Friday, April 11, 2014

The domino theory of match-fixing

Looks like Ike might have been right after all. Let a malign force linger unchallenged in Southeast Asia and all of a sudden it starts spreading to areas once considered under control.

As detailed previously on HNWT, Singapore and Malaysia have emerged as a hotbed of illegal betting and match-fixing in the world of soccer, with the likes of Dan Tan and the Kelong Kings among the most well-known perpetrators. FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation continue to furrow their brows and make grave pronouncements about the need to stamp out illegal betting, but, unlike their good friends at the English Football Association, they appear to be in no danger of taking action that might deal with the problem.

Now, almost a year after three Lebanese referees were dropped from an AFC Cup match and later convicted of accepting sexual favors in exchange for fixing said match, Southeast Asia and the AFC Cup have been linked to match-fixing again. As many as 13 players from Vietnamese side Ninh Binh are under investigation for attempting to fix matches in the domestic V-League and the AFC Cup. According to a report, Ninh Binh players accepted 800 million Vietnamese dong ($40,000) to fix an AFC Cup match against Malaysian side Kelantan, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Club owner Vu Manh Truong has suspended all club activities while match-fixing investigations are underway. Ninh Binh have also voluntarily withdrawn from the ongoing V-League season, with the club languishing third from bottom in the table. The club's unusual pattern of registering the best first-half results in the league, with as many as five out of eight matches where points were dropped after leading at the break, has given rise to more questions over the credibility of the results.

The 2013 Vietnamese Cup champions made their AFC Cup debut this season and have impressed, sealing progress to the knockout stages with a game to spare.

However, Goal understands that Ninh Binh's matches in the AFC Cup are also under scrutiny following suspicious results, with the team believed to have tried to fix half-time results.
Full credit to the club management for taking such swift and decisive action to root out the problem, even if no doubt it will cause the rest of their league and AFC Cup opponents no small inconvenience in the short term. The AFC, in case you were wondering, has "expressed concern" and is monitoring the situation. Bless.

Think incidents such as these only happen in poor countries where players and officials can be bought for a song? Think again. Even Australia, a country with a booming economy, is far from immune.

That's right, Australia – that land of sun and color, where fair play is highly valued and making sure everyone has "a fair go" is part of the national ethos. Late last year, two players from Southern Stars, a club in the second-tier Victorian Premier League, and a Malaysian middleman were arrested and charged with fixing matches as part of a multimillion-dollar scheme described as the worst such scandal in Australian sporting history.

The players involved received worldwide, lifetime bans from soccer, while the Malaysian man could end up in jail. There was a moment of humor during proceedings in Melbourne yesterday as the court heard the procedure for fixing matches was so unsophisticated the middleman would shout instructions from the sidelines.

Subramaniam's method of communications left the players alarmed, Australian Associated Press reported on Friday, citing the Malaysian's lawyer at the Victorian County Court.

"The lack of sophistication was such that he was calling out from the sidelines," AAP quoted defence counsel Ian Hayden as telling the court. "The (players) were saying 'does he want to be caught?'"

Subramaniam was paid A$2,000 (1,132 pounds) a month for his part in the operation, which saw about A$64,000 pass through his hands to organise payments, cars and hotels for the players.

The Malaysian has pleaded guilty to one match-fixing charge, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in Victoria state.
Doesn't say much for the crowd noise generated by those attending Southern Stars matches, does it? Step your game up, people.

All kidding aside, the relationship between the worlds of soccer and gambling needs to be examined. It is curious how the sport's grand poobahs can on the one hand decry the influence of bookmakers and prohibit people involved in soccer from gambling, yet on the other hand they they eagerly cash the checks from gambling organizations that plaster their ads all over matches. Ever since the Gambling Act of 2005 came into force – removing restrictions that previously only allowed gambling advertising on TV by football pools, bingo and the National Lottery – gambling ads on British TV have risen 600 percent, to the point where they comprise 4.1 percent of all TV ads in Britain.

Turn on a random Premier League game and it's not hard to notice how intertwined soccer and gambling have become. Every Premier League club has an official betting partner – Arsenal, Tottenham and Sunderland have two, one for home and another specifically for Asia – and Stoke, Aston Villa and Fulham have gaming companies as their shirt sponsors. (Newcastle, in addition to its betting partner, has as its shirt sponsor the payday loan company Wonga, which could be considered its own form of gambling, but that's a post for another day.) In fact, Stoke's chairman also happens to be deeply involved with Bet365, Stoke's principal club partner and shirt sponsor.

As yours truly said so inelegantly a few days ago, soccer's open embrace of gambling and the revenue it provides seems incongruous when compared to the problems it presents. The gap between reality the rhetoric of the game's decision-makers is growing harder and harder to ignore. It's not just poorly paid, low-level players – the likes of Andros Townsend (Tottenham), Cameron Jerome (Stoke) and Dan Gosling (Newcastle) have fallen foul of gambling regulations recently. Soccer at seemingly every professional level is addicted to, or somehow negatively influenced by, gambling and must acknowledge that fact. [WARNING: Last link goes to the Daily Mail, which normally would not see the light of day on these pages but for once is talking a bit of sense. Fairly warned, be ye.]

This is not to say that anyone who engages in gambling is a degenerate and a threat to society (far from it), and neither is it to suggest that those in the gaming industry are amoral vultures taking advantage of the poor and vulnerable (that's... probably not true). Rather, the takeaway should be that those charged with overseeing soccer need to take seriously the threat posed by match-fixing and illegal betting – and running off your security director weeks after launching a campaign to stop match-fixing is not the way to convince people you unequivocally support that fight.

Much like the issue of performance-enhancing drugs, match-fixing strikes at the trust that is central to the heart of sports. If fans and athletes cannot trust what they see on the field of competition, then sports might as well be reduced to the level of professional wrestling. After all, if the result is predetermined, why get worked up about it?

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