Home Global Game Europe Why we’re all to blame when it comes to match-fixing

Why we’re all to blame when it comes to match-fixing

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As the editor and proprietor of The 11, I do my best to keep make sure this website doesn’t get called a blog. To me, the best blogs out there are personal, where there’s no real separation between the writer and website itself. One is an expression of the other.

With The 11, I’ve strived to make it read more like a tradtional print magazine; incorporating a lot of writers, covering the games, players and issues surrounding the game as honestly as possible. Yes, there is passion in what we do — but it’s measured by our journalistic instincts. Bloggers often work free of those restraints.

But, over the last few months, what began as a simply gnawing feeling in my gut has grown into a full-blown case of cynicism. And rather than try to hide it, I am going to become a blogger and share a lot of myself with you.

And it has to do with the ugly issue of match-fixing. From a tainted 2009 game in the Canadian Soccer League — a league which itself admits has $185 million gambled on it in a year — to the busting of the Croat ring led by Ante Sapina, to the new Europoli investigation which suggest 680 games have been tampered with, from World Cup qualifiers to Champions League matches. In an article that appeared on ESPN’s site last week, writer Brett Forrest made this stunning statement about the upcoming Gold Cup. “Over coffee in a cafe in one of Singapore’s shopping districts, a prolific fixer explained to me that he had already arranged to rig the entirety of this July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup in the U.S. He wouldn’t touch the championship game, he said, because that wouldn’t be right.”

If Forrest does have an inside track on the major fixes (CLICK HERE FOR HIS ENTIRE PIECE), that means all of Canada’s group-stage games have already been predetermined. (By the way, I have asked CONCACAF for its take on this, and I’ve been promised an answer by early next week). See Thee Rise, all right.

I’ve dedicated a good chunk of my life to Canadian Soccer. I’ve covered World Cup qualifiers since the 1990s. I’ve been on the TFC beat and, by now, most people know me as the colour voice for FC Edmonton on TV and radio.

But, looking back, all of the talk of match fixing makes me wonder if I am lying to myself. I think of the Saturdays I spent at BMO Field, leaving my family at home. I think of waking up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the first Premiership match on the Saturday schedule.

And I wonder, is it all real? It feels like finding out someone you love has been cheating on you the whole time. (I’ll get back to this analogy.)

Are the Hungarian football kits in my closet really about the same as having a bunch of WWE shirts? Am I forcing myself to believe in Santa Claus?

Stabbed in the Heart
In 1986, when Canada played Hungary in the World Cup, I asked my father where his loyalties were. He looked at me and said Canada. No question. It’s our home — we support our neighbours. Hungary was the past. Canada is the present.

Of course, he was right. But I always carried a huge sense of pride in what Hungary had achieved in soccer. When you ask me who’s better, Messi or Pele, my answer is always Puskas. When you ask me who was the greatest soccer mind ever, and my answer is Sebes. I still think Puskas’s equalizer in the 1954 World Cup was wrongfully ruled out for offside. I have a grainy VHS tape that proves it. When I think of how such a tiny country revolutionized soccer, and gave the world a disproportionate number of greats — Puskas, Albert, Kocsis, Hidegkuti — it brings me great pride. We (the Hungarian in me speaking) didn’t win a World Cup, but we did give the world the Match of the Century. And, still almost 70 years later, when historians talk about the greatest game ever played, Hungary 6: England 3 is always in the discussion.

Now, to see so many Hungarian clubs that have either admitted fixing to or been alleged to have cooked matches, it’s like a stab in the heart. I know if my father was still alive, he’d shrug and give me a cynical I-told-you-so look. My late grandfather — who was part of the Hungarian delegation at the 1948 Olympics, who spent time with King George VI in London as part of a celebration of sport — must be rolling in his grave. He bled Ferencvaros green and white.

I say it now. If FIFA is serious, it must sanction Hungary. And Croatia. Now. It must send a message that a nation that provides such fertile ground for match fixers must not be allowed to host international matches of any importance. ?

Then, the authorities need to ask… why? And the answer is damning. We have created a soccer world where so many clubs are struggling to survive, drowned in a spending arms race that’s been launched by clubs that are drowning in debt. To me it’s absolutely hypocritical to tackle match-fixing without also enforcing some strict standards for club solvency — and, no, please, spare me the toothless Financial Fair Play system. Football has been lost to many smaller, poorer nations who see a world which celebrates debt-ridden giants who continue to spend but are not able to get within $400 million of balancing a budget.

And why is that? Why do we have such a system where match-fixing is, for the most part, ignored. Or, for that matter, why do so many of challenging topics facing sport get ignored?

There is a problem inherent to sportswriting. It’s an awesome job. And once you’re in it, you don’t want to lose said job. And with more media ownership of sports teams (“create content!”) the job often is to keep the bosses’ teams in the news as much as possible.

So, the ennui of everyday sports-team business is now reported as “breaking news.” Seriously, play this drinking game on a Saturday night. Every time a sports ticker puts “BREAKING NEWS” in bold next to a news item that is clearly trivial, take a shot.

