Chutzpah, Complicity and a Conflict of Interest

October 28th, 2010

Crikey! There is so much stuff coming in about sports corruption this week it is difficult to sort it all out.

To start with a case of what must be a contender for the Chutzpah of the Year Award – the management of Juventus. A quick definition of Chutzpah – the Hebrew word for pure cheek – is the man who murders his mother and father and then thrown himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. Juventus had their Italian 2004-5, 2005-2006 league titles stripped because their club officials were found guilty of prolonged and persistent bribing and intimidation of referees. Their former general manager who directed much of this corruption is now on trial in Naples. During that trial it was alleged that Internazionale Milano (the team that was given the titles in place of Juventus) also may have corrupted referees. So Juventus is now asking that its titles be given back! The simple answer is no – if Inter Milan is genuinely discovered to have bribed and intimidated referees as Juventus did, then the Italian Football Federation should go down the league until they can find the highest-placed honest team (by some reckoning that might be in the middle of Serie B!) and give the league title to them.

**

To a more serious subject. The corruption allegations swirling around FIFA and the decision to award the World Cup shows why sport desperately needs an independent anti-corruption agency. Sepp Blatter is the president of FIFA. He does not get elected by football fans, he does not gets elected by European sports journalists, not even by a vote of Canadian journalists/academics. Rather, Blatter gets elected by FIFA national executives; these are the same people he is currently supposed to be investigating. This scenario is called a ‘conflict of interest’. In most industries and companies much time is spent devising ways so that people are not placed in this position. If you have problems figuring out the issues around the FIFA case, then just imagine you are put in charge of leading an investigation against your direct boss and then reporting to him the findings of your investigation. Then two weeks later you want to ask him for a Christmas bonus. Good luck with that request, if you have led a proper investigation.

Sport needs an independent authority who can properly investigate cases like FIFA and the World Cup. The decision of where to award the World Cup is massive. It is the world’s biggest sporting tournament. It involves billions of dollars. It involves the entire national sporting infrastructure of the bidding countries. The Sunday Times investigation against FIFA’s bid process has revealed a culture of widespread potential corruption. It needs a properly resourced, well-run organization that can deal with this case in a serious way.

How Much Has to Happen and the Sunday Times

October 18th, 2010

How much has to happen, before something happens?
–John Le Carre

“World Cup Votes For Sale” – Sunday Times, October 17, 2010

A very good investigation. Really, really good journalism on an important subject of public interest. Full congratulations to the Sunday Times team and if you have not read the article, you should.

The strength of the story comes not from finding a FIFA executive committee member who allegedly confesses on tape to wanting to accept bribes. In the last few years, we have seen this type of incident before with various Bulgarian and Paraguayan FIFA executives either being indicted or caught on tape offering to take bribes. What makes the Sunday Times Insight Team’s expose so powerful is that they have not simply caught two executives allegedly making damaging statements on hidden camera, but they also spoke to a range of former and current FIFA officials who, reportedly, said that there was a culture of corruption in some of the bidding process. This speaks to systemic corruption inside arguably FIFA’s most important role – deciding the location of the World Cup. If the article is true, then this is a powerful force for change. To restore the credibility of the organization FIFA must establish a credible anti-corruption integrity unit staffed with outsiders, as UEFA has done. At the moment, Blatter has said that FIFA will investigate these allegations. The question that all football fans and journalists should ask is – who will investigate? Where are your credible, disinterested investigators who can really look into matters like these? The answer, so far, is that FIFA does not have these people.

Two small complaints about the article. One, it is unclear from the text whether the Nigerian executive who is alleged to have asked for £500,000 for ‘personal projects’ where the money went through the bank accounts of a relative living in Europe and the Oceania executive who wanted money for a soccer academy were the same thing. If an executive gets the sporting infrastructure of his country built up it is not personally enriching yourself. This point will, I presume, come out in subsequent articles and the follow-up should be carefully watched.

The other criticism about the Sunday Times article is that – sadly – it is written in that disturbing ‘Little Englander’ spirit that unfortunately accompanies much of public discussion in England: ‘We – the English – would not bribe anyone.’ UK World Cup bid sabotaged by shifty, underhanded foreigners is the clear message. It avoids a couple of points. One, England might lose the World Cup bid for reasons other than corruption. (Where would you rather watch a football match: Coventry or Malaga?) And two, how do you know English football is not corrupt?

I ask because of another very good article that came out in a Rupert Murdoch owned newspaper this weekend – News of the World – (the same people who broke the Pakistani cricket scandal) announced that the German police had established links with corruption in English football. I have been saying much the same thing for the last two years, but, as a Canadian journalist, I have not been able to get any UK media outlet to back me to do a proper investigation. Hopefully, now, we will start to see some proper investigations begun into the real state of football in the UK.

