By George Quraishi
The big news broke in February, a couple months after my trip to Greece in December, and several more before the release of the three short movies I shot there, which went up last weekend. Match fixing in Europe -- rampant, widespread, but containable, maybe. Interpol was on the case and they knew who was running things, and from where: a criminal mastermind named Dan Tan operating out of Singapore, a country where they publish the names and faces of petty criminals in the newspaper. How hard would it be to roll him up?
Really hard, apparently. Match fixing has been Declan Hill's beat for years -- you should follow his stuff to learn more about it. As soon as the news broke, Brian Phillips wrote an excellent piece from the perspective of a fan. Now that we know, he wrote, FIFA will make sure the bad guys are caught and the problem goes away -- right? "Let me answer that question," he continued, "by referring you to the phrase that I hope will be your primary takeaway from this piece. Soccer. Is. F***ed."
I found Brian's essay remarkable because he had tapped the same miserable feeling of dread and helplessness and fatigue and fear writing from his desk in Pennsylvania that I'd spent a week getting on tape in almost every interview I did in Greece. I spoke with players, administrators, agents, journalists and fans. Each of them loved soccer. Very few of them told me they believe Greek soccer is fair.
The corruption in Greek soccer is a little different from the typical match-fixing arrangements described by Interpol in February. It's more institutionalized, which makes it both easier to observe and a completely different proposition to wipe out. The primary beneficiaries aren't anonymous gamblers in Macau but people at high levels of the game in Greece, including the owner of a certain club, Olympiacos. The team has won 15 out of 17 league titles since 1997. First place guarantees them a spot in the Champions League and a major payday.
Two years ago, a scandal that came to be called Koriopolis broke with a lot of details of threats and bribes and unfair play involving people at all levels of the game, including the owner of Olympiacos, Vangelis Marinakis. At the time, he was also president of the Greek SuperLeague and vice-president of the Hellenic Football Association. Marinakis, whose wealth comes from shipping, stepped down from the latter posts but still owns Olympiacos.
Very little happened to punish or reform the people identified as suspects in Koriopolis. When I was there, I got the feeling that the larger economic crisis in Greece had overshadowed all the messed up stuff that goes on behind the scenes in soccer. But that stuff has not gone away. I met a guy named Aris Asvestas, a radio and print journalist who hasn't stopped talking about all the corruption. In September, he was arriving home late at night after one of his radio shows. Two men were waiting outside his front door. They asked if his name was Aris Asvestas; he said yes, and they beat the shit out of him with brass knuckles. He showed me the photos of his face that were taken after he got out of the hospital.
Aris went public. There were other journalists, he told me, who had been threatened or even beaten like he had been, and who had chosen to do nothing about it, to say nothing, and to stop reporting on the things that had brought the trouble down in the first place. I told him that seemed like a sensible way to handle things. But he couldn't do it. I understood that too.
Other journalists I spoke with said the game they loved was being turned into just another scripted entertainment. I remember speaking with two of them, getting ready to ask this question: What does it do to your sense of professional worth, to the way you value all the time you've spent covering soccer like a competition, when you know, or at least have good reason to suspect, that it isn't really a competition at all? The camera was running. It was after midnight, and they'd just finished recording a weekly podcast. They just wanted to grab a couple beers and go home, but here I was, an American guy asking who wanted to know if they still felt good about doing their jobs. I'd be going home in a week, to a place where nobody would be waiting outside my door if they didn't like what I said about Greek soccer.
They answered as honestly as they could. When I sent the link to the videos out on Sunday, one of them wrote back to tell me that he'd pretty much forgotten about the interview, and that he'd been stricken for an icy moment when my note appeared and he clicked the link. He wanted to thank me for cutting "the things that could bring (more) troubles."
But I hadn't. He'd censored all of that himself. A soccer journalist who didn't feel like he could speak honestly. About soccer. Brian was right.
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