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
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
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
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
Yes, it was surprising the unlikely scenario actually
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
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
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