By Brian Tuohy
Match fixing in soccer has reached pandemic levels.
In January 2013, FIFA banned 41 players from the Korean K-League for fixing games. Come May, Spain's La Liga began an on-going investigation into charges of match fixing there. Two Turkish soccer clubs were banned from both the Champions League and the Europa League on match fixing allegations in June. Two months later, 22 members of El Salvador's national team were suspended for their involvement in match fixing with 14 of those players ultimately banned for life. Less than a month later, members of Belize's national team admitted to being approached to throw a match versus the United States. Three weeks after that incident, 10 members of Australia's Premier League were arrested for suspicion of match fixing. And just days ago, six alleged fixers were arrested on suspicion of corrupting soccer matches in England. The UK's Telegraph reported that one Singaporean arrested in the English case was secretly recorded saying he could buy a European referee for £20,000 and that, "usually it costs £70,000 for the players."
Out of 53 European countries, 47 currently have national police investigations into the crime of match fixing. At least 13 other national police investigations are ongoing elsewhere in the world. Its ugly hand has touched nations on every continent, with the sole exception of Antarctica. Yet we in America believe our sports to be safe, to be free from such corruption.
Declan Hill would disagree. "I don't think any sport at this moment is safe," he stated bluntly. "I don't think you guys [in the U.S.] have really figured out what's going on and taken that leap of imagination."
Who is Declan Hill to say this? He is a Canadian investigative journalist who over the course of the past decade has become the world's foremost expert on match fixing in soccer. His first book on the subject, titled The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime, became an international best seller and was translated into 20 different languages. He hopes to find similar success with his latest effort, The Insider's Guide to Match-Fixing in Football, which was published in November. Hill describes the book as "Freakonomics meets soccer corruption. It's an intelligent man's guide to understanding soccer corruption."
There is much for fans to comprehend. "This is what is occurring," Hill explained, "the same phenomenon that hit the music industry has now hit the sports corruption industry. We're seeing a globalization of sports corruption. In the same way that ten years ago, if you and I wanted to swap music files, you would've bought a CD, copied it, sent it through the mail, and I would've received it a few days later. Now, that concept is ridiculous. You can send me something online and I can download it in seconds. That is the similar phenomenon in the sports corruption industry where you have well-established networks of gangsters, of fixers, and gambling people literally around the world fixing sporting events on the other side of the world. And we've never seen this before."
Most of these criminal gangs fixing soccer games are based in the Far East, betting heavily within the illicit gambling markets there. Yet because their tentacles extend around the world, the criminals doing the actual bribing of players and referees are often locals to the country in which the fix is made.
"The carnage that this globalization of the sports corruption industry can affect on sports is as bad as the globalization of the music industry," he continued. "Everybody knows what happened to the music industry once this thing really took hold. The piracy, the file sharing, etc. And that's what we're looking at now. We're really looking at a revolution that is going to affect almost every sport on this planet. It's attacked ATP tennis in a major way. It's attacked international soccer. There are leagues in Europe which are actually without credibility now. Once those European leagues go, the fixers are going to turn inevitably to other North American sports. So I urge people in North America to get your defenses up now. Don't wait."
Despite these words of warning, Hill is not an alarmist. "I'm very careful," he explained. "I've never said, 'All games are fixed or all games in such-and-such league are fixed.'" He is simply trying to get the media to offer "a proper balance" on the issue. He's not a sports writer. He never has been. Hill previously investigated the modern-day underground railroad of Iraq, the blood feuds of Kosovo, and the widespread murder of Philippine journalists. He fell into sports when working on a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and PBS's Frontline about the links between Russian organized crime and players in the NHL.
"I was having dinner with the guy who the FBI and U.S. Congress said is head of the Russian mafia, Anzor Kikalishvili," Hill described. "So I said to him, 'I guess you like hockey?' as he was closely connected to NHL star Pavel Bure at the time. And he said, 'Yeah, I like hockey mostly because of Pavel, but I love football.' And he began talking about his presence at the World Cup final in 1994 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. But he wasn't just there; he was actually in the VIP section, the box run by FIFA. And he wasn't just in the very, very important persons' box; he was in the front row alongside Jaoa Havelange and Sepp Blatter, the president and future president of world soccer. That really piqued my curiosity."
