Richard van Poortvleit: Match fixing? Who cares?

With just three games to go in the Russian Premier League season, the title race is back on. CSKA Moscow had led by eight points, but have seen their advantage cut to just three, with reigning champions Zenit St. Petersburg hot on their heels. However, when all attention should be on the title race, the problem of match fixing is again grabbing just as many of the headlines.

With a number of teams having nothing to play for, the hypothesis is that the temptation to earn some extra cash or some extra favours becomes more important than the result. Match fixing has long been identified as a problem in Russia, but very little is being done to eradicate the problem.

The latest match to grab the headlines was struggling Krylya Sovetov’s surprise 3-0 victory at mid table FC Krasnodar two weeks ago. Just one of a number of ‘suspicious’ matches to have taken place in the Russian Premier League over the past few years.

The allegations were denied by both clubs and the President of the Krasnodar side, Sergey Galitsky, even went as far as saying, “I would ask the Russian Football Union to introduce lie detectors and match fixing will disappear in an instant. His counterpart from Krylya Sovetov, Denis Maslov, said: “What do you think we could offer Sergey Galitsky so that he would agree to let us win?” Galitsky is 138th on the Forbes rich list with a fortune of $8.2 billion.

I watched the game and the score was 1-0 to the visitor’s going into stoppage time before two goals in injury time from Ilya Maksimov sealed the victory. On both occasions FC Krasnodar were looking to attack and they were caught on the break, though the home side were guilty of some fairly abject defending.

The other match to be called into question this season was Anzhi Makhachkala’s 2-1 victory at Amkar Perm in late November. Both teams played weakened line-ups, with more important games ahead. Oleg Shatov won the game for the visitors in injury time, but again, Guus Hiddink’s side had bombarded the Amkar defence for around 10 to 15 minutes leading up to the goal and anyone watching the match could see a goal was inevitable. However, if you dig a bit deeper, there were a number of interesting factors.

The match turned out to be a conspiracy theorists dream, with reports that Sulyiman Kerimov owned a small stake in Amkar, while betting was suspended on an Anzhi victory in the lead-up to the game, such were the number of stakes being placed on the visitors to record a much needed victory to maintain their title challenge.

A new law aimed at getting rid of match fixing was signed at the start of the year by Vladimir Putin, which could see offenders handed a seven year jail term and/or a fine of $32,000. In theory this is a step forward, but in reality could it ever work? The answer to this question is yes and no. When looking at the Russian Premier League, the answer is probably no, as the vast majority of club owners have connections going right to the very top.

Take Terek Grozny for example who have been accused of match fixing on a few occasions, such as their 3-2 victory against Krylya Sovetov in 2009. Club president is none other than Ramzan Kadyrov, who enjoys a very ‘cosy’ relationship with the Kremlin. It is difficult to see how a serious investigation could ever be conducted, given the consequences of a potential guilty verdict. Out of all the accusations of match fixing in Russia, this game probably carries the most weight, given that 96% of all bets were placed on Terek, while one individual had a stake of $400,000 on the home side to win – a brave call to make especially as Terek were in mid table, while Krylya Sovetov could have gone top with a victory.

Former Argentine forward, Hector Bracamonte, who had an eight-year stint in Russia, playing for FC Moscow and Terek Grozny agreed that match fixing is a problem. “I was never asked to fix a game, but I know team mates who have been. I have never played to lose. I earn a good salary and would never stoop as low to agree to fix a game just for a bit of extra money.” Bracamonte refused to name any of the players who were involved, saying this was a matter for the Russian Football Union to deal with.

Tackling corruption and match fixing at lower levels could probably work, as there are fewer reputations at stake. However, despite dozens of accusations, at the time of writing, only one club has ever been found guilty of attempting to fix a game, Iriston Vladikavkaz in 2007, who were playing in the Russian second division. The side from the south of Russia were initially thrown out of the league, but the punishment was reduced and they were subsequently reinstated in a lower division.

Match fixing is a problem that is not going to go away, given the huge sums of money that are at stake. The former Soviet Union defender, Aleksandr Bubnov has a point when he says “match-fixing is a massive problem in the Russian Premier League, and it exists only because no one is afraid of being punished”. One can only hope that the measures introduced into Russian legislation at the start of the year by President Putin will have an effect, however, it is likely that until there is an acceptance by the Russian Football Union and the Russian Premier League that this is a serious issue, the problem of match fixing his here to stay.

Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.