By Brian Tuohy
Aside from wondering which national team will be crowned champion, for astute soccer fans the burning question of the upcoming 2014 World Cup is not can matches be fixed by gamblers, but will they be?
FIFA assures us that every precaution has been taken to prevent match fixers from corrupting any games played in Brazil. The organization has begun an "Integrity Initiative" among players, featuring the catchy mantra "Recognize it, resist it and report it." To aid in this program, FIFA instituted a hotline for players, team officials and referees to report "suspicious activity" anonymously. The hotline also offers educational material (in five languages) catered to each group match fixers tend to target.
FIFA also has its Early Warning System (EWS) in place. Launched in July 2007, the EWS, according to FIFA's website, "monitors betting on all FIFA matches and competitions in order to prevent negative influences from betting. EWS also works to evaluate any opportunities and risks presented by sports betting for the game of football." Staffed by dedicated personnel in Zurich, the EWS monitors every single FIFA-sanctioned match, searching for unusual movements within the odds and betting that may signal a fix is in progress.
Despite these efforts, there are still huge, gaping holes. Ralf Mutschke, FIFA's head of security and a former INTERPOL executive, told the BBC that FIFA has already circled certain World Cup matches that they feel may become suspect. Mutschke also revealed that specific teams have been identified as being vulnerable to fixers. Worse yet, approaches to these teams and players have already occurred. "I've had reports that people are approaching players and offering $20,000 without a grooming period," Mutschke told the BBC. Given the amount of money at stake in the World Cup gambling market, players -- if tempted -- should be holding out for larger bribes.
According to the Guardian, the 2014 World Cup is shaping up to be the biggest betting event in United Kingdom history. Perhaps more than £1 billion will be wagered through the legal sports books there. Here in the United States, Las Vegas will see a healthy amount of soccer wagering as well. Jay Kornegay, vice president of the LVH Superbook, told Covers.com, "Overall, there's a lot more betting interest to it than the average American fan would believe." Kornegay added that during the tournament, soccer betting likely will outpace the wagers placed on MLB games "a few times over."
In general, FIFA has maintained an ambivalent view toward fans gambling upon their sport. The organization has not come out against gambling, nor has it actively encouraged it. Gambling websites, including sports wagering operations, have sponsored teams and tournaments. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa -- where warm-up matches undoubtedly were fixed (perhaps with the aid of South African soccer officials) -- FIFA allowed bookmakers to set up shop right outside the event venues.
The primary area of concern for Mutschke and the rest of FIFA isn't the legal gambling; it's what they cannot monitor or control: the vast, illegal gambling market in Asia. No one can say with any certainty how much money is being wagered there on soccer matches, but estimates for this World Cup run as high as $1 billion in wagers per match. Is it any wonder that Asia is where the majority of match-fixing syndicates originate?
FIFA and law enforcement touted the recent round-up in Singapore of 18 people, alleged to be part of a multi-million dollar illegal soccer betting ring, and $1.4 million in cash was collected in raids relating to illegal gambling. According to law enforcement officials, this soccer gambling ring booked over $6 million in bets in the course of just two weeks. Arrests like these are a mere bump in the road for match fixers.
Like the Greek myth of the Hydra, if you cut off one head, two regenerate in its place. Two of the most well known match fixers, Dan Tan and Wilson Raj Perumal, may be in custody, but that doesn't mean the problem is under control. In February 2012, FIFPro, the worldwide union of professional soccer players, released the results of a survey of thousands of its members from Eastern and Southern Europe. The numbers were shocking, as almost a quarter of the players (23.6 percent) admitted to being aware of match fixing in their respective leagues. Nearly 45 percent of respondents in Russia (home to the 2018 World Cup) answered similarly. Even worse, approximately 12 percent of players admitted to being approached to fix a match.
The root cause for much of this corruption is the non-payment of players. Few soccer fans realize that athletes don't necessarily get paid to play in the World Cup. FIFA hands the money that's intended to go to the athletes to the executives of each national team. This cash is then to be transferred to the players. Of course, given the state of corruption within FIFA, what is supposed to happen often differs greatly from what does happen, nationalism be damned. Without pay, many players (especially from Third World countries) are not going to trot onto the field and give their best effort. Not when they witness the amount of money being shelled out by fans, bettors and corporations on each and every match as it's televised across the globe. With the proper bribe, the wise fixer can profit easily from this disparity.
We may have already seen this process in action. The recent World Cup warm-up match between Scotland and Nigeria allegedly was influenced, even though it ended in a 2-2 draw. While fixing a match to end in a tie may seem strange, the actual machinations of a fix are not necessarily what one expects. Fixers often are interested in the total number of goals scored (the under/over) or the margin of victory, but spot fixing targets smaller aspects of the game, such as throw-ins, corner kicks and penalties. These sorts of manipulations are much more difficult for the EWS to detect.
While FIFA's security division will be in Brazil, ready to meet with each player, team official and referee as they step off the plane, there is one dark corner that remains unexplored. That resides within each respective country's national soccer federation. For the World Cup, allegations of nations fixing the outcomes of soccer matches -- including the championship game itself -- are not unheard of.
One person adding fuel to what most may chalk up as "conspiracy talk" is perhaps the most surprising: former FIFA president Joao Havelange. In 2008, Havelange stated in an interview with Folha de Sao Paulo that both the 1966 and 1974 World Cups were fixed. The 92-year old Havelange just may have been bolstering his own national team -- this year's host Brazil -- by making these claims, or he might have been revealing a long-held secret.
