A Game Rigged From the Top Down

Match-fixing by soccer players is the least of the sport’s problems.

Phil Walter / Getty Images Sport
Phil Walter / Getty Images Sport

There’s a match-fixing scandal at the World Cup! Or maybe there isn’t. Seven of Cameroon’s players are under investigation for throwing their match against Croatia. But perhaps the whole thing is a complete fabrication. Whatever really happened, the story was plausible enough to get some legs. And that’s the problem.

Match fixing, both actual and speculated, is a specter that’s always stalked soccer. Whether it was Matt Le Tissier trying to kick the ball out of play on purpose, or Singaporean syndicates sending unexplained payments to Finnish teams, there is plenty of evidence that match fixing exists. It may even have affected the World Cup in 2006.

The World Cup incident involved the Ghanaian team, and indeed the specter — whether or not there’s any truth to the Cameroonian story — has settled recently and rather definitively over Africa.

It’s always tempting to look at match fixing as a bad apple scenario: Greedy players want more money and will do anything to get it. Yet if recent history tells us anything, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Several of the latest match-fixing allegations have been focused much higher up the food chain.

One report suggests that the president of Ghana’s football association, Kwesi Nyantakyi, agreed to have his national team play in fixed matches. (He disputes the claim.) Indeed, the confessed match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal — the original source of the Cameroonian accusations, which he has since recanted — claims he’s made a career out of finding national teams amenable to playing in games that were fixed. He also asserted that he was responsible for sending Nigeria to the World Cup in 2010. Corroborating some of his claims, The New York Times found widespread evidence of match-fixing in friendly games, often involving referees, in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s easy to see why cash strapped countries — and not only African ones — might make appealing targets for match-fixers looking to exert their influence. That’s why the recent rash of money-related clashes between football associations and players is doubly concerning. Cameroon threatened to go on strike if they weren’t paid the World Cup money promised them, a negotiation which ended with them arriving at the World Cup a day late. Just days before playing their third World Cup match, Ghana threatened to quit if their association didn’t stump up what they were owed; the government literally flew the team a plane full of cash. Nigerian players boycotted a practice session after not being paid a bonus they were promised. And these were hardly the first times that Africa’s biggest stars have had to resort to shaming their countries publicly to get paid. In 2012, for example, Togo’s Emmanuel Adebayor threatened to retire from international football if he and his teammates weren’t paid following a friendly with Morocco.

It’s very difficult to say anything definitive when it comes to money issues in soccer. It’s a game of attempting to derive answers from second- and third-hand reports, then figuring out the truth behind supposed revelations by convicted match-fixers. But listen to the rumor mill long enough, and one thing becomes abundantly clear. While players trying to make a quick buck might be challenge the game’s integrity from time to time, that problem is dwarfed by the threat of institutional corruption. All too often, players aren’t the problem — they’re the victims.

Match-fixing is a much more pernicious problem when viewed through that lens. If the problem were simply players taking money to throw games, then the solution would simply be a matter of better policing. If, however, the problem is more endemic — if it swirls around greedy executives and cash-strapped footballing programs in poor countries — then we’re talking about a problem bigger than policing. Now we’re talking about a system that may be more fundamentally broken than anybody wants to believe.

FIFA talks a good game about protecting the integrity of the sport. But talk is cheap. What’s needed is new infrastructure and policy reform. What’s needed is for FIFA not only to support policing actions against players, but also to insulate players from being exploited by their own allegedly corrupt executives.

Of course, to do that FIFA would have to acknowledge that corruption to begin with, and that’s a dangerous game. Once you start seeing corruption it can be pretty hard to stop. It’s not at all surprising that a FIFA executive committee currently being investigated for corruption relating to Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid wouldn’t want to make accusations against their own constituents. After all, there’s that saying about people who live in glass houses.

So for now, it doesn’t look like much will change. Players will continue to be accused of taking bribes, often without getting paid for their services, and match-fixing will continue to hover around the edges of the world’s biggest soccer stage. Rumors will swirl, and people will continue to comb through the mists looking for hints of which games might not be on the up-and-up. All the while, the people with the power to change it — to insulate and protect the players — will claim that they are doing all that they can, while likely contributing to the problem. There’s just enough plausible deniability to go around. And until that’s gone, nobody really has any incentive to do anything.

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