Jan28

The Tahrir Square that isn’t being reported

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The financial journalists have, for the most part, prophesized doom now that the Greeks have actually exercised their democratic rights and elected a political party that the financial chaps do not like.   However, Greek election was dominated by an issue that the international cheerleaders for other people's austerity never speak about – corruption. 

Below is an article that I wrote on a visit to Athens in December 2011. It is still relevant.

**

Athens, Greece. ‘Almost everything that you thought you knew about current-day Greece is wrong,’  that thought went through my head as I stood among a mass of demonstrators in Syntagma Square during the recent General Strike.  

There was a festive air: souvlaki sellers amidst grandmothers, students singing and lots of street theatre performances.   It was unlike any of the images that I had seen, there was no stone-throwing, no tear-gas or water-cannon attacks.  I may have been lucky but there was a wide spectrum of ordinary people marching in the demonstration.  The usual suspects were there, of course: the Anarchists, the Communists and the general drop-a-hat-see-me-protest lot. But there was also a broad range of others: nurses, farmers, doctors, actors and teachers.

After the demonstration was over, I walked past the rows of gas-masked policemen (generally far nicer than the thuggish louts of Canadian law enforcement at the G8 and G20) and the parliament building up to the rich Kolonaki area of Athens. 

Kolonaki is all Armani and espressos, designer stores amidst expensive cafes.  I interviewed a corporate lawyer in his offices there about the demonstrators.  I expected to hear a class-conscious diatribe about non-taxpaying freeloaders clogging up traffic. Rather, over coffee in bone-china cups, the lawyer said he liked the protests, had taken part in many himself and was sorry that he missed that day’s demonstrations.

I heard a lot of similar views from a broad range of people.   Nor are these sentiments an accident of selected interviews.  Greek opinion polls show consistent rates of over 75% of the population of all economic classes in support of the protests.

If you have read the international media for the last year, there have been lots of articles about the so-called ‘Greek psyche’.  Generally, they portray Greeks as a lazy, corrupt lot who are happy to sit around in the sun drinking ouzo and cheating German banks out of their hard-earned profits. To describe an entire population in these terms is dangerously close to racism, yet we hear this analysis constantly in the media.

The real problem is that the facts do not make mesh with this analysis. 

One fact - in an international survey of working hours in OECD countries, the Greeks are actually second in total hours worked only just behind the Koreans and far ahead of Canadians. 

Two, the Greek economy compared to the entire European Union is roughly the size of greater Miami to the rest of the United States.  Even a wide bankruptcy would be embarrassing but it should not shake the fundamental European economy. 

Three, part of the reason why so many Greeks have taken to the streets against their government is not to protest paying their taxes.  (Two-thirds of the people have little choice about paying as their tax is deducted from their salaries, as in Canada.)  Rather, people are partly on the streets because of a series of corruption scandals that have rocked the Greek domestic political landscape, but have received little attention outside the country. 

The most notorious is the Siemens Case.  Siemens is a German multinational company. In an irony missed on no one, high-level Siemens executives were put on trial in German courts for paying hundreds-of-millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to Greek politicians in exchange for over-priced infrastructure contracts.   While some of the German executives who paid the bribes were convicted in Germany, not a single Greek politician who actually accepted the bribes has gone to jail.  

It is not as if some of the politicians suspected of taking bribes have not been named. The Greek anti-corruption unit wrote a damning report of the Siemens case.   However, before they were allowed to investigate any further, they had to submit (by law) their findings to the Greek parliament.  Perhaps not surprisingly the Greek politicians decided not to allow many investigations of their own to continue.

It is many of these same politicians who are in charge of making the fiscal cuts that are supposed to satisfy German and other European banks.  Imagine Karlheinz Schreiber (a convicted German bribe-payer) and Brian Mulