By Brian Tuohy
Imagine being told that at least three of the NFL's 32 teams were so corrupt that they may have thrown more than one game during the season. Would you feel that the team crowned Super Bowl champion was a true victor? Unfortunately for soccer fans around the globe, this is the reality of the situation with the current World Cup. At least three national teams -- Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon -- have questions surrounding them, while a few other eyebrow-raising incidents during the tournament have brought the specter of match-fixing once again to the forefront of the so-called "Beautiful Game."
This is a point that cannot be overstated: Games played in the world's most popular sport during the world's most watched sporting event may have been fixed. It has happened in the past, and may have occurred as recently as within the past month. If this is true, if this sort of behavior cannot be prevented despite supposed best efforts, then every sport in every country -- including America's beloved NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL -- should have serious concerns.
Of course, some would argue that it's not as bad as it seems, even within soccer. FIFPro, the international soccer players' union, conducted an anonymous survey of some 1,500 athletes from eight countries regarding gambling and match-fixing within their sport. The way the UK's Daily Mail reported it, there's little to worry about when it comes to match-fixing within the highest levels of English soccer. But in reality, the results were frightening. Of the 111 English players surveyed, nine athletes (eight percent) admitted to gambling within their own sport. In Scotland, 27 of the 84 respondents (32 percent) also indicated that they bet on soccer, while one player admitted to being approached to fix a game and another declared that he had played in a fixed match. In Greece, where economic issues have enveloped the county, it's even worse, with 29 of 211 players (14 percent) responding that they played in a fixed match and 139 players (66 percent) acknowledging that one or more matches within the past year had been fixed. Imagine if such numbers came out relating to NFL games. How would fans here respond? By believing a FIFPro-like "all is well" emanating from the NFLPA's PR department?
Unfortunately for soccer fans, we know that there's corruption at the highest levels of FIFA. Look no further than the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar for proof. There have been questions raised about the supposed "random" World Cup draw, which seeded teams into their respective groups (and which placed the U.S. team in the supposed "Group of Death"). World Cup matches have been fixed in the past as well, both by gamblers and perhaps by national soccer federations. So when as a casual fan, you see Uruguay's Luis Suarez bite Italian player Giorgio Chiellini, are you supposed to believe that was a truly random occurrence? Suarez is perhaps one of the top 20, if not top 10, strikers in the world, and here he gets disqualified from the World Cup -- essentially destroying his national team's hopes of winning -- by biting another player?
This World Cup tournament literally got off on the wrong foot to begin with when host country Brazil scored an own-goal in its match versus Croatia. Then the Brazilians charged back to win 3-1; however, many felt this victory was made hollow with the apparent favoritism referee Yuichi Nishimura showed toward the home team. Nishimura was later demoted due to his officiating in that match. As England, Spain and Portugal bumbled their way out of the tournament, it felt as if the road was being paved -- not accidentally -- for Brazil to reach the finals. That belief came to a screeching halt when Germany blasted Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals (a score which itself begs a few questions).
The stage also appeared set for another would-be conspiracy when the U.S. and German teams each needed a mere draw in their match to secure a place in the knockout stage of the tournament. In every way, an agreed-upon draw would make perfect sense, yet lack true sportsmanship (and any gambler with such foreknowledge could make a fortune). Such a conspiracy was never initiated, though, as the U.S. lost 1-0. To ensure that America would advance, it needed help from the underperforming Portugal team in its match against Ghana. And it's here, perhaps, where the conspiracy becomes real.
No team benefited from Ghana's poor play more than the U.S. Had the U.S. lost its opening match to Ghana -- which seemed to outplay the Americans in every way but the final score -- and had Ghana defeated Portugal, it's quite possible that the feel-good story of Team USA would have never existed. In that match versus Portugal, Ghana gave the game away; first with an own-goal (albeit an amazing shot had it been intentional), and then with an unfortunate goalie deflection which set up Portugal's superstar Cristiano Ronaldo with a "gimme," game-winning goal.
The problem was that Ghana's team was for sale. As revealed in a pre-World Cup report co-investigated by the UK's Telegraph and the British Channel 4 program Dispatches, "the President of Ghana's Football Association agreed for the team to play in international matches that others were prepared to rig." While the Ghana Football Association (GFA) called for police to investigate these allegations, at the same time, its national team was going unpaid.
The easiest way for match fixers to operate is to find a team lacking in money and bribe them. Investigative reporter Declan Hill witnessed first-hand Ghana's national team throw games for gamblers at the 2006 World Cup and wrote about the incident in his book The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime. Apparently nothing has changed in eight years within the GFA, as players demanded their World Cup appearance fee be paid prior to that critical match against Portugal. Representatives for the GFA told reporters that $3 million in cash was being flown into Brazil to meet those demands, but it's not clear if that ever really happened.
