Column: 1st casualty of match fixing is innocence

It’s a sad reflection on our times that an amazing scoreline in

soccer this week sparked doubt when it should just have inspired

awe. Conspiracy theorists with unsubstantiated mutterings of a

possible fix prevented Lyon from simply basking in its 7-1 rout of

Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League, devaluing the remarkable

achievement. With good reason, the French club was angry and

hurt.

Yet skeptics also can point to good reasons why it is hard and

even unwise these days not to be suspicious about what happens on

the field, or to accept all results at face value. Those reasons

are clearly identified. They even have names.

Like Ante Sapina and Marijo Cvrtak. Those match fixers are

serving 5 1/2-year prison sentences in Germany for manipulating

more than 20 games, including a 2010 World Cup qualifier between

Liechtenstein and Finland, a Champions League qualifier between

Debrecen of Hungary and Fiorentina of Italy, Europa League matches

and games in leagues in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium,

Turkey, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Canada.

Phone taps caught Sapina and accomplices honing plans to corrupt

the referee of a 2009 Europa League match, with one saying:

”Listen! If you can somehow ensure that the home team wins by two

goals in the second half. Only the second half … Do you

understand? And you can bet on that.”

The Ukrainian referee later acknowledged to UEFA investigators

that fixers ”told him that he would be a millionaire in two to

three years from now by manipulating certain games,” according to

the Court of Arbitration for Sport panel that upheld his life ban

from soccer this January.

Another name is Wilson Raj Perumal, from Singapore. He is

serving a 2-year prison sentence in Finland for bribing players and

fixing league matches there. FIFA also linked Perumal to a

conspiracy to fix games in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central

and South America.

Those are just two of many possible examples, just two of the

good reasons to not be naive. It seems that each week brings new

reports from somewhere around the globe – most recently, Turkey,

where 93 people have been charged – of the threat posed to sports

by fixers and gambling syndicates getting rich by manipulating

results. Because this corruption is underground and

under-the-table, it’s impossible to know exactly how far and deep

the rot has spread.

Suffice to say that for UEFA President Michel Platini ”match

fixing has become the favorite pastime of organized criminal

networks” and ”an evil as profound as it is intangible.”

And the first casualty of fixers is our innocence.

Skeptics like the Twitter user (at)PrimlyStable – who wondered

online whether the Zagreb-Lyon match was fixed – perhaps shouldn’t

have jumped to conclusions so quickly and without solid proof.

Yet one cannot fault them for doing so. That is not a swipe at

Lyon or Dinamo Zagreb, it’s just a sign of the times.

Even if the vast majority of the 29,000 games that Platini’s

organization monitors per season for indications of betting fraud

and fixing are clean, it’s not surprising that minds have been

dirtied by games that were not. Aside from fixing itself, it is the

perception of corruption that presents such a mortal danger to

sports. Because if many minds start to suspect that results are

fixed even when they are not that could turn them off and away.

Saddest of all, it could stop fans believing in that magic

ingredient which makes sports such addictive entertainment: the

unexpected.

Like Lyon beating Dinamo 7-1.

As Judge Jeremy Cooke said to the three Pakistan cricketers he

sentenced last month in one of the biggest fixing scandals to

tarnish that sport: ”Now, whenever people look back on a

surprising event in a game or a surprising result or whenever in

the future there are surprising events or results, followers of the

game who have paid good money to watch it live or to watch it on TV

… will be led to wonder whether there has been a fix and whether

what they have been watching is a genuine contest between bat and

ball.”

Tragic.

But that cynicism must be kept in check, too. Although suspicion

without proof may be understandable, it also is unfair and will

ruin our enjoyment if we let it take hold.

Yes, it was amazing that everything happened just as it needed

to for Lyon on Wednesday night. To advance to the last 16 of the

Champions League, Lyon needed both a deluge of goals against Dinamo

and for Ajax to lose the other Group D game against Real

Madrid.

Yes, it was surprising the unlikely scenario actually

unfolded.

But aren’t surprising and amazing why we watch sports?

By themselves, they do not have to mean that a 7-1 scoreline

must be too good to be true.

Nor did the wink that Dinamo defender Domagoj Vida appeared to

direct at Bafetimbi Gomis as he helped the Lyon forward pluck the

ball out of the net after the French team’s fifth goal constitute

proof of anything. It should, in fairness to all those who sweat

and work so hard in sports, take far more than that to get fans

tweeting.

Still, admittedly, between doping and fixing, it is getting

harder to cling on to the ability to believe in the unbelievable

that one needs to enjoy the unlikely feats sports can offer.

Lyon can blame the likes of Sapina, Cvrtak and Perumal for

that.

Because of such thieves of innocence, we say ”Bravo!” and

”Really?” at the same time.

Sad for us all.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow

him at twitter.com/johnleicester