Stopping the fixing game

Stopping the fixing game

Stopping the fixing game

To fix a game in soccer, or any other sport, requires corrupt players or officials along with betting cartels willing to pay for the deed. Chasing down and trying to bust those corrupters is now a global industry in its own right. 

Last week, the British government summoned officials from soccer, tennis, cricket and both rugby union and rugby league to discuss the problem. At the same time, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, better known as Unesco, announced a “strategic partnership” with the International Center for Sport Security, based in Qatar, to address match-fixing around the world.

The urgency of their high-level discussions was given new impetus by an undercover newspaper sting in which an English soccer player, playing below the level of the Premier League, boasted to a reporter posing as a representative of a gambling cartel. The video, by The Sun on Sunday, shows the player apparently boasting that he was paid 70,000 pounds, or about $115,000, not to fix the result, but to get himself ejected from a game. This relates to spot-betting, the proliferation of gambling on specific incidents, moments or quirks that happen seemingly at random within the games.

The player has subsequently been arrested, along with five others, again all below the top echelon of English sports. The six were released on bail pending investigation and possible court proceedings. All six have been named, their profiles aired, before any trial takes place. Lawyers are now talking with their employers about whether they are allowed to play while the wheels of justice turn. If they turn.

The boast caught by hidden camera is reminiscent of a previous sting, conducted by a newspaper of the same group in November 1994. That did involve a well-known player, the Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar.

I sat through one of two trials that followed. They were ugly, uneasy, inconclusive investigations into whether Grobbelaar and two other implicated players had conspired with a Malaysian businessman to pervert the outcome of top games.

Ultimately, the jury could not agree on a verdict. Grobbelaar and the others were cleared in November 1997. The goalkeeper later sued The Sun for libel and was awarded £85,000, but that was reduced to £1 on appeal. Grobbelaar was also ordered to pay the newspaper’s legal costs, which he was unable to do, and was declared bankrupt subsequently.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that historical case, Grobbelaar was ruined. The newspaper gained nothing but publicity and possible short-term sales. The lawyers got rich. And the sport suffered damage to reputation.

Now we are back in a similar process. News organisations are becoming the detectives, using covert means to entrap players they suspect are selling off their sport.Three Pakistan cricketers were convicted in a London court of collaborating with bettors in a Test match against England at Lords, the spiritual home of international cricket, in 2010. Those players are no longer in the game.

In Germany, Finland, Austria, Australia and, inevitably, Italy, soccer players have been through the judicial process and have been removed from their sport and livelihood. In 2001, a former South African cricket captain was banned after working with bookmakers.So, undoubtedly, someone has to be the watchdog. 

The sports that cannot be trusted have a polluting effect not only on their own business, but also on the minds of the millions of fans who look up to the examples set by the players.

But other principles are at stake here, too. Whatever happened to the idea that a person is entitled to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty?

Is the rush to expose and publish a proper way to clean up fixing? And what happens if, as in the case of Grobbelaar, a player has to play the prime of his career under suspicion, which obviously affects his power to earn money, only to be subsequently cleared or at least not found guilty?

Another side of the problem is that sports are themselves in partnership with the gambling industry. In many countries, barely a soccer game, or any other sport, can be shown on TV without constant bombardment from team sponsors who happen to be betting companies. 

There are also the advertisements that, even during lunchtime kickoffs, are aimed at persuading viewers to bet on anything, including corner kicks and red or yellow cards.If a sport is serious about protecting its integrity, it should not be taking money from the gambling industry. It certainly should not be showing the spot-betting inducements when children are likely to be watching.

Sports organisations, governments and other international bodies hoping to protect the integrity of the game should come together to form one body, funded by the sports and, if necessary, by the legal betting companies, to investigate and prosecute based on an agreed-upon, international standard.

Until officials in both sports and government show a united front, they will lose the game, because the fixers who manipulate the matches often are elsewhere. All too common is someone in Asia working behind the scenes to fix a game played in Europe. If one guilty player is trapped, even jailed, the fixer moves on to the next. Integrity doesn’t stand a chance unless those who police sports are at least as organised as the criminals.