Match-Fixing: The Football Problem That Only Matters When It's Your Problem

Will TideySenior Manager, GlobalFebruary 9, 2013

NEWBURY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 15:  A punter gets his money ready for a wager at Newbury racecourse on December 15, 2010 in Newbury, England.  (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/ Getty Images)
Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

To care or not to care, that is the match-fixing question. The media, as ever, wants to invoke our righteous rage, but the truth is most of football won't do any more than shrug its shoulders until match-fixing is found to have affected the outcome of a game that really matters—to them.

America had a genuine flicker on Friday, but only when a friendly between the U.S. national team and El Salvador was brought into question. ESPN's Outside the Lines identified the February 2010 clash and alleged that El Salvador players had been paid to influence their 2-1 defeat. 

Said host Bob Ley on air, as per a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jonathan Tannenwald: "A Salvadoran player told ESPN he and some teammates received a check drawn on a Singapore bank. They were given specific, designed plays that had to unfold to satisfy the syndicate fixing the match."

I listened to the podcast version of the Outside the Lines show on Saturday. What struck me was how the U.S. media focused on that U.S. friendly in Florida, which was won in added time, when the accusation by convicted match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal that competitive World Cup games had been targeted appears to have been ignored.

"The game between North Korea and Portugal in 2010 was dubious," said Perumal. "In 2006 a group from Malaysia tried to fix some games for the national team of Ghana."

Most American soccer fans will not have heard that allegation unless they listened to the show. But nearly all of them will wake up this morning reading about the El Salvador friendly because it stands as an attack on their team, on their shores and to the game they consume.

Match-fixing? Involving the U.S.? Now we're interested.

This is how Brian Shactman of NBC Sports met Europol's press release on Wednesday, which updated its progress on a global investigation into match-fixing and put the number of games under suspicion at 680. Shactman highlighted that the U.S. doesn't gamble big on soccer; that it's not central to soccer culture in America as it is in other parts of the world.

Wrote Shactman, in an article titled, "Here's why soccer match-fixing is not an American problem": "Of course, none of that means the match-fixing scandal isn't a concern. Just that it seems to be a non-issue on American soil."

There are wayward children in the world, but they're not our children is the message here. The same attitude prevails in England, which explains the sensationalized reaction to (old) news that a Champions League match between Liverpool and Debrecen was targeted by match-fixers in 2009 (Mirror).

Hungarian club Debrecen have confirmed the game is being investigated (BBC Sport). Their goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksic was reportedly questioned after the game, but no charges have been brought. He was, however, banned for two years for not reporting a match-fixing approach ahead of their game against Fiorentina that same season (Guardian).

Does English football care about the Fiorentina game? Of course it doesn't, despite the fact that its 4-3 scoreline in favor of the Italians had a far greater bearing on the Champions League that season than Liverpool's 1-0 win at Anfield. Had Juve drawn or lost that game, they would have finished second behind Lyon in the group, changing the complexion of the last 16 draw.

Match-fixing is only really a problem, it seems, when it's your problem.

It's this mentality that has allowed the rest of the world to look the other way during Italy's match-fixing crises. Serie A is one the world's premier club competitions, yet the 1980, 2006 and 2012 scandals haven't changed the way we feel about football. They happened, they had nothing to do with us, let's move on.

Match-fixing is nothing new in football. We know it goes on and we know why, but until it is found to have influenced an outcome they truly care about, football fans won't care nearly as much as the media wants them to.

Said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on Friday, as per ESPNFC: "I was completely surprised by the number of games that were revealed to have been fixed and for me this is a real tsunami. I was always a believer that there is a lot of cheating in the game and that we are not strong enough on what is happening."

Wenger saw match-fixing firsthand as Monaco's coach in France 20 years ago, in the scandal that brought shame upon Marseille. Ligue 1 was undermined and the reputation of French football tarnished for awhile. It happened, we moved on, case closed.

And that's exactly what we should expect to come from Europol's investigation, should their frustratingly vague announcement ever lead to something close to closure. Games will be identified and people will be punished, but only those directly influenced will truly care. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will look on in judgment, smug in the knowledge it didn't happen to them.

The story of match-fixing you're reading now is one you've read before, so don't expect the outcome to be any different.