Most adored as well as most…

The world’s most adored game can well be its most corrupt too and the match fixers’ refined worldwide web always puts them a step ahead of the rule-bound investigating agencies. By Ayon Sengupta.

Glorious uncertainty is definitely the most interesting and exhilarating aspect of any sport. It is this uncertainty that appeals to the gambler instinct in each one of us and hence betting on sporting events is as ancient as the early Olympics in Greece. But the ever-active human greed has over the years sullied both sports as well as the calculative art of gambling with individuals trying to fix outcomes to do away with this uncertainty.

Fixing has become an integral coinage in the game and every sport has failed to save itself from this vicious vice. Football, the most popular sport in the world, too has fallen prey to this scourge. According to Interpol figures, sports betting is a $1 trillion industry, with football accounting for 70 percent of it. In a recent study, Fifpro (International Federation of Professional Footballers) interviewed 3,357 professional players in Eastern Europe and found 41 percent had not received their salaries on time, while 12 percent said they had been asked to manipulate a match — a figure that rose sharply for those paid late.

The earliest and most unlikely of football fixes dates back to the pre-World War era in a game between Liverpool and Manchester United. With the Manchester club staring at relegation, a mid-table Liverpool did utmost to save its rival from crashing down, including a missed penalty, to hand United a 2-0 win. Visibly irate Liverpool players even remonstrated against Fred Pagnam for taking a shot at goal. He later testified against his colleagues and this saw three players from United and four from Liverpool banned for life.

Jumping to the international stage, in 1978, the Argentine junta, facing opposition at home for its mis-governance, used the World Cup to instil patriotic fervour and give legitimacy to its power. The host nation, needing to beat Peru 4-0 to see off Brazil and advance to the final, went one better, winning 6-0. Up by two goals at half-time, the Argentines scored four more with Peru goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga (born in Argentina) making little attempt to save his side.

At the ’82 World Cup in Spain, it was the turn of West Germany and Austria to fix. The match, the last in Group 2, with Algeria having beaten Chile 3-2 the day before, saw Germany winning 1-0, ensuring the qualification of both teams involved , at the expense of the Algerians. The Germans scored in the opening 10 minutes and for the rest of the game, both sides passed the ball around, with players refusing to tackle or attack while jeers and sneers rained from the stands. Although the sacrilegious result was never overturned, FIFA at last, at least, decided to hold the final group games simultaneously.

Meanwhile, in East Germany, under the patronage of Erich Mielke, head of the East German Secret Police (the Stasi), Dynamo Berlin was on a fixed-induced unbeatable run, winning 10 league titles in a row (1979-88). The secret police did its best as referees were arranged, players unfairly transferred and opposing teams intimidated. The Stasi, however, failed to have the same clout in Europe and Dynamo could never progress beyond the semifinals there.

But Hungarian Dezso Solti had no such problems and did admirably well to ensure Inter Milan’s victory at the European Cup in 1964 and ’65, buying match officials with money and expensive cars. In the 1963-64 European Cup semifinal Yugoslav referee Branko Tesanic completely overlooked Inter’s Spanish playmaker Luis Suarez’s high-boot challenge on a Borussia Dortmund player. And at the same stage, a year later, Inter’s Joaquin Peiro kicked the ball out of Liverpool goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence’s hands to score as the referee stood oblivious. Sportstar columnist Brian Glanville, then working for Sunday Times, extensively wrote about this with inputs from whistleblower referees Gyorgy Vadas and Francisco Marques Lobo to finally end Solti’s evil reign.

Italy, again, was plagued by the Totonero scandals in 1980. The Italian police made a series of arrests at half-time in the fixtures of March 23, and over 30 players (including Paolo Rossi) and seven clubs (AC Milan and Lazio were relegated to Serie B) were eventually punished.

The Mafia-dominated Serie A had another scandal ahead of 2006, christened Calciopoli. Italian investigators taped phone conversations of Juventus general manager, Luciano Moggi with Serie A officials, trying to secure favourable referees for his team. The club was relegated to Serie B, docked nine points and stripped of its two latest league titles.

Earlier, this February, Europol, after a 19-month investigation (code named Operation Veto), announced that as many as 680 games had been fixed worldwide over the past few years. The extent was staggering: close to 150 international games, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America; roughly 380 matches in Europe, covering World Cup and European championship qualifiers as well as two Champions League fixtures. The agency discovered a wide-ranging network of fixing embedded intrinsically to the core of the game, with profits amounting to $11 million and $3 million paid in bribes.

Europol’s revelation was linked to the arrest of Singapore national Wilson Perumal, once a close associate of Dan Tan Seet Eng, who operates a huge fixing syndicate from the island-state. The 48-year-old — accused of keeping the football world in the dark by switching off the floodlights during a Champions League match between Barcelona and Fenerbahce in September 2001 in an attempt to get the game called off — moves freely in the city’s social circles despite an arrest warrant from an Italian court and an Interpol lookout notice.

Brazen enough, Perumal and his boss even organised “fixed” international friendlies in the seaside resort town of Antalya, Turkey, between Latvia-Bolivia and Estonia-Bulgaria in 2011, with referees delivering pre-decided results (all goals were scored from penalties).

By the looks of it, the world’s most adored game can well be its most corrupt too and the match fixers’ refined worldwide web always puts them a step ahead of the rule-bound investigating agencies. So devastatingly for football, there will be no quick solution despite the desperate need for it.