Red-Flags Around the World

October 11th, 2010

China is a text-book case of why you cannot wait to uproot corruption. The Chinese soccer leagues are a national disgrace and an international joke. Do not take my word for it. The top Chinese politican – President Hu Jintao – has declared his embarrassment over the state of their sport. However, the Chinese government has waited far too long to fight it. The usual official line is that “Corruption is the problem of young players far from home. They lose themselves. They have fast cars, faster women and are surrounded by all the wrong people and thus lose themselves in corruption.” Bullshit. Endemic corruption does not come about because a bunch of young guys like to get laid. I did the statistical research at Oxford to show that younger players are, generally, the least likely to fix matches. The real problems come from the older players, and most importantly the problems come from the very sports officials who are often denouncing corruption. The key to understanding corruption in Asian sports is that many of the top authorities – club owners and league officials – are big gamblers. They view their involvement in sport not as some Olympian dream, but as a way of making money and gambling with and against their rich buddies. If that means telling their athletes to fix matches they will do it.

The problem for the Chinese government is that many of the people connected with their league were corrupt. However, some of the club owners are politically-connected businessmen with a lot of clout. If you are a Chinese policeman you move against those people very, very carefully. The Chinese officials have just arrested top soccer league officials but until they move against the corrupt club-owners they will not have any lasting success at cleaning up the sport.

What is the connection with European sport? Because that is the direction that match-fixing is taking. It is no longer simply criminals on the fringes fixing matches with corrupt players, it is beginning to be deeper than that, some club owners are now reaching out to the fixers to make money on the gambling market by fixing games. It is the essential defence of many of the Belgian players that they were ordered to fix the games because their clubs were “in financial trouble” (read the owners wanted to make money). Until European football authorities and police start to deal with these politically-connected and rich people the problems will spread no matter what goes on in the Berlin court-room.

The Redemption of Robert Hoyzer

October 8th, 2010

It has been one of those weeks. Seven days where match-fixing has, yet again, dominated the headlines. From China, to International Volleyball, to a suicide in London, to a Berlin court room – stories of corruption are bubbling up, yet again, to show the problems that the sports world is facing.

I will be posting a couple of blogs today on the common linkages between these events but first to Germany where the trial of a group of match-fixers has just begun. They allegedly fixed over two-hundred-and-fifty matches in a number of different European countries. When ‘The Fix’ (Sichere Siege) first came out in Germany in September 2008, I had to face a lot of criticism from lazy and complicit journalists. They said that what I wrote could not be true. German football was so clean, how dare a Canadian journalist imply that it was not? I am still waiting for an apology – heck even an acknowledgment from one of these people that they were wrong would be fine. If not, for me then how about for Robert Hoyzer? Hoyzer was the German referee that I wrote about in the book. He fixed a number of German football games. He eventually confessed to the authorities. Then he went from being chief prosecution witness to serving time in jail, because he had the courage to say that the problem of corruption in European football went beyond just the games he fixed. I am still waiting for German journalists to apologize to Hoyzer. Yes, yes, they will dredge up some nonsense that his stories were not consistent or his ex-girlfriend was too beautiful or that he was too good-looking, but the essential story that Hoyzer told back in 2005 has been amply substantiated and few people in the German press have had the courage to say it.

AN INTERNATIONAL ANTI-CORRUPTION AGENCY FOR SPORT

September 30th, 2010

Good news from Baku.

Last week, the European ministers of sport passed a unanimous resolution to ask the Council of Europe to help set up an international agency to fight corruption in sport.

What does this mean? Well, like all political promises it can be about as important as a sneeze in a windstorm. However, there are signs that this time things might be different. Already the charismatic Irish senator Cecilia Keaveney is pushing for adoption of a political resolution among Irish and European politicians. Drago Kos, the hard-hitting Chief of the Anti-Corruption Agency in Slovenia, is gathering support among other anti-corruption crusaders in Europe. And one of the senior executives of the Council of Europe excitedly told me after the vote that his organization wanted to ‘midwife’ such a new agency.

Why does sport need such an organization? Here is part of my speech for the sports ministers in Baku:

I stand before you as man who has no agenda. I do not represent any gambling company or interest. I am not trying to peddle you something so that my company can make money. I do not work for a sporting organization, so I do not have a slant or angle on one particular sport. Rather, I stand before you as man who has risked his life to protect sports. I stand before you to say that sport is too important to be entrusted only to sporting or gambling authorities. This is not a dig, many sporting and gambling executives are good, honest, decent people, but they have an inherent conflict of interest in suppressing news about corruption in sport.

