Skip to main content

See also:

The dark side of international soccer

Corruption and soccer have been hand-in-hand, but how can it be stopped?
Corruption and soccer have been hand-in-hand, but how can it be stopped?
Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

It's the summer of 2010, the morning before a World Cup warmup match between South Africa and Guatemala, as referee Ibrahim Chaibou walks into a South African bank carrying a bag containing $100,000 in $100 bills. The deposit is large, too large for any normal referee to be depositing, and so large in fact, that according to reports, Chaibou was rewarded by the bank with collector coins imprinted with the face of Nelson Mandela.

Hours later, as the final whistle blew on South Africa's 5-0 victory over Guatemala, no one was talking about the players on the field, but rather the suspicious penalties that had generated such a large goal differential.

Across the gambling world, something had seemed off on this game from before it even started. Savvy "punters" hoping to make a little coin on one of the few games being played that day had watched as the goal differential line moved from two-and-a-half to almost four in favor of South Africa moments before the match.

In their world, that meant a lot of people were putting a lot of money on South Africa.

And late last month, in a report obtained by the New York Times, it turned out those suspicions were founded. Chaibou had been hired for the ref job by a football company in Singapore called Football4U, which was later discovered to be nothing more than a front for one of the world's largest Asian betting syndicates. Led by, perhaps, the most prolific match fixer of all-time: Wilson Raj Perumal.

Soccer, or football as it is referred to by everyone outside of America, is the most popular sport in the world. Even in America, where soccer looms in the shadows of the NFL, NBA, and MLB, there are over 70 professional teams playing in a variety of different leagues. In England, a country with a population of just above 53 million, there are five national leagues and over 100 professional teams.

Pretty much every country in the world has a professional soccer league in some capacity, and for gamblers, the popularity of soccer means there's endless opportunities to profit. It's up to the match fixers, like Perumal, to identify the most vulnerable matches and exploit them for their benefit.

That means, anytime, anywhere, no game is safe. If there's an angle that can be exploited, the fixers will be there.

To put that statement into perspective, consider that Perumal was finally busted for match fixing near the Arctic Circle, after he found a relatively unknown Finnish soccer league that was poised for exploiting.

Such was also the case in Sharjah, UAE in 2011, a town with about the same population of Indianapolis, IN. It was here, in this relatively unknown city that one of the biggest match fixing showdowns between the Singapore betting syndicate and FIFA, the Federal International Football Association, went down.

FIFA had received a tip that a simple "international friendly", a common exhibition match, between Kuwait and Jordan had been targeted as an opportunity for the Singapore syndicate to exploit.

Sure enough, as FIFA officials sat anonymously amongst the sparse crowd at the stadium that day, all the signs pointed to the fix being in. Members of the Singapore syndicate were in attendance, chatting it up with the UAE officials that had organized the match. Questionable calls were flying in from officials from the beginning whistle. And online gambling sites had noticed money pouring in on the "over" for goals scored, despite none being scored well into the 15th minute of the 90-minute match.

But "luck" wouldn't be on the side of the Singapore syndicate that day. In the 38th minute, a penalty was called on one of the Kuwaiti defenders in the box. Meaning, Jordan had a free shot on goal; devoid of any defenders besides the goalie. In an unexpected twist for the syndicate though, the shot was blocked by the Kuwaiti goalie.

However, in what seemed like a fortunate moment for the syndicate at the time, who had loaded their cash on the over, the goalkeeper was called for "early movement", which meant Jordan got another shot at goal. The resulting re-shoot was a goal, moving the score to 1-1 at halftime; just one goal away from the total of three set by the bookies.

But it was that call that legitimized the fix in the eyes of FIFA, who then made officials and referees at the game aware that they knew the score. Shortly after the free kick, the UAE officials were seen chatting with the Singapore syndicate, and the syndicate was not seen at the match again.

The final result of the game was 1-1, same as it was at halftime and still one goal under the total of three. The match was a big loss for the Singapore syndicate, and a victory for FIFA, the official "police" of international soccer.

But in the seedy underbelly of international soccer and profiteering, not even FIFA is void of scandal.

Flash forward to this month, June 2014, where online gambling sites across the globe are removing their proposition bet on "will Qatar lose the 2022 World Cup hosting bid" after reports are pouring in from legitimate news outlets that FIFA officials from around the world were bribed by the Qatar elite during the World Cup bidding process.

UK news outlet, the Sunday Times, allegedly has possession of "millions of emails" highlighting the dirty deals between FIFA and Qatar, and US news outlet, TIME Magazine, has reported they have evidence that over 30 African soccer officials were bribed in order to support Qatar in their bid.

But the end result of all this corruption doesn't stop at money changing hands. There's a sad and unfortunate residual impact of all this that involves human lives. An inhumane byproduct of awarding a country a bid that is ill-prepared and desperate to piece together venues fitting of the World Cup at any cost.

Whether the bid was legitimate or not, the country was not ready for a tournament of this magnitude, and the climate of Qatar is not conducive to building structures quickly and safely. As a result, Qatar has been sacrificing workers' lives in order to finish preparations for the tournament, and the gravity of just how bad the situation is in Qatar can only be felt when the numbers are seen.

For when it's all said and done, and all the building has been finished, it's estimated that over 4,000 workers will have died in the process of preparing for the World Cup in Qatar.

To put that in perspective amongst deaths in preparations for other major events, there were eight reported deaths in the construction of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Eight.

Bribery or not, there has to be some culpability on FIFA for allowing a country that is willing to sacrifice the lives of human beings for the sake of a game to still hold the tournament. The blood, as they say, is not entirely on Qatar's hands.

Corruption and soccer are hand-in-hand. They have been together since 1896, when the first fixed match in the modern history was uncovered, and corruption has not gone anywhere since. For example, in 2013, a Europol investigation uncovered over 380 fixed matches between the years of 2011 and 2013.

But now that the problem of corruption has risen from money leaving one shady gambler's hand to another, to the death of innocent human beings, the question of how can it be stopped seems more prevalent than ever.