When the first ball is kicked at the opening match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on June 11, billions of viewers will witness a source of pride for the continent of Africa. The momentous occasion will open with the usual pomp and circumstance (R & B superstar R. Kelly will perform, U.S. President Barack Obama may be in attendance, and couturier Louis Vuitton is designing a custom travel case for the trophy), and will feature the teams and athletic heroes of 32 nations. Yet, for all the hoopla, the “beautiful game” has, in recent times, been tainted by unprecedented shame and scandal.
News last month that Lord Triesman resigned as head of England’s 2018 World Cup bid team, after suggesting Spain and Russia are planning to bribe referees at the upcoming event, shocked fans and may have fatally threatened England’s bid to host the next World Cup. The comments were secretly taped by a woman who claims she had an affair with the married former Labour Party minister, and came only two days after he launched his country’s bid alongside David Beckham. During the ill-fated conversation, Triesman, who was also forced to give up his role as chairman of the English Football Association, said Spain was looking for Russia’s help in bribing referees to favour its team, in exchange for supporting Russia’s venture to host the 2018 tournament.
The scandal prompted Jérôme Valcke, the general secretary of FIFA (the international football federation), to ask Interpol to investigate the comments before the tournament begins. Angry fan groups have since sprung up on social networking sites like Facebook (“Triesman, You Ruined My Only Chance of Being at a World Cup Final You Arse!” is one). But the unravelling public relations disaster is only the latest in a growing list of problems over the past year for a sport plagued by racism, violence and high-level corruption.
Last November, police in Bochum, Germany, began investigating clubs and officials from 12 European countries (four of whose national teams will play in Africa), on allegations of fraud and organized crime. In all, more than 200 matches in the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) competitions and national leagues are being probed in what’s become the continent’s largest football corruption and betting investigation.
The fallout has already begun. In March, the UEFA handed high-ranking Ukrainian referee Oleh Orekhov, 42, a life ban for his involvement in a match-fixing scandal, and in Turkey 46 professional players and an assistant coach were arrested over suspicions that 30 matches were fixed. More recently, eight players from the Hungarian Debrecan team were questioned by the UEFA last month.
The integrity of the sport is at its worst in China, where five players and 20 officials in Hong Kong were arrested last month, including the former head of the Chinese Football Association. It’s also where World Cup referee Lu Jun—known as “the golden whistle” for his impartiality—could face the death penalty if found guilty of taking bribes.
Investigative journalist Declan Hill, who authored The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime, says match-fixing is organized primarily through the multi-billion-dollar illegal Asian gambling market where fixers (who can bet online on a number of scenarios as minute as who will win the next free kick) are hard to track. To help ward off corruption in South Africa, FIFA has set up a hotline for coaches and players to report suspicions, and all 30 referees will be heavily monitored, with no direct calls allowed to their hotel rooms. But while FIFA’s anti-corruption hotline is admirable, Hill says, the soccer authority could slash “90 per cent” of match-fixing bribes directed at players and officials from low-paying or mismanaged leagues by paying players directly.
“FIFA gives each [national] soccer association US$8 million or $9 million for getting to the World Cup, plus travel expenses,” says Hill. The presidents of those associations are then charged with dividing the money and paying players, but while “many of those associations are well run, many are not.” He cites the example of Honduras coach Reinaldo Rueda, who told reporters in March he may quit if he and his World Cup-bound team were not paid a US$1.3-million bonus promised by the country’s football federation for reaching the 2006 event. The president of the Honduran federation responded by acknowledging the money was owed but didn’t explain why it hadn’t been paid (the team is scheduled to line up against Spain, Chile and Switzerland in South Africa).
In the case of Honduras, as Hill explains, “most of those guys play for the Honduran league so they are lucky if they get two hundred bucks. I’m not saying those teams are into match-fixing, but those are red flags. If you can’t get your players paid properly at the world’s largest sporting event, you are going to have a problem.”
Beyond concerns about high-level corruption, professional soccer has also been plagued by increased incidents of racism and violence. Years of hooliganism problems in France led to a recent decision by the government to immediately disband seven fan groups accused of inciting violence. A February clash during a match between Marseilles and Paris Saint-Germain in which 37-year-old Yann Lorence was killed served as the tipping point.
What isn’t clear is whether these problems, or racial threats like the “Death to the Hooked Noses” banner unfurled by fans in southern Poland during a May 8 match between Resovia Rzeszow and Jewish team Stala Rzeszow (in a city where Jews were executed in a Second World War German concentration camp), will divert fans away from the beautiful game. Despite UEFA president Michel Platini’s remarks to lawmakers in Brussels in April that the sport is in “mortal danger,” not everyone is convinced. “[Match-fixing] hasn’t affected the fan following to any large extent,” says Darin David, account director for Dallas-based sports marketing firm Millsport. “I think people are going to love the sport no matter what. It would take a lot for them to move away from soccer. It’s part of their life.”
Hill, on the other hand, believes the bright lights of South Africa’s new stadiums won’t be enough to distract fans from harbouring suspicions on whether, in some instances, the right call was made. “I think in general match-fixing is the end of the credibility of sport. There is nothing bigger than that,” says Hill. “It dwarfs doping. It dwarfs underage players and anything else, because once fans think that maybe it’s a theatrical event, it’s the end.”