few years ago it stood up there with my children’s births as cherished memories, it stood there until revelations began to emerge about corruption in German football just at the time when Eintracht pulled off another miracle to win promotion back to the top flight.

I had just told this story verbatim to a very well respected former Croatian referee over coffee, when he smiled and told me that with the amount of money at stake for league positions or cup wins, “are you surprised with odd scores or results.”  He proceeded to give me an education in how to “throw” matches and how different positions could commit an error without suspicion.  He added a course on how officials could also collude to ensure that the right result was gained.  This, he said, was happening all over and what Calciopoli was about.  As we left our cafe on Zrinski Square he shook my hand and told me that he wasn’t doubting the result, or the honesty of the sides, just that nothing should surprise me.  It was 2007 and it was as if my taste buds for football had been damaged beyond repair.

As supporters of football we are close in nature to believers in a religion.  Each area has it’s own local difference, though essentially we are all the same.  We want to believe that what we see and hear are true.  We want to believe that the playing field is level and that those who administer, officiate, manage, play and report on the game are the same as us, and more importantly, want the same as us.  All are quick to jump on the band wagon or close ranks when a betting scandal breaks out, however little concrete is done when results roll in that seem too convenient to be fair.  Before diving, two footed tackles and other offences can be removed, the unspoken crime of non-betting related match fixing needs to be addressed from top down and bottom up.  Though let’s not hold our breath just yet.

The Author

Alan Moore

Russian-based sports journalist, commentator, radio host & consultant. Worked with major clubs including Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt, Lokomotiv and Spartak Moscow. Current host of Capital Sports 3.0, former international boxer and semi-professional footballer and FIFA World Cup commentator.

One thought on “Match fixing in European football

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *