Last week, Europol released a report stating that 425 match officials, club officials, players, and criminals were involved in the match fixing of 680 games. These games ranged from the backwater bush leagues to a Champions League Match involving Liverpool. It is an extension of what Canadian writer Declan Hill wrote in his breakthrough 2010 book, The Fix. The book explained how modern soccer is too big to police and that monitoring the gambling is near impossible. The amount of money that could be made by throwing matches in the 2nd and 3rd tier was often double or triple a year’s salary for these players. Furthermore, because these match fixers are part of multinational crime syndicates operating in numerous countries, they are uncatchable. It is the ultimate sports tainting. It greatly effects Canadians as well. Our national soccer league has been deemed so corrupt that the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) has decertified the entire league. Additionally, MLS has been identified as a league that could be targeted by match fixers in the future. And weird outcomes have been effecting Canadian soccer lately and in the past. Match fixing could connect many of the dots.
First, the Canadian Soccer League has been deemed so corrupt by the CSA that they determined it was the best decision to back away entirely and decertify the league. Soccer fans in Canada had to therefore find another league to satisfy their footy craving. But the league hasn’t folded yet and may rematerialize in another form. Nevertheless, this was the league that Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact used for their youth teams to play in. Now that this league is not certified, FIFA will not allow the teams to put their development teams in an unsanctioned league. Thus, these teams must find somewhere for their players to play and develop. Additionally, there is potential that young FC and Impact players are gaining their professional chops while being exposed to all this corruption. Not the best training ground in the world.
These young players were being trained in what appears to be the most corrupt league in North America. CONCACAF explained to the CSA that this league had a ton of money being bet on it, and the reward for players to throw the matches was much more than their salary could ever be. But for the FC and Impact, what if their players were part of the match fixing? What if these young players were making contacts in the match fixing world? Could these players be manipulated to throw a regular season FC game one day?
In Grant Wahl’s 2009 book, The Beckham Experiment, Wahl chronicles Beckham’s move to Major League Soccer. In the book, it briefly discusses the living conditions of some of the lesser players on the team, and their financial challenges. One player discusses how he is doing the soccer thing to see where it goes, but has promised his wife that he will get a “real job” at some point. He was a starter for the Galaxy. Somebody who definitely wasn’t “all in” on the team or the MLS. Nevertheless, does it seem that farfetched for him to fix a match or two a year so he could keep living out his dream job? Yes, the Beckhams and Donovans of the world would probably never fix a match. But as Hill explains in The Fix, all you need is a forward on one team and a defenseman on the other. You can’t pay everyone superstar money. When reading The Beckham Experiment, it didn’t seem overly difficult to find a few guys who might be interested in fixing a meaningless late season match if it meant not having to live with a roommate or if it could send their kid to a better school. FC has played a ton of meaningless matches in their history. What if one of those games late in the season when they were already eliminated from the playoffs was fixed? It doesn’t seem that unlikely. However, in this example the games would be meaningless. What about games that matter? Could they be fixed? Absolutely.
Let’s rewind to the 2012 Olympics. Women’s Soccer Tournament, the Semi-Finals between Canada and the USA. An unbelievable entertaining and heartbreaking game. It launched Christine Sinclair as a superstar. What if this match was fixed? What if the ref was paid off to ensure the Americans won? It seems very likely looking back with the most cynical eye. This game, based on Declan Hill’s description of games that could be fixed, has a high likelihood. First, USA was an overwhelming favorite, thus if they did win, it wouldn’t be suspicious. Second, none of these players or refs are being paid tons of money, so throwing the game could be very lucrative. Finally, there would be a lot of money bet on any Olympic event, thus making it hard to track large bets placed on the match. So when Canada looked to be having the game of their lives, referee Christina W. Pedersen decided to call Erin McLeod for holding the ball for too long – a call that is rarely called – thus giving Team USA an indirect free kick which they converted to tie the game. This call at the time was insanely ridiculous. Thinking about it now, maybe this match was fixed, and maybe Pedersen was in on it. This ruins the purity of sport, and the reasons we watch sports.
We watch sports because it’s one of society’s great accomplishments. Humans who can manipulate their bodies to do unbelievable things with a ball, stick, on ice, or on a track. It is an escape from regular life, and a place where one can dream about possibilities that otherwise would be unrealistic. Sports evoke emotion that is reserved only for cheering for one’s country, city, club or national icon. All of this erodes to nothing once the purity of the outcome is questioned.
Where does this leave Canada? Well, first I wouldn’t be buying season tickets to any semi-pro Canadian soccer league. The games have a high chance to be worthless. Next, match fixing calls into question whether we as a country will ever be a world soccer power. One of our key development leagues is at risk of failure due to match fixing. So our pipeline for players, a pipeline that was already shaky, is now about to be nonexistent. Furthermore, whether our national team will ever breakthrough has a new obstacle. As seen in the 2012 Olympics, even when Canada appears ready to breakthrough, due to their underdog status and the perceived outcome, they will always be a favorite for match fixing. Sadly, Canada will always be on the wrong side.
Basically, soccer in Canada has never seemed like a worse proposition as a sports fan. The product was already hard enough to talk yourself into, and now the outcomes appear to not be decided on the field, but in an Asian club by mobsters. Now maybe I am too cynical, maybe I am too quick to believe the sky falling. However, will you ever watch soccer the same again? And isn’t that the whole point?
Jeffrey Lush is a weekly blog contributor to Sports Business Canada