For example, I was to write: “The NHL team actually shifted the second- and third-line centres at practice today. So, this is how the lineup will look for tomorrow’s somewhat meaningless midseason match between 10th and 11th place teams who we all know don’t have a sniff at the playoffs because, since the introduction of the overtime-loss point, it’s almost impossible to leapfrog two or three teams in the standings because of all the loser points out there. This is really just a story to show the world that I was at practice and I have access to the team, which should keep you reading my column — but, if you stop to think about it, the switching of the second- and third-line centre doesn’t constitute news in any way.”

Well, I’d be fired.

And, in today’s media world, where jobs are scarce — being fired could mean you never work in the business again.

So, what happens? We report minutia as news. We raise the trivial to the ranks of undue importance and we keep the machine going. Why? Because if the sports leagues remain No. 1 in the hearts of fans, they keep reading. They keep watching. We stay in our somewhat low-paying-but-cushy-enough jobs.

Reporting things like match-fixing or the poor business practices of European soccer clubs could help kill the golden geese, which would then in turn kill media interest and media jobs. So, the sportswriter or broadcaster is put in the position of not wanting to cut his or her own throat. So match-fixing goes under-reported. We celebrate Manchester United and Barcelona as wonders of world football, rather than the examples of the debt-infested unsustainable business models that could kill the game. The media will tackle racism — but, cynically, I have to going after racism is a no-brainer.

(I will say this, North American media are better at covering the boardrooms of teams and leagues than their European or South American counterparts. If the Phoenix Coyotes were an English team, no one would really ever report on bad crowds or the arena deals or prospective sale of the club.)

Being Better at Our Jobs
I feel fortunate that I edit a city magazine and I do a lot of writing that has nothing to do with the games people play — it allows me to get away from sports on a regular basis, which I feel makes me a far better sports reporter and writer. I’ve always felt that you win AND lose with beat writers or writers who stick to one sport or league. Sure, a beat writer will develop a rapport with players and managers but, at the same time, even the best get tunnel vision. I’ve always felt a great sportswriter is hatched by working on the news desk.

The coming of the career sportswriter, I feel, has been really poor for journalism. In fact, soon, I think we need to make a distinction between “sports media” and “sports journalism,” because they aren’t necessarily the same.

In a perfect world, without egos and turf protection (and union issues, in some cases), a good editor would be able to shift writers around from beat to beat. I think the best thing for a sportswriter is to make a quick return to the city or business desk, to get back to the roots of good reporting, of having to knock on doors after a murder, or having to fight to get interviews, rather than having them all ready and waiting in a dressing room after the game. It keeps you sharp, keeps your writing fresh — and makes you remember to get to the bottom of a good story, that your work doesn’t need to follow a PR line. (I recommend that any consumer or sports media read Mark Douglas Lowes’ Inside the Sports Pages. (CLICK HERE)

The relationship between leagues and writers has become far too cozy. During the recent NHL lockout, you could sense reporters were begging for the NHL to come back, to get back to the arenas, rather than ask the proper questions, like, how does a league that makes billions in revenues have so many clubs that lose money? What’s flawed in the business plan? What is the league doing wrong?

And I get the same feeling when I watch the match-fixing allegations come and go. FIFA says that most of the 680 games fingered in the Europoli match-fixing investigation have already been handled. No questions are asked about who has been suspended, what teams have been banned. We say, yeah, but look, Liverpool was innocent and, for the most part, we move on.

Killing the Golden Geese
The Champions League and World Cup are dream assignments. Why tarnish their images?

So, unfortunately, we have created a world where match-fixers can hide in plain sight. Even when corruption is under our noses, for the most part, we say, “nothing to see here.”

There are a few cries in the wilderness. Of course, Declan Hill is there, day after day, warning us to simply take notice of what’s happening in front of our eyes. In Canada, I have to give Ben Rycroft props for the work done on CBC and Canadian Soccer News at the issues of the Canadian Soccer League and match-fixing. But the ones that are willing to point the fingers at corruption are far outnumbered by the many who think that a trial for some player who doesn’t have a hope in hell of making a big-league team is front-page news.

The fact that the Europoli story isn’t front page news in every major European sports section is a sign of just how complicit the media have become in putting the shine on sport, even when the mud is dripping from the shirts of everyone involved.

And, all of this has done something terrible to me. It’s made me doubt something that I love. I mentioned earlier that the match-fixing scandal is like finding out someone you love is cheating on you. It’s worse than that. It’s like finding out someone you love is cheating on you, and that all your friends knew but never said anything. And, unfortunately, this is the case with soccer — we are spending too much time focusing on helping fans cheer on their teams, rather than doing our first duty, which is to expose the dark side of the game.

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One Comment

  1. cwell

    February 10, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    A great column! Another aspect is the enormity of the legit gambling trade. As long as billions are being bet legally, it will be difficult/impossible to eliminate fixing. MLS says they have “someone” at Vegas monitoring the situation, but what does that mean. Something the commish should be asked at each and every appearance.

    Keep up the good work.

    Reply

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