What we are facing is too dangerous to let the status quo continue. There has always been corruption in sport, but what is happening for our generation, in our time, on our watch is something different. It is a new phenomenon. It is a new form of corruption, as if someone has taken fixing and injected it with steroids. Let us not exaggerate, the corruption in European sports is not nearly as bad as it is in Asian sports. But it is coming down the pipeline. It has already come into some European sports. And unless we do something about it this new wave of corruption will destroy sports as we know them. This new form of corruption will, like a tsunami, sweep aside all other issues in sports and leave our sports dead and destroyed.

I have been in the same room with the fixers as they fixed different games in different sports on different continents. The tools that allow them to do this are new. Because this wave of corruption is new, we need a new institution to fight it properly. We need an International Anti-Corruption Agency for sports, designed in part like the World Anti-Doping Agency. This Agency can collect and publicize information with no fear of a conflict of interest. This Agency can certify leagues and sports with good governance practices. This Agency can investigate and prosecute the fixers, can educate and train the athletes. This Agency could protect sports, so that when the day comes for us to pass them on to our children and their children, we can pass on sports knowing that they are largely corruption free. We can pass on sports that can inspire people, motivate people and make them realize that they are bigger than they think they are…

We shall see if such an agency will come to pass, but it was a good, important first step.

More on this subject and a quotes from me in the Economist magazine

Time for a Real Sports Watchdog

September 14th, 2010

Dear Friends of Sport,

I am now back at my desk. After the World Cup I took some time off to work for a friend who was running in local politics — an exhilarating and very interesting experience. Then I had a brief holiday. Much has happened in the field of sports corruption in the last couple of months and I will be blogging frequently over the next few days covering subjects like the Pakistan Cricket Scandal, Mazher Mahmood (the investigative journalist who broke the story) and a round-up of other match fixing problems. However, to begin with an auspicious occasion next week:

On September 22, I will be giving a speech to the forty-four Sports Ministers of Europe at a special session organized by the Council of Europe. I will say the following:

1)There has always been corruption in sport, but our generation faces a new and very powerful form of match-fixing. The dynamic that drives it is the globalization of the various national gambling markets. The world has simply never seen anything like this phenomenon before, and one of the offshoots is a huge rise in corruption in sports leagues that previously have never been challenged in this way.

2)To combat this rise in corruption, there needs to be an independent anti-corruption agency. It should be organized like the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). It should be run separately from the sports bodies. Asking sports administrators to announce corruption in their sports is like asking the owners of a meat packing plant to declare publicly when they have tainted food. It simply is not in their best interests to do so. It is the same for the gambling industry – make them pay for the new agency and share information with it – for much of the corruption comes from the profit match-fixers make in the gambling world, but the organization should be at arms-length from the gambling industry.

It is easy to be pessimistic about the chances of establishing such an agency. However, I am optimistic. I remember two-years ago when ‘The Fix’ was published and the storm of controversy it aroused. At that time, lots of complicit journalists and lazy commentators declared that the book could not be true. However, there were lots of good people who took up the fight against corruption in sports: the German anti-mafia police in Bochum, the UEFA integrity unit, the Dutch and Danish Football Associations, the international organization Play the Game and tens of thousands of football fans around the world. Gradually, we are forming alliances, starting anti-corruption programs and fighting to save the sport. We should do it. We can do it. We will do it.

Don’t believe it. Don’t believe it. Don’t believe it.

July 16th, 2010

News has just broken about widespread arrests in Asia of gambling rings. It all sounds very dangerous. It all sounds exciting. It all sounds effective. It is none of the three.

It is — like FIFA’s diplomatic declaration of ‘no evidence’ found from a few days ago — a game. The game is played by local Asian police forces with the gangsters. They arrest a few people, take a little money and make a press announcement. Everyone is happy, the police get to look pro-active, the gamblers don’t have their top people arrested and the citizens think that something is being done about levels of crime. If the numbers mentioned seem a lot (5,000 arrests and £10 million) it is only because the Asian gambling market is massive that this is minuscule compared to the total size of the market.

Just think – what are these gangs actually doing? They are providing a service that in Europe, the UK and parts of North America is perfectly legal. People want to gamble on sports. They allow them to.

So read the newspapers, listen to the media and smile, but do not get caught up in this nonsense. Tomorrow morning tens of millions of Asians will go their bookies and place their bets on sporting events as they have always done. Nothing fundamental has changed.

It’s a Game that They Are Playing

July 13th, 2010

It is not football. It is the game of deliberate diplomatic deniability. The game is all about making truthful statements that do not ruffle any official feathers. Here is how it is played. Examine this section of FIFA’s statement on the allegations about Nigerian match-fixing in the World Cup.

“FIFA and the Early Warning System (EWS) have a network of informants from which we receive information. Of course, as you may understand, we will not disclose the identity of the informants. What we can say is that at least until today no information provided by the informants to FIFA in relation to any potential match-fixing activities during the 2010 FIFA World Cup have proved to have any substance. Furthermore, we can also say that there is no indication whatsoever until today of any match-fixing situations during any of the matches of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.”