Bolstered with a doctorate from Oxford which gave Hill "the stuff that most journalists dream about -- the time and resources that one needs for big, original material," he began investigating corruption in soccer. Hill infiltrated a match-fixer's gang in Asia and witnessed them influence games first-hand. He saw a World Cup match fixed. He felt soccer's soul being ripped from the game with the corruption he chronicled in The Fix. As praise for the book circled the globe, Hill followed; lecturing and answering questions about the sport, match fixing, and the potential solutions for the growing problem at its heart.
What is disconcerting is that Hill's brave work has been largely ignored in the United States by both sports officials and the sports media. As ESPN, FOX Sports, and other outlets force feed American sports fans scores and highlights from the likes of the English Premier League, the UEFA Champions League, the World Cup, and more, there is hardly a mention of the known corruption within the sport.
"I don't mind that US media is bringing in European soccer," Hill explained. "There's a great need for it, and it's a great product and sport obviously. But what I do mind is when they pretend to be journalists. Don't fly under the flag of investigative journalism, and then don't touch this subject matter or steal from the guys that have done it. Do an interview -- critical if you want -- but touch on this issue. It really will threaten the future of sport unless it's dealt with head-on."
While Hill is asked more and more about the possibility of match fixing in North American sports including MLS and NASL (both of which, it is believed, have yet to be touched by fixers), the US sports media avoids any and all open discussions about the subject. "The sports-industrial complex in the US is probably the strongest that I've ever seen," lamented Hill. "I think it's probably because soccer is not one of your major sports so there's just a peeking interest in it. So I get lots of European media because if one broadcaster is broadcasting the league, other competing broadcasters are happy to put on critical television programs. But North American sports are just huge business. It's very, very difficult to get attention in the US."
Why is that? "I think Americans, in terms of sports," Hill commented, "are splendid isolationists. It's almost a 19th century American view of the world. The rest of the world can do what it wants, but we're sticking to our games. And there's an absolute refusal on the part of US authorities and US journalists to consider that an American sporting event might be corrupted. It's an absolute refusal to entertain that thought or even the possibility."
He concluded by adding, "I genuinely hope that this isolationism is based on fact." To a certain extent, it is. Collectively America's Big Four sporting leagues -- the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB -- have not admitted to a fixing or point shaving incident since 1954. However, at the collegiate level the last point shaving scandal occurred in 2012, with many more littered throughout the recent past. Perhaps if the match fixing syndicates which have corrupted soccer worldwide set their sights on America, it is within college basketball and football where they will focus their efforts. For if the fixers' money talks, it will speak loudly among the unpaid athletes in the NCAA.
"The problem is that [America's reluctance] reminds me of Europe in 2005," Hill stated, "and me saying to European sport that the Asians are coming, there's going to be major match fixing in your leagues, and the Europeans are saying, 'Who is this Canadian guy to say this? It's just not possible that this would happen.' Well, boy, don't they wish they had listened to me then?"
Even if America naïvely refuses to acknowledge the worldwide match fixing war, Hill has solutions which might keep the problem off of US soil. They may even stop the problem cold. Many are discussed within the pages of The Insider's Guide to Match-Fixing in Football, but one of the quickest cures is also the simplest. "I'm a white collar boxer and I box every three or four months in Havana, Cuba," he explained. "I'm not a particularly good boxer, but I have the privilege to train with some of world's best coaches. What is immediately obvious is that these guys don't have very much money. Quite often you'll see one pair of boxing gloves being shared around a ring by various fighters. But what they have is intelligence which is what produces gold medals for the Cubans. I think with zero resources but with lots of intelligence, a sports official can fight against this and fight against it very effectively."
How? "One of the things they can do," he expounded, "is just make it easy for players, referees, and team officials to be honest. So appoint an integrity officer and make sure they have an independent office outside the sports organization, including an anonymous phone line that these guys can phone and report corruption. What's the cost of a phone line and an answering machine? That's just the basics you can get into place, and you've gone a long way to stopping this problem."
The key to getting players, referees, and others to use such an anonymous tip line would be to keep it independent from the league or organization on which those people are reporting. Unfortunately, corruption in soccer exists at its highest levels. It is likely, too, that some leagues and national soccer organizations are covering up such incidents because (a) they don't want the publicity and worse (b) they are directly involved.
