11 January 2006

How corrupt is the beautiful game?

So, you are a bent referee. How do you go about fixing a result?

Well, you could award a dodgy penalty to the team you want to win or dissallow a valid goal for the opposition. You could even send the opposition's best player off the field. But you wouldn't want to do any of these controversial things if you could help it. No, to avoid detection you would have to be much more clever.

If you were a bent referee, you wouldn't just be interested in one game, you would probably be a serial fixer (whether through blackmail or bribes) and controversial decisions would bring too much attention. No, what you would want to do, is be much more subtle, something more difficult to prove but still pretty effective in affecting the result of the game. Of course you could get away with the occasional controversial decision if absolutely necessary but you wouldn't want to make a habit of it, no, the real fix would lie in the detail.

We have all watched games that have been spoiled by the referee. How many times have we thought, if only the ref would let the game flow instead of continually stopping play for petty, sometimes unfathomable offences? It is these games that arouse my suspicion.

I've been meaning to write an article about this subject for quite some time now. Ever since the England - Portugal result in Euro 2004, that was so obviously influenced by bent officiating. This game was one of those stop-start games from a whistle happy ref that immediately roused my suspicion.

Look at the unusual number of free kicks in that game and analyse where and how they were given and you see a pattern emerge. The vast majority of free kicks awarded to England came in safe areas of the pitch with little or no attacking possibilities. Portugal however were given numerous free-kicks that broke up promising England attacks or were in dangerous areas outside the England penalty area.

The free kicks Portugal were awarded were also useful in breaking up the momentum of the game when England were on top. More subtle than this were the free-kicks that were not given and the subtle advantages allowed for Portugal when they were in promising positions of play. The Portugal players soon came to realise they could be much more aggressive in their tackling and get away with it (an obvious example is the tackle on Rooney that broke his foot - the ref actually awarded a free-kick to Portugal for this), whereas the slightest touch from an England player could result in a free-kick, especially if it was in a dangerous area for England or broke up a promising England attack.

Add all these things together and you can imagine what a massive impact it had on the game. Of course all of these things are notoriously difficult to prove but we all know about how suspect South Korea's progress was in the 2002 World Cup. Host nations always get out of the qualifying round and who is to say that suspect refereeing (given a secret nod from FIFA) isn't part of the reason for this. It is not in the interests of the tournament for the host nation is go out too early.

We all know about the numerous match-fixing scandals that have scarred Europe's lower leagues for decades and recently come to prominence in the media with high profile and widespread cases in Germany, Italy etc, but surely it couldn't have infected so high up the echelons of football?

I first became aware that match fixing at the highest level was possible, at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Argentina needed to beat Peru by 4 clear goals to get through the qualifying round. They duly improbably won 6-0. It later emerged that the Peru govt had received a secret payment at the time from Argentina's govt running into millions that was later linked to this game. No definite proof but a big hint that something was up.

Then there are the definite big name scandals that have been revealed. Anderlecht, Marseille, Paolo Rossi being just a few high profile examples.

Anderlecht were caught up in a blackmailing scandal that ran over several decades, due to someone finding out about their ref bribing antics in the UEFA cup in the early eighties, that had at least robbed Nottingham Forest of further European glory.

Marseille's billionaire owner was so good at match fixing, they even went on to win the European Cup (a honour for which they were subsequently stripped).

Paulo Rossi was banned from football for his part in high level match fixing in Serie A. But FIFA relented to allow him to play for Italy in the 1982 World Cup that they eventually went on to win.

Match fixing is however more prevalent in the lower leagues of Europe for a number of reasons. The most prominant reason being that betting scams are easier and cheaper to get away with there. The high level wages of players in the top leagues makes bribing players there difficult. What you need to do is catch a player early in his career in a lower league game that his team are likely to lose. A large sum of cash offered to a player to play badly in a game backed by the logic 'you are going to lose anyway' is the best way to tempt them. Of course once you have a got a player to take a bribe in one game, you can then blackmail him for life.

I'm not suggesting that many players would be tempted at international level, but it is almost certain that there will be bribed referees and other officials at the next World Cup. This realisation took quite a gloss off my interest in football during Euro 2004.

After having suspicions for many years, the obviousness of the bribed referee in the England-Portugal game made me quite disconsolate. But before we all go away thinking, well thats it then, England will never win. It IS still possible they could win. Maybe England will be so much better than the opposition that they win despite the refereeing (I mean will still almost managed to beat Portugal) or maybe the FA could bribe a few refs themselves to help us along, like some other nations are obviously doing. Who knows, but all I'm saying is, don't be too surprised if Sol Campbell has yet another perfectly legitimate winner ruled out in a crucial knock-out game.

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