“Everyone loves a conspiracy.” The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
With more than 200 million copies of his novels in print, it turns out the Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown had a point. There is something thrilling to be found in the hidden truth that only the beholder can see.
In football it has many guises: from the ‘in-the-know’ reporter or supporter who purveys gossip about a club’s transfer activity, to the one-eyed fan who sees bias and favouritism in every decision of the referee and officials, to the genuine, nailed-on betting sting. Of course for a betting sting to work, the act of conspiring to fix a result, event or outcome cannot be known beyond the ring of conspirators: the truth must remain hidden. It does not always work like that, though.
When there are reasonable grounds for suspicion, the cry of conspiracy will go up, and every last action within the event will be pored over for signs of wrongdoing. So it has been since the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported on Sunday that the convicted match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal had foretold on his website the scoreline of Cameroon’s World Cup match with Croatia, as well as claiming a man would be sent off in the first half.
In the event, Cameroon did indeed lose 4-0, just as Perumal had reportedly said, and their Barcelona player Alex Song was indeed red carded after 40 minutes. Song’s violent strike with his elbow on Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic as both men chased a ball seemed at the time completely inexplicable. But anti-corruption experts always make a legitimate point that what you see does not always tell the whole story. Coincidence can be a powerful force, and just because a man is seen at what might be the scene of a crime does not necessarily mean he did it.
Now I am not being an apologist for match-fixing, merely pointing out that there is as yet no corroborative evidence that would indicate Perumal’s prophecy was in fact a plot. If that evidence is found then it is to be hoped that severe sanctions are handed down to all perpetrators and that they are hounded out of football. What is very important here is that the authorities satisfy us all they have got to the bottom of what has happened and who, if anyone, has been involved.
Fécafoot, Cameroon’s national football federation, has been pleasingly responsive to the threat and Perumal’s claims of “seven bad apples” who colluded to rig all of Cameroon’s games at the World Cup. FIFA, meanwhile, apprears to have been less proactive. “Though not yet contacted by FIFA in regards to this affair, our administration has already instructed its Ethics Committe [sic], to further investigate these accusations,” said Fécafoot in a statement.
Perhaps FIFA has its hands full. A documentary programme aired by UK broadcaster Channel 4 in its Despatches slot last month exposed a senior official and consultant to the Ghana Football Association as seemingly being willing to organise Ghana World Cup warm-up fixtures for the purposes of match fixing. FIFA said afterwards that its Security Division was “evaluating the matter”. The GFA’s president, who featured in the programme, strenuously denied wrongdoing, as did the other two men secretly recorded by Despatches’ undercover reporters. The GFA has called in police to investigate those two men.
“It is important to note that we have no indications that the integrity of the FIFA World Cup has been compromised,” FIFA said in a statement following the Despatches programme. “Speaking generally, the integrity of the game is a top priority for FIFA and as such we take any allegations of match manipulation very seriously.”
But it seems not seriously enough to have responded immediately to Der Spiegel’s report that the World Cup had indeed been compromised. Is this because, as FIFA’s former chief investigator, Terry Steans, suggested to Despatches, there are only a tiny few people in the security department whose intention it is to guarantee the integrity of all of world football?
FIFA recently announced a bumper year for income from its general activities. Every national association in the world shared in the bonanza with $750,000 in bonuses from the organisation’s $72 million financial surplus from the year. If some of that were to be directed towards anti-corruption issues instead, it would surely be money well spent.
Maybe FIFA is confident in the unilateral procedures of countries like Cameroon. That ethics committee it speaks of as having launched an investigation into the allegedly fixed World Cup match against Croatia is an interesting thing. There is no reference to the committee’s constitution or composition on the Fécafoot website for instance. Where governance procedures are referred to, such as the organisation’s statutes or the decisions of its sanctions committee, the documents supposedly linked cannot be opened because the computer files are empty. The faith FIFA seems to have placed in Fécafoot conducting a thorough and substantive investigation into its own players and staff seems complacently misplaced.
This can only lead to the conclusion that, although alleged match fixing at a World Cup gets to the very heart of the future of the football industry under FIFA, there seems to be a disappointing commitment to preventing it. FIFA much more readily became involved when warning off statutory and judicial involvement in the extramural activities of Fécafoot staff. Iya Mohammed, then Fécafoot’s president, was jailed last June for alleged embezzlement funds from a state-owned company. Though this apparently had nothing to do with his football post, FIFA responded swiftly by suspending Cameroon from world football, putting at risk their involvement in the current World Cup. There is of course no surer way to guarantee public ire towards politicians and Mohammed was released – instantly crying foul and political motivation to his arrest – Cameroon was reinstated, following the involvement of a FIFA “normalisation committee” and under a new president their ‘performance’ at this World Cup was permitted.
Where is Issa Hayatou in all this? The Cameroonian vice-president of FIFA is president of the Confederation of African Football and a member of the International Olympic Committee: in short he is one of the most powerful men in sport. His website which describes itself as “celebrating the life of Dr Issa Hayatou” makes a virtue of how “Hayatou has overseen particularly successful FIFA World Cup appearances by Senegal, Nigeria and Cameroon” but he has been conspicuously silent on a scandal that threatens to profane the World Cup itself.
He and FIFA cannot sit idly by. It cannot pick and choose when to exercise its powers and responsibilities as a regulator: it must, in short, sort out its priorities. Is using surplus cash to curry favour from the (presidential-election-voting) member associations while leaving the anti-corruption department under-resourced a proper way for a regulator to proceed? It would be truly dismaying if – as seems possible – some of those voters, custodians as they are of international football would consider properly resourcing a beefed-up Security Department unfavourable. (See related article, and please be aware: I genuinely take no pleasure in seeing my suspicions articulated there seemingly taking shape at this World Cup.)
We all love a conspiracy, sure. In a book. Letting the conspirators run wild at a World Cup is going far, far too far though.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.