Led by soccer legend Pele, the Brazilian team appeared unstoppable, winning both the 1962 and 1970 World Cups. But Havelange alleged that England and Germany conspired to break the country's dominance by rigging the 1966 and 1974 tournaments. There is a case to be made for Havelange's claim.
Hosted by England, the 1966 World Cup tournament saw Brazil bow out in the first round. One of the main reasons for the quick departure was that two of Brazil's opponents, Bulgaria and Hungary, repeatedly fouled Pele to the point of injuring him. As Havelange pointed out, "In the three matches that the Brazilian national team played in 1966, of the three referees and six linesmen, seven were British and two were Germans … Brazil went out, Pele 'exited' through injury, and England and Germany entered into the final, just as the Englishman Sir Stanley Rous, who was the President of FIFA at the time, had wanted."
England went on to win the 1966 World Cup, but not without help. In England's quarterfinal match against Argentina, German referee Rudolf Kreitlein red carded Argentinean captain Antonio Rattin for arguing a call. Rattin was so angered by this that British police were needed to escort him from the field. Shorthanded, Argentina fell 1-0 in what the country labeled "the robbery of the century." Lending more credence to Havelange's claim is the fact that West Germany beat Uruguay in the quarterfinals 4-0, thanks in part to English referee Jim Finney. Here, the English referee not only sent off a pair of Uruguayan players, but he overlooked a handstop by a German that would have given Uruguay a goal.
Havelange alleged that the 1974 World Cup was a repeat of 1966, only with host country West Germany swapping places with England. "In Germany, in 1974, the same thing happened. During the Brazil-Holland match, the referee was German, we [Brazil] lost 2-0, and Germany won the title." Interestingly, the final pitted home Germany against the same Holland team that ended Brazil's run. The referee for this match? Englishman Jack Taylor. Germany won 2-1, coming back from a 1-0 deficit with the help of a goal scored on a penalty kick.
Four years later, Brazil was again on the short end of the stick, albeit due to a fix with more political motives. Two years prior to hosting the 1978 World Cup, Argentina endured the overthrow of its government, as Jorge Videla became the nation's dictator. Despite the nation's circumstances, the Argentinean team played well enough to advance to the second round. One team stood in the way of reaching the finals: Brazil.
In this era of the World Cup, teams did not play a single-elimination tournament after the first round to determine a champion. Instead, another round of three games was played, with the two teams possessing the best record advancing to the final. In the case of a tie, each team's total goal differential acted as the tiebreaker. As it happened, Brazil won two of its three of its games (tying Argentina 0-0 in the other) by a margin of five goals. Argentina won its first game, but only by a score of 2-0. To advance to the final, it would have to not just defeat Peru, but win by four goals.
That's when a deal was struck, in an incident confirmed in 2012 by Peruvian senator Genaro Ledesma. More concerned with the rebelliousness of its citizenry than soccer, Peru's president Francisco Bermudez struck a deal with Videla. The Peruvian team would lose by the four-goal margin; in exchange, Videla would allow Bermudez to exile 13 Peruvian political dissidents to Argentina, where they would be held as prisoners. As Senator Ledesma explained, "Videla needed to win the World Cup to cleanse Argentina's bad image around the world. So he only accepted the group if Peru allowed the Argentina national team to triumph." They did, beating Peru 6-0 to advance to the final match versus the Netherlands. Argentina went on to win the championship.
More shenanigans followed. In the 1982 World Cup, a first-round match between Austria and West Germany apparently was fixed. Both clubs would advance to the second round if West Germany won by the exact score of 1-0. Eleven minutes into the match, West Germany scored. From that point on, the match was an exercise in futility, as that 1-0 score held -- to both teams' benefit. Despite a protest from Algeria, whose national team wound up on the outside looking in thanks to the fix, FIFA allowed the result to stand.
Skip ahead to the 2002 World Cup, and once again a host nation appeared to be given favorable treatment. Tournament co-host South Korea surprisingly advanced out of the first round to the Round of 16 "knockout" stage. There, its miraculous run continued by beating Italy and then Spain, on what many felt were questionable calls in South Korea's favor. South Korea would not reach the final match, however, settling for a fourth-place finish.
At the 2006 World Cup, allegations surfaced that France paid Brazil $25 million to throw its quarterfinals match. An email supposedly was leaked reading, "The Brazilians have taken compensation from the French that exceeds the winners' trophy prize, so they're now very cautious." France won 1-0, with Brazil managing only a single shot on goal. Adding to suspicion, none of the Brazilian star players would speak with the press after the match.
Then, just prior to the last World Cup, Lord Triesman, who was the head of the English Football Association, resigned his post after a recording surfaced of him speaking about how Spanish football authorities were attempting to bribe referees in the upcoming tournament. As it turned out, perhaps coincidentally, a Spanish referee controversially red carded a German player, costing the heavily favored German team a 1-0 loss to Serbia in the first round. While the defeat didn't prevent Germany from reaching the knockout stage, the irony of the controversy came when Germany lost 1-0 to Spain, who went on to win the entire tournament.
FIFA stands by its PR statement that all will be well for the 2014 World Cup. It says the fixers will not reach out onto the field to alter the outcome of any games. But if history is any guide, controversy is certain to follow.
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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