Just Another Nigerian Scam?

Corruption, fraud, and match-fixing all go together in Africa’s biggest oil pit.

Glyn Kirk / AFP / Getty Images
Glyn Kirk / AFP / Getty Images

Everyone who loves the beautiful game should also hate the beautiful game for three of its ugliest traditions: one, the childish penchant for diving by grown men who should be ashamed of themselves; two, the unsportsmanlike commitment to end-of-game stalling by the team in the lead; and three, it’s a big fraud.

Because anyone who loves soccer must concede: There’s something rotten in Curitiba.

Why Curitiba? Isn’t all of Brazil pretty much a huge den of corruption? Perhaps, but it has nothing on Nigeria.

If you have an email account, you’ve probably received a message from a courteous Mr. Attah or Ms. Amah imploring you to share your bank details — and a small cash advance — to liberate millions of dollars stuck inexplicably in limbo. For people who live in Nigeria, this is just a taste of the daily lawlessness. Corruption is endemic and worsening; 85 percent of Nigerians say the level of corruption in their country has increased in the last two years, and 9 out of 10 Nigerians say those with a hand in rooting out corruption — the police — are corrupt themselves.

Unfortunately for soccer fans, this behavior appears to extend across Nigeria’s borders to international matches. Just days ago Nigerian keeper Austin Ejide decided it would be a good idea to throw the ball into his own net. (For those not familiar with soccer, that’s not a good move. Neither is this.) As a result, for opposing side Scotland the match wasn’t just a "friendly" — it was a "very friendly". The own-goal, which resulted in an undeserved 2-2 tie, came on the heels of two Amateur League games in Nigeria that ended with scores of 79-0 and 67-0. 180 minutes, 146 goals.

Apparently, subtlety is not a hallmark of Nigerian match-fixing; even Nigeria’s soccer federation had to notice those scorelines. It also doesn’t help Nigeria’s case that the convicted Singaporean match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal admitted he personally fixed games to help Nigeria qualify for the 2010 World Cup. In a 335-page book. That’s also, helpfully, available on Kindle.

So when Nigeria faces off against Iran at the Baixada Arena in Monday’s match, also known as "Oil Bowl I", most eyes will be on Nigerian striker Emmanuel Emenike and Iranian captain Javad Nekounam. But some eyes should be on the referee. Because it’s up to him to make sure this game has any semblance of fair play, even though these days referees can’t be trusted either.

To be fair, rampant corruption isn’t limited to Nigeria; the global watchdog group Transparency International ranks about 40 countries even lower. And to be fairer, FIFA is no stranger to fixed matches or accusations of bribery. It has been one of the most corrupt international bodies on earth, under the influence — some might say command — of an organized illegal gambling syndicate in Asia. But Nigeria does lead the league in making the league a laughing stock. To put it mildly, it’s not the fairest of them all.

This week, when Nigerians pour out to root for their squad — that is, those who brave the bomb threats — they’ll be hoping not just to win but to avoid embarrassment as well. Some might wonder if, given their country’s recent history of foul play, the world will be impressed if they win, or just unsurprised if they lose. Some already do.

But maybe we need a little perspective here. Corruption in Nigeria and elsewhere has far more violent repercussions, including kidnapped schoolgirls and slaughtered villagers at the hands of Boko Haram. By that measure, fixed matches aren’t the end of the world. But for some, they are the beginning of the end of a fascination with the world’s sport. How many fans already asked, when Brazil won a questionable penalty in the tournament’s opener, whether the ref was on the take, or at least being leaned on by FIFA’s shady leaders?

There aren’t obvious solutions, in Nigeria or elsewhere. Just weak ones. Training. Identifying vulnerable players who might be prone to gambling. Here’s a thought: Maybe FIFA should assign seven employees to the task of rooting out match-fixing around the world instead the six they have now. Do something, anything to help players stop worrying about legitimacy. Then they can get back to the important business of stalling and diving.

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