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The Geopolitics of Cheating

Soccer's fixing epidemic is a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Manus van Dyk /Gallo Images/Getty Images

Even those who don’t follow or understand soccer (and that includes most Americans even now) should have found something moving about the final of the latest Africa Cup of Nations in Johannesburg. As expected, Nigeria won, though only by 1-0. But the heroes of the tournament were surely the team they beat, Burkina Faso. This penniless land-locked country of only 17 millions, one tenth of the Nigerian population, has suffered from every possible misfortune since gaining independence.1 Besides, the Burkinabé team was faced with multiple obstacles in the tournament—from refereeing so bad in the semi-final against Ghana that Slim Jdidi, the Tunisian ref, was subsequently suspended, to fields so bad as to account for multiple injuries sustained by players. To see the players kneeling and raising their arms to heaven after qualifying for the final was a sight to warm the heart of every sporting romantic.

If only there hadn’t also been something to chill the blood. It’s true that the team coach said that his players were used to playing in difficult conditions and knew how to make do, but then he should know about making do. He is none other than Paul Put, who now plies his trade in Africa after he was kicked out of the game in his native Belgium. And the last stages of this Cup of Nations coincided with a devastating report from Europol, the European crime-fighting organisation, about the extent of match-fixing in European soccer. "Match-fixing has always existed in football," Put says, and again he should know what he is talking about after his ban for rigging two games while manager of Lierse. He compares himself with Lance Armstrong, “who is pointed at but everybody was taking drugs,” says Put. “It's unfortunate but I think in every sport you have to face those things. That is reality but what can you do about that?"

To say that “everyone is doing it” is not a legal defence that finds much favour in the case of war criminals or child molestors—or sporting dopers like Armstrong, at least not any more. It remains the unfortunate but undeniable fact that match-fixing is increasingly commonplace in soccer. The Europol report reveals that it is much more widespread than had been realized, not only in Africa and Asia, as we knew, but in Europe. How has the problem been allowed to fester for so long?

Most competitive sports can be fixed, at least in theory. It’s difficult to bribe one player or team to win, which is presumably what they’re trying to do anyway. But it’s easy enough to bribe someone to lose. Almost since they began trading punches, boxers have been taking the proverbial dive, and the infamous “Black Sox” scandal saw several players on the Chicago White Sox team throw the 1919 World Series. In baseball that means a batter swinging and missing or a pitcher tossing balls that can be hit or an outfielder throwing too slow to catch a base-runner. In cricket there have been players who were induced not necessarily to throw matches, but to produce specific scores at specific moments. Some have been thrown out of the game, and it’s hard not to feel a a little pity for talented young boys from poverty-stricken homes in Pakistan whose careers have been ruined.

In soccer the means of fixing a result are many, with opportunities available for players and referees alike, not so much to fix a final result as a particular number of goals. Just as the main source of corruption in cricket today comes from the Indian sub-sub-continent, where billions of rupees are bet on the game, the main source of corruption in soccer is South-East Asia, and particularly Singapore. The Asian obsession with European and especially English soccer is startling: The entire population of the British Isles is easily dwarfed by the numbers in China watching any Manchester United game, even though a 7:45 pm kick-off at Old Trafford is 3:45 am in Shanghai, and the club has one fanzine selling 35,000 copies a month—in Thailand.

But few realized that a syndicate based in Singapore might have been running what Europol calls “a sophisticated organised crime operation”. It has allegedly fixed matches from Finland to Germany, where 14 people were convicted in Bochum following an investigation begun in 2009. What’s almost impressive is the flagrancy of the fixers, among whom the name of Wilson Raj Perumal enjoys particular renown. His speciality has been arranging so-called friendly internationals, ideally refereed by Ibrahim Chaibou of Niger. One wondrous “friendly” put on by Perumal in September 2010 saw Bahrain play Togo, or rather “Togo”, a watered-down version with players not even Togolese fans had heard. They duly lost 3-0, and Josef Hickersberger, the Bahrain coach, said he couldn’t understand the team he was playing against: "They weren’t fit enough to play 90 minutes," he said. Indeed his team should have scored another five goals had they not been inexplicably ruled offside by Chaibou. He is now being sought by police, while Perumal, after serving a year in jail in Finland, is held in Hungary. And as a police investigator in Slovenia, say, “At the highest level, it all goes back to Singapore.”

There is some reason to think that at its highest level, soccer may well be incorruptible: This is one of the few good things to be said for the crazy amounts of money the English Premier League now deals in. Hardly any top players in Britain have been accused of colluding in a fix and with good reason: If a Chelsea or Manchester City player is being paid $300,000 a week—yes, come to think of it, fifty thousand times what someone in Burkina Faso earnshe has little incentive to take a bribe to miss a penalty kick.

Which leaves the question of whether, and why, these scandals matter. A sophisticated argument could be made that match-fixing is a victimless crime. If fans chose to delude themselves that they are watching a noble Corinthian contest then that’s their problem. And only a fool would bet on those dodgy friendlies in any case.

But the problem about cheating isn't that it produces victims, it's that it's a symptom of a deeper problem. The integrity of sports, however trivial they are themselves in the ultimate scheme of things, reflects the integrity of society. Armstrong’s career, up to and including his weird confession-that-wasn’t-a-confession and his subsequent impenitence, is a mirror of an America where politicians can be bought and sold and Wall Street is something like a criminal conspiracy. The corruption of the proudest of European sports could likewise seem an all too apt epitome of a much larger malaise throughout our poor tired old continent.

  1. Wedged between Mali and Ghana, the former French colony was known as Upper Volta until 1984 when its name was changed somewhat optimistically to “Country of Honourable Men” (which is what “Burkina Faso” means). Since then it has experienced civil strife, military coups and simple grinding poverty. An annual per capita income of $300—that is not a misprint: less than a dollar a day—makes it very nearly the poorest country on earth.