Matt Scott: From graft to grass. Corruption allegations could stink out World Cup matches

“The Turks have a homely proverb: they say ‘the fish stinks first at the head’, meaning, that if the servant is disorderly, it is because the master is so.” Sir James Porter, Observations on the religion, law, government, and manners of the Turks

Considering its position as regulator of a game so steeped in laws, regulations and statutes, certain elements running FIFA have been disorderly for a long time. From the bribes taken by the former president João Havelange to the alleged payments by a FIFA executive committee member and confederation president to secure the World Cup hosting rights for Qatar, some things at football’s world governing body have been stinking for years.

Michael Garcia’s report into alleged vote rigging in the 2018/2022 World Cup-hosting decision looks like it will be explosive. Suggestions in the Sunday Times this weekend that the most senior officials at 30 African federations had received up to $200,000 each to support Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup suggest that elements of FIFA’s broader constituency also have a tendency to corruption.

This is deeply worrying. The federations, as those who control the appointment of match officials, are custodians of the integrity of the game itself. If they can be bought then so too can the result of an international match. Here we stand on the threshold of a World Cup, and in the past week almost 50 international matches have taken place. There is no question that match fixers are doing everything they can to penetrate these games. Do the people who should stand in their way have the will to do so?

Ralf Mutschke, FIFA’s head of security since March 2012 and a former director of Interpol, issued a warning last month. Mutschke told FIFA.com: “Football is being played worldwide and therefore we are threatened by organised crime on a worldwide level. The fixers are trying to look for football matches that are generating a huge betting volume. Obviously international tournaments such as the World Cup are generating these kind of huge volumes. And therefore the World Cup in general has a certain risk.”

Mutschke did add he did not see this risk as “a big one” but the message is clear. The magnitude of the World Cup means professional match fixers see it as an important target for their operations. The experience from the build-up to the last World Cup suggests Mutschke has every reason to worry. The New York Times quoted a confidential FIFA report last week that looked into events in South Africa in the months prior to its hosting of the 2010 World Cup. It alleged a match official from Niger had received $60,000 to rig an international match between Guatemala and South Africa as well as several other international matches over the period. The official denied involvement in any fixes.

However there were, said the New York Times, “hundreds” of pages of interview transcripts, emails, referee rosters and other confidential FIFA documents accompanying FIFA’s unpublished 44-page report. It found a Singapore match-fixing syndicate had infiltrated warm-up matches ahead of the 2010 World Cup. The newspaper quoted correspondence from April 2010 in which the convicted match fixer Wilson Raj Perumal offered the president of the World Cup host nation South Africa’s football association a referees’ exchange programme with his firm Football 4 U Int’l. The South Africa Football Federation’s acting head of refereeing from the time admitted to allowing Perumal to select referees for at least one game.

The incentives for the fixers are clear. According to a recent report by the Sorbonne University in association with the International Centre for Sport Security estimated the overall value of the sports industry to be between €800-900 million a year. This, it says, represents up to 1.8% of global GDP. Throw in perhaps another half-trillion euros from the illegal betting markets, from which the fixers secure their returns, and the scale of the opportunity available to organised crime syndicates looking to launder money is obvious.

“Today, 80% of bets on the global sports betting market are illegal,” the Sorbonne/ICSS report underlined. “The risks of using sports as a vehicle for money laundering are multiplying. It is estimated that roughly US$140 billion is laundered every year through sports bets, which means that more than 10% of the worldwide revenue of organised crime would gain the appearance of legality in this way.”

Among all sports, football is the one with the most proven cases of manipulation, meaning that our game has routinely become a vehicle for criminality across the globe. Players with gambling problems and the venality of certain federation and match officials place the integrity of match results in severe jeopardy.

The link between general corruption such as that apparently exhibited in the 2018/2022 bidding process and the threat to the integrity of the game of football is explicit. If a federation president is prepared to place his own corrupt financial interests ahead of the interests of the organisation for which he works in a matter such as the World Cup host-nation bidding decision, then it is a short step to accepting corrupt payments from fixers posing as official FIFA match agents wanting to subvert the results of international football matches. And what of the players who hear of the corruption of national association executives in corporate matters? What moral obligation do they then feel towards protecting the integrity of football results when those above them are graspingly involved in graft?

If Garcia finds any federation president or senior national-association official guilty of corruption, FIFA should ban those individuals from football for life – the risk they pose to the game itself is too great. Yet I fear the likelihood of that happening is slim. The structure of FIFA is highly politicised. Positions at the top of the FIFA tree are won through the political support of the Congress at large. Individual nations’ ability to operate according to their own caprices, without the prying interference of FIFA’s central regulators, is presumably key to their enduring support for the political status quo.

Now it is expected that at the pre-World Cup Congress plenary in Saõ Paulo next week we will witness a choreographed clamour for Sepp Blatter to run for a fifth term as FIFA president. As the Sorbonne/ICSS report demonstrates, the risks to the integrity of football have grown during his 16-year tenure at the top, through developments often beyond his control such as the growth of the online betting markets. But it is imperative to the future health of the game and of the World Cup itself, from which FIFA derives its revenues, that Blatter should grasp the nettle and tackle once and for all the corrupt elements within the Congress, even if they are his own political supporters.

He must, for his own legacy if nothing else. For surely he does not want to go down in history as the head that allowed the most important body in sport irreparably to decay.

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1603540334labto1603540334ofdlr1603540334owedi1603540334sni@t1603540334tocs.1603540334ttam1603540334.