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Soccer's credibility crisis deepens

FOX Soccer's Rob Stone discusses match-fixing topics with Declan Hill.
FOX Soccer's Rob Stone discusses match-fixing topics with Declan Hill.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Soccer is mired in a credibility crisis.

For the fourth time in ten years, the world’s game is enmeshed a major match-fixing scandal. After bribery cases rocked Italian soccer in both 2006 and 2012 and the Turkish league was implicated in widespread corruption in 2011, Europol, the European Union’s organized crime hunters, revealed that their investigation found at least 680 games to have been fixed worldwide in recent years.

Match-fixing was previously thought to be a problem of the world’s smaller leagues, where foreign betting syndicates can typically interfere with impunity; or leagues like Italy’s and Turkey’s, where the big clubs run the show and may choose to further their own cause illegally. But Europol found that a UEFA Champions League match played in England and several World Cup and European Championship qualifiers might have been tampered with, too.

The web of fixed or influenced games was traced by Italian investigators to a single organized crime network in Singapore, allegedly run by a man identified in an arrest warrant as Tan Seet Eng. Tan, also known as Dan Tan, is alleged to have overseen a multi-national fixing ring with a global reach. Some 425 match officials, club officials, players and outside criminals are suspects. But, says Europol, this might merely be the “tip of the iceberg.”

Even the outcome of a friendly game between the US and El Salvador in Feb. 2010 might have been touched by corruption according to a report on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines”. The Americans aren’t believed to have known that their opponents were approached by match-fixers, but video shows that the defending of several El Salvadoran players noticeably dipped in the second half, allowing the US to pull out a 2-1 win in the final minutes. FIFA has confirmed El Salvador is under investigation.

More urgent to the United States, however, is the mounting evidence that it was cheated out of hosting the 2022 World Cup. That edition of the tournament was awarded to Qatar, a country not known for soccer. A recent exposé by French soccer magazine France Football made a compelling argument that both direct and indirect bribery of FIFA’s 24-man Executive Committee was involved in awarding the Cup to the Middle Eastern nation. [Qatar has repeatedly denied all such allegations.] Yet if World Cup games can be fixed, it’s perfectly conceivable that the awarding of the game’s biggest money-spinner itself can too.

“We always knew it was going to be an election and not a computer-generated result,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who spearheaded the bid reiterated last week -- pointing out that the American bid was the most logical. Gulati claims the USA could have sold up to 50 percent more tickets than any other country and that the USA didn’t need much by way of infrastructure or technological upgrades to put on the tournament, unlike the rival bids.

The result left U.S. Soccer somewhat disillusioned with the process. “Would we bid in the future? Sure,” said Gulati. “But the rules are going to have to be different for us to bid. The rules need to be much stronger, much stricter about what’s okay and what’s not okay.”

Snubbing the USA in 2022 was only the latest in a series of odd World Cup hosting decisions. England made the most sense for the 2018 edition, which instead went to Russia, where soccer has a pungent racism problem and human rights are forever in peril.

For 2014, FIFA chose Brazil, a country plagued by serious problems of corruption and violence. Most recently, a visiting Argentinean club accused local police of threatening and physically abusing them into forfeiting the final of a prestigious continental tournament. In 2010, the World Cup was held in South Africa, which had to take on crippling debt to satisfy FIFA’s colossal demands. In addition, several local federation administrators in South Africa are now thought to have fixed several national team games surrounding the tournament.

In fact, FIFA has never managed to shed the impression that it is crooked all the way to the top. Long-time president Sepp Blatter, a man prone to serious errors in judgment (he once infamously suggested women’s soccer teams should play in more revealing clothing) is thought to owe his own longevity to corruption, seemingly tolerating the bribery of the Executive Committee while systemically ousting anyone aspiring to his position through investigations – all while quashing any into his own actions.

Professional sports exist by the grace of their credibility. They are the ultimate reality television, and once the material is tainted by the specter of scripting, when it transpires that the outcome is pre-arranged and inorganic, they lose all appeal. When the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series, it almost killed baseball. The all-powerful NBA’s integrity wobbled when referee Tim Donaghy was found to have fixed games in 2007.

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“FIFA has to go in there and clean everything up with no compromises at all,” urged USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a former world-class player. “I was myself involved as a player [at Monaco] where [we] had the French championship taken away, and lost out on big trophies 20 or 25 years ago because of people [rival club Olympique Marseille fixing games]. The Italian scandal came out a few years ago and that went all the way back to the days when I was playing there. If there is proof for it, just go in there and find it all out.”

Soccer presently suffers other blights. Racism, fan violence and shady player-transfer dealings that verge on human trafficking pose daunting challenges. But it’s corruption that has historically brought down entire empires.

If soccer doesn't get its affairs in order, corruption could start chipping away at this empire, too.

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