What Match-Fixing Means to Me: Is it the beginning of the end of my love affair with football?
Last night I began reading The Fix by Declan Hill. Little did I know the relevance of my actions. The book chronicles football match-fixing across the world, who is involved, and how it is a major threat to the integrity of the sport. I was enthralled, disgusted, and incredulous. Most of the first few chapters outlined match-fixing in Malaysia. I discounted the issue as singular to Malaysian (or at least Asian) football, which is hardly newsworthy. This morning I woke up to an unusual number of alerts on my phone. The app I use most is probably Eurosport and this morning, February 4th, they had a huge influx of jaw-dropping news.
Match-fixing typically involves a player, official, or manager accepting a bribe with the promise to throw the match given in return. The Europol report (read it here) stated that match-fixing was incredibly far reaching and even the wealthiest (and thus least incentivized to accept bribes) leagues were involved. For a fan, nothing could be more disheartening. The idea that the English Premier League (home of storied clubs Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool) could be involved in match-fixing would be enough to send any football fan’s world reeling.
Whether the EPL was involved has yet to be proven or disproven. I’d like to adopt the American ‘innocent until proven guilty’ stance in this international scandal. What is known for certain, however, is that a certain Champions League match played in England within the last few years was fixed. The Champions League is perhaps the single most prestigious tournament in all realms of football. The notion that any club blessed with the opportunity to play Champions League football would purposefully throw a match is beyond comprehension. You have, this year, Real Madrid pitted against ManU and Barcelona facing AC MIlan–essentially, the absolute pinnacle of the football calendar. That match fixing has infiltrated the highest level of football speaks volumes about the neglect of corruption thus far.
Match-fixing hurts players, fans, and football itself. Consider a player coerced (threatened and blackmailed with violence to himself and his family) into throwing a match. He must stand idly by as ambitions for silverware are cast aside for a quick buck (most likely not going in his pocket). A childhood dream of top tier football is tainted by cheating of the worst breed. Non-complicit players are forced to watch their teammates sabotage their own genuine efforts to win. What if a player loves the game? He is a victim as much (perhaps moreso) as the fans.
In an article worth the read, Paul Miller delineates the vast difference between cheating scandals involving performance enhancing drugs and scandals involving match-fixing. Match-fixing is cheating to deliberately lose, whereas drugs are abused out of a desperate desire to win. Steroid abuse can almost be looked upon positively in light of egregious match-fixing. Those who comply with match-fixing of their own free will demonstrate an indifference to the integrity of football. They do not care about sport beyond its monetary efficacy. And to fans who live by Liverpool legend Bill Shankly’s words, “Football isn’t a matter of life and death–it’s more more important than that,”–match-fixing is foundation-shaking, belief-eroding, unparallelled disillusionment.
Consider the outrage and disappointment of the fan who has devotedly followed the progress of his team at discovering matches have been fixed. I personally have skipped class and woken up early on Saturday mornings to watch matches. I am invested to a certain level and I am fully under the impression that the players themselves are invested to my level times a million. The possibility that matches were staged, that they were decided before the whistle blew–the prospect turns me off from football altogether. Match-fixing betrays fans and fans have made the sport what it is.
The sports world has been rocked before by high-profile scandals and recovered. Russian tennis player Nikolay Davydenko is more or less known to have thrown a match involving bets of huge sums. He did not receive the lifetime ban many believe he deserves. Tennis goes on. Recently, Lance Armstrong has admitted to doping and, for the time being, cycling is in disrepute. Could football be next? I believe it could experience a decline, but I do not believe fans will ever truly abandon football. Match-fixing is irksome because it undermines the commitment of the players. It paints them as fleecing the public and making decisions based on money alone. When a player so much as moves from a smaller club to a larger one he is criticized as money-grubbing (think Fernando Torres from Liverpool to Chelsea or Robin van Persie from Arsenal to ManU)–imagine how a player will be thought of if he is exposed for match-fixing.
We look to professional athletes as role models and heroes. They embody what we wish we could be: strength in the face of adversity, a never-say-die attitude, and unwavering commitment to a force greater than oneself. As things stand now, I am bracing myself for tomorrow’s reports. I expect that the numbers provided initially were modest estimates and the larger figures from Hill’s book are likely more accurate. I am hoping against hope that none of my favorite clubs will be sullied, though I believe wholeheartedly that my favorite players are innocent. My personal naivete is demonstrative of the football world that has chosen, up until now, to imagine the beautiful game as pure and free from the sins of baser sports. The great purge of football is about to begin and we can only hope that it is thorough, no matter how great the fallout.
The above is a personal reflection on the match-fixing scandal. For a more facts-based, objective account read my article here.