Ghana, even as a losing team, is set to receive $8 million from FIFA for its participation in the World Cup ($35 million goes to the champions), but that money won't be delivered until well after the tournament is completed. There have been numerous complaints over the years by players from African nations regarding these payments: They never see a dime from their respective soccer federation. This is why the players demanded money on the spot in Brazil by threatening to boycott their next match. Even with such an embarrassment looming, FIFA put Ghana's request for early payment "under evaluation." The Ghanaian team only took the field after a promise of future payment came from President John Dramani Mahama.
Even with the money "guaranteed," all was still not well within Ghana's team. Two players, Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng, were kicked off the squad prior to their match against Portugal: Muntari for an alleged physical attack against a GFA committee member, and Boateng for "verbal insults" aimed at coach Kwesi Appiah. After his tournament was over, Adam Larsen Kwarasey, Ghana's goalie in the match versus the U.S., publicly stated of the World Cup, "It was a sick experience." Commenting on his teammates' suspensions, Larsen Kwarasey added, "I think it was unfair. I don't think they did anything wrong. They stood up for the rest of the players. They spoke out, they told the truth. The truth was maybe too much for the guys running the FA." What the truth was, however, remained elusive, though Larsen Kwarasey was considering quitting the national team.
Despite reaching the knockout stage for the first time since 1998, Nigeria was undergoing the same money woes as Ghana. As the website AllAfrica reported, "[The Nigerian] camp had been embroiled by division, tension, internal dissent even before they kicked the first ball against Iran. They protested their accommodation at Victoria Hotels in Campinas and muted the idea of holding [the Nigerian Football Federation] to the jugular if their appearance fees were not paid. The assurances of Senate President, David Mark, could not assuage their hunger for money …"
As Nigeria stood poised to enter the quarterfinals, money was still an issue. As Al Jazeera reported, "On Thursday, the players boycotted training, demanding part payment of their agreed appearance fee for the tournament. This was because they feared they will not be paid their $30,000 per player bonus for reaching the second round, a situation that was witnessed after last year's Confederations Cup." Much as with Ghana, it took a promise of payment from Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to get the team back on the pitch. It's quite likely that this off-field drama assisted France in knocking Nigeria out of the tournament with a 2-0 victory.
As the Nigerian team feared non-payment for their efforts, it's unsurprising to learn that a match fixer was caught prior to the World Cup stating that he had at least two Nigerian players in his control. Coming on the heels of an alleged fixed friendly played between Scotland and Nigeria, football agent Henry Chukwuma Okoroji was caught on film in Milan, Italy, trying to sell controlled events during this World Cup. Okoroji claimed that he could arrange a yellow card for £41,000 (approximately $70,000) and a penalty for £81,000 ($138,000). He added he was traveling to Brazil to monitor the plot, telling the investigators, "Hundred per cent, two [Nigerian] players. It's left up to you people what you want to do. You will pay for a yellow or a red card or a penalty." Nigeria was issued three yellow cards during its four World Cup matches and allowed one goal on a free kick by superstar Lionel Messi in its 3-2 loss to Argentina.
Despite the money problems within the Nigerian and Ghanaian camps, only Cameroon has officially launched an investigation into its national team for fixing matches at this World Cup. Convicted match fixer Wilson Raj Perumal allegedly predicted on the German magazine Der Spiegel's Facebook page that Cameroon would lose 4-0 and have a man sent off in the first half in its match versus Croatia. Both statements turned out to be accurate. Perumal is a subject unto himself. Some, including Chris Eaton, FIFA's former head of security and the current director of the International Centre for Sport Security, don't trust a word coming from Perumal's lips. Yet, there's little doubt Perumal has run with the organized crime elements which are fixing soccer matches all over the world.
For its part, Cameroon's football federation took Perumal's remarks seriously. It issued a statement on June 30, reading in part:
"Recent allegations of fraud around Cameroon 2014 FIFA World Cup three preliminary games, especially Cameroon vs. Croatia, as well of the 'existence of seven bad apples' in our national team do not reflect the values and principles promoted by our administration, in line with FIFA Code of Conduct and the ethics of our nation. We wish to inform the general public that, though not yet contacted by FIFA in regards to this affair, our administration has already instructed its Ethics Committee, to further investigate these accusations."
There are interesting tidbits surrounding Cameroon's play. They lost all three matches by a combined score of 9-1, which included a goal given up in the 85th minute to Brazil in a 4-1 loss which just so happened to cover the 2.5-goal spread for gamblers. In the contested match against Croatia, Alex Song punched a Croatian player, causing the first half red card (as Perumal predicted), and in the second half, Cameroon's Benoit Assou-Ekotto attempted to headbutt teammate Benjamin Moukandjo. To top it all off, according to The Big Lead, Cameroon couldn't hit the broadside of a barn with its shots on goal as "Total shot counts during Cameroon's matches were relatively even, 42 to 46. Cameroon managed just 4/42 shots on target. Opponents had 24/46 on target."
This is just what has transpired so far; the World Cup isn't quite completed yet. Regardless of what comes to light from here on, international soccer's life is on the line. If the game cannot, or refuses to, clean itself up, the damage could be substantial.
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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