Hill warns, "The biggest problem now in international soccer is not that Sepp Blatter and the guys in Switzerland are fixing games, it's not the guys around his office that are fixing, but it definitely is that some of the presidents of national soccer associations around the world are. In other words, the same guys that vote for Sepp Blatter have their fingers in fixing. Not many of them, not a huge number, but definitely there are cases of this occurring. So what is the incentive for a guy like Blatter to repeatedly launch investigations against the very guys who will be voting for him in the next election? That's the problem. That's the clear, present conflict of interest that you have in these sports organizations. So that's why I think this fight back against globalized sports corruption must be lead by independent and international agencies and people."
One entity outside of soccer taking a lead role in stopping this crime wave is Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency. It was Europol which issued the stunning report earlier in 2013 stating that perhaps as many as 680 soccer matches had been fixed. But not everyone is following their lead. Hill points an accusatory finger in the direction of Interpol, and for good reason. While Interpol, the world's largest international police organization, runs an "educational campaign" against match fixing in cooperation with FIFA, Hill claimed that Interpol is "pretty much a waste of time. It's a bunch of bureaucrats, a bunch of people who have suddenly seen the prestige of the organization go down because of this. They're not really interested in finding credible long term solutions to stopping fixing."
A primary example of this lack of action comes in the form of Singapore's long standing refusal to arrest a man by the name of Dan Tan, recognized as the head of a criminal organization which was suspected to have fixed matches all over the world. Despite several international arrest warrants and despite knowing where Tan was hiding out, it took nearly a year for Singaporean police to finally place the cuffs on him and members of his crew. Remarkably, Tan and associates were not arrested as match fixers. They were arrested as terrorists.
"They put them away in prison where they never have to testify because they are 'terrorists.'" said an incensed Hill. "And so my suspicion is they're doing this because it's something the Singaporeans don't want discussed in public. And if we don't discuss everything in public, if we don't make a massive scandal of this, and we don't clean up the game properly, we won't get any potential Mr. Bigs out from behind these networks. We're just going to repeat the problem."
Another of Hill's solutions arises from the game's previous criminal headache -- the soccer hooligan. "I think the situation is very akin to the situation we had in European soccer in the 1980s," Hill related, "where you had the English football hooligans going around killing people. Eventually, soccer authorities said to the English, 'Hey, look, no disrespect to your country, but your criminals are traveling to our country and they're killing our people. So you're not welcome to the sport until you get rid of that problem.' And who better than English police to arrest English hooligans? Who better to than Asian police to arrest Asian match fixers? This is what we have to do. We have to push these organizations. We have to make them pull their socks up and do something about their people who are traveling to our countries and fixing our sports."
Despite all of these suggestions and ideas, is anyone willing to listen to Hill and take his wisdom to heart? It appears so, but getting the machinations of institutions like FIFA and Interpol to change will take time. "There are a lot of decent people out there," Hill assured. He deals with them on a daily basis. But while we all await true change to come, games continue to be corrupted.
That may be a good thing in disguise. "I think we're one enormous scandal away from this being taken very, very seriously," Hill mused. "And the problem is that the Dan Tan thing should be the enormous scandal, and instead, they are trying frantically to cover up the extent and the reach of this guy's network and who were his backers." Perhaps with match fixing now hitting home in England, more will pay attention to Hill's assertions. The World Cup looms in 2014, and while Hill cannot predict if the fixers will be out in force at the prestigious international tournament, history would dictate they will.
"I love sports," Hill swore, "and I've argued that I love sports more than those that work in this sports-industrial complex. It's time for sports officials, wherever they are in the world, to wake up and start putting into place plans -- effective, serious plans -- to fight against this."
There is a ray of hope. "At least people are now talking about this when before they wouldn't," Hill stated. "But I think they're pushing in the wrong direction in the fight against match fixing and that's why the second book has come out, saying, 'here's the intelligence, here's the statistics, here's the issue, now let's start making proper campaigns against these guys.' Because if you look at the evidence -- which is ample in the book -- these guys can be beat. It just takes a bit of intelligence and we can get cracking on this."
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Brian Tuohy has been called America's leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he's just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He's also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website thefixisin.net.