Why soccer gets fixed

Perhaps the World Cup can help address the corruption epidemic in African soccer.

It is not a guarantee that there will be fixed matches at the World Cup in South Africa, but it is guaranteed that there will be match fixers at the tournament.

There is a gang of Asian match fixers who have been to all levels of international soccer tournaments for the past 20 years: from the Under-17 World Cup, to the Olympic soccer tournament, to the World Cup itself.

This gang has approached many different teams, players and referees. The president of the Ghana Football Association (the equivalent of the NHL for Ghana), Kwesi Nyantakyi, is a typical case. “In every competition, they are there,” he says. “It is done all the time in major competitions. The gamblers are not Africans. They are Europeans, Asians, so they have a lot of money to bet on these things. Even at the [Under-17] World Cup in 1991 when we won, there were gamblers around, offering a lot of money to the team to throw away the match.”

The average soccer fan might be astounded at Mr. Nyantakyi’s words, given that most journalists’ coverage of the World Cup amounts to little more than pieces about the “colourful fans” around the stadiums, tear-jerkers about the morale of the various teams, and tons of eye-closing articles about the Napoleon-like coaches and their astute “tactical” choices.

What these journalists will not tell you is that players on some of the teams do not know how much, or even if, they will get paid for appearing in this year’s World Cup.

It sounds extraordinary, but there are many examples. On May 21, the world’s sporting press was focused on the up-coming Champions League final, and writing the usual articles about whether Jose Mourinho, the recently appointed manager of Real Madrid, is arrogant or a genius or simply an arrogant genius. The same day, seven men held a press conference in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Outside of their country, they were almost ignored, which is odd, because four years ago the whole world watched them in awe.

They were members of the Trinidad and Tobago World Cup team in 2006, athletes who achieved the extraordinary feat of getting their nation (population less than Toronto) to the World Cup. And four years later, they say they have still not been paid their bonuses by the Football Association of Trinidad and Tobago.

If this was the only example of salary problems between a national team and its football association, it could be dismissed as an aberration. But there are many more cases, most of which have gone unreported.

Honduras is a team that also achieved the extraordinary feat of getting their nation, with a population less than Ontario, to the World Cup. Many of their players play in their own domestic league where they are paid a few hundred dollars a week. However, seven months after qualifying and setting their whole country alight with patriotic fervour, they had not been paid.

South Africa has spent billions of dollars on stadiums, upgrading their infrastructure and promoting this World Cup. Guess what they have not done? Figure out how much to pay their players. South African players have a long history of going on strike because they feel they cannot trust their national federation to pay them. But, yet again, the players and their salaries are treated as an after-thought. It was the same thing at the last World Cup with Togo. They staged a strike in the middle of the tournament, refusing to play their last game until they were paid their promised salaries.

In fact, pretty much all of African football is enmeshed in corruption and the exploitation of players. The great goalkeeper Joseph Antoine Bell, whose Cameroon team also went on strike at a World Cup tournament, said, “In French football, you can expect 10% of the money to disappear. In African football, it is 90%.” He is not alone. There are dozens of formerly great African footballers who are now abandoned and living in difficult circumstances.

It is the exploitation of players that is the key dynamic for match-fixing at the big international soccer tournaments. The players from the good, but not the best, teams know they will not win the tournament. They know that often their football associations will not pay them properly. They know that typical sports journalists will not report these stories. And ironically, they know that the match fixers are relatively honest. The fixers will come to the players with bags of cash at the beginning of the tournament and say, “Do the business with us. Play your first couple of games honestly, but when you are ready to play out – let us know. Then your biggest problem is how to spend your money.”

A simple solution would be for FIFA to pay the players directly. There could be wages and incentives for every game won, for each stage of the tournament, even for the number of goals that a player scores. The money could be paid directly into the players’ bank accounts by FIFA, with the amounts publicly announced. This way all players on all World Cup teams will know they will be paid and how much.

Additionally, FIFA has not established an integrity unit staffed with ex-policemen and gambling experts. This is standard practice in North American sport, and increasingly other international sports like ATP tennis and cricket. Two years ago, the president of UEFA (the European Soccer Association), Michel Platini, established such an integrity unit for European football. It was instrumental in uncovering a wide network of fixers working in nine different European countries.

Until these very basic steps are implemented, the fixers will continue to work. They will be approaching players and referees, and they may, unfortunately, find a few who are willing to listen to them. The temptation to cheat will be quite powerful.