The key to understanding the game are the phrases ‘no indication’ and ‘no information’. What FIFA has actually done is create a laughable system of anti-corruption. Its Early Warning System is a joke. It produces no information and few of their ‘informants’ actually know what they are talking about. Then when these ‘informants’ do not tell them anything substantial, FIFA can completely honestly say, ‘we have no information or evidence of match-fixing’. They are not lying. They have created a system which produces no reliable evidence, so they can report it.

What can FIFA do? Create an integrity unit. A proper one. One with high-ranking former police officers with take-charge attitudes. Baltasar Garzón, the former Spanish judge is looking for a job. Put him in command. You would see a lot of things come out very quickly!

Two, investigate the former Nigeria Football Association. Hire a couple of honest forensic accountants. The track-record of the NFA is one of deeply-rooted incompetence. Find out why it is incompetent. Go interview Glen Hoddle, the former England manager who, a few months ago, claimed that he was offered the position of manager of Nigeria at the World Cup, so long as he paid a kick-back to the NFA.

Do these two things, and then we can know for certain the truth about these allegations.

What They Don’t Say.

July 9th, 2010

In case you missed it BBC Newsnight has announced that FIFA was warned that the Nigerian team may have been vulnerable to fixing games at the 2010 South Africa World Cup.

They say that the UEFA investigator went to the FIFA Early Warning System and told them there were suspicious betting patterns on Nigeria games. They also claim that they were told that Nigerian players were alarmed by the conditions at the World Cup and that they were “vulnerable to corruption.” All this information was given to FIFA and their officials have responded by saying there is ‘no evidence of fixing at the World Cup.’

It is a good attempt at a difficult story and full kudos to the BBC for trying. But, here is what they don’t say:

First, FIFA’s early warning system is practically useless. They don’t investigate. They don’t protect the players. If you are a whistle-blower and you come forward to expose your fears, don’t expect protection and don’t expect the situation to improve.

Second, the Nigeria Football Federation has been so utterly incompetent for so long that many Nigerians have become desperate to close it down and start again. The Nigerian government got involved. Perhaps more tellingly, the great star Jay-Jay Okocha pleaded with FIFA not to pay the World Cup bonus to the Nigerian FA. His fear was that the money would disappear before it could reach the players.

The basic scenario that leads to corruption at World Cup tournaments is that many of the national football associations are so incompetent they cannot guarantee their players will receive any salary or bonuses for playing in the world’s biggest tournament. Until FIFA stops this exploitation, pays the players directly and establishes a proper investigative unit (as UEFA has), we can expect lots of these types of stories.

It is the time for the fixes

June 23rd, 2010

It is the time for the fixes.

Here is what I know.

The fixers are in South Africa. They have been desperately trying to contact various teams. They have various runners and old contacts coming in and out of the hotels and training camps. They are trying ‘to do the business’ with various players and administrators.

Here too is what I know.

FIFA has put out lots of press statements and solemn talk about seriously vetting up-coming games. This is almost utter tosh. FIFA’s system of checking for fixed matches is practically useless. They repeatedly talk about their network of 400 bookmakers passing them information. Many of these bookmakers are not effective sources of information. They either do not know anything or will not say anything or will try to downplay any suspicious activity at the best of times. This is not the best of times. The gambling market on the World Cup is huge. FIFA and the bookmakers cannot monitor any suspicious activity as there is not suspicious activity to monitor. You cannot detect any patterns if the amount of money is too large.

FIFA also speaks of a liaison with Interpol. Interpol is pretty useless. Good for collecting official information and putting it in nicely-bound reports. Good for staging press conferences and saying polite pleasantries about the need to win the war on drugs, crack down on corruption, fight match-fixing etc, etc. But Interpol is almost useless for mounting a successful criminal investigation or preventing criminals from working on the ground. Their very mandate prevents them from doing anything effective.

Given these circumstances which matches should we red-flag for possible corruption?

1)Games where one team has nothing to play for. Even if they win the teams will not progress to the next stage of the competition.

2)Teams which have a history of not paying their players properly. It is the phenomenon of relative exploitation which drives fixing. The officials receive lots of money, the players comparatively little.

The games I will be watching closely are Cameroon vs. the Netherlands and Honduras vs. Switzerland. In no way do I want to suggest that I have heard anything about players on these teams being open to fixing matches. In no way do I want to suggest that even if they had been approached the players would have taken money. But I do want to say that if either of these teams loses by more than the Asian ‘spread’ of goals (2 goals and above) then FIFA should bring in their toothless tigers of investigators and begin to ask questions.