This week, FIFA President Sepp Blatter declared, “If the matches are fixed, there’s no more interest in going to watch football.” This was in response to the ongoing investigation of up to 680 soccer matches that may have been fixed or otherwise influenced by organized crimes gangs. ESPN’s Roger Bennett, who cohosts the “Men in Blazers” podcast on the Grantland Network, joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the scandal.
BL: In connection with illegal betting on the 2010 World Cup, Interpol coordinated an operation that led to the arrest of 5,000 people and the seizure of almost $10 million. But that was illegal betting. Were there indications that there had been fixed matches at that point?
RB: Football and gambling go together better than we ever admit. Football has known it’s not clean, and it’s known that $3 billion is wagered every day, mostly in Asia, on world football. This Euro report is fascinating because both its scale, the number of games that have been declared suspicious – not fixed, but under suspicion of being fixed – but also how vague it is, Bill. We don’t know the details. It’s a little bit like a schoolyard rumor that they know something about us that we don’t know, and the football world is really waiting with bated breath for more details.
BL: The focus of this current investigation has been Singapore. Why?
RB: The mechanism that’s been unveiled on this occasion and in past occasions is Singapore-based. But it emanates out of Singapore and it crosses borders. I think that’s really the thing that’s truly fascinating about this, the complex web that’s been weaved within world football. If you’re a striker with huge gambling debts or a goalkeeper in Hungary in the AA equivalent where a $5,000 payoff to put your kids through college or to add to your goulash kitty, it’s very hard to say no to that.
BL: After an investigation that took 18 months, the European Union’s police agency, or Europol, has identified 380 “suspicious matches” that took place in Europe and another 300 “suspicious games” in Africa, Asia, South and Central America. How does one define a “suspicious match”?
RB: You can bet anything in soccer, Bill, not just the final score. You can bet on the number of corners, you can bet on the number of yellow cards. And the syndicates have found it very easy to find in lower levels, in obscure leagues, strikers, or defenders, or goalkeepers who will take a small payoff (which to them is sizable) to make minor changes – not necessarily to the score line, but to the number of corners or a penalty given away in the first half that allows the betting to occur. The referees are also able to be bribed to influence the game in minor fashions. And there are ghost games, Bill – there have been reports of games that don’t even take place.
BL: Europol Director Rob Wainwright has said that what this investigation has turned up “highlights a big problem for the integrity of football in Europe and threatens the very fabric of the game.” Does that strike you as hyperbole?
RB: Right now, we’re not sure, Bill. This is the wonder of this thing. I have to say the response has been voracious. In Europe, everyone has held their breath. They’re waiting for more details. This Europol set of allegations are sizable, but they’ve not been substantiated with detail. FIFA and UEFA, the two major football authorities, have been very, very sober in their response. They said they’ve not seen all the documentation from Europol, they’re not willing to say what has been suspicious about these games, so until more details come through, it’s unclear exactly how the game will be changed. But the great writer Nick Hornby, the bard of football, the man who wrote Fever Pitch, he once wrote, “Once we begin to doubt what we’re seeing is real, then we’ll cease to care, and without the caring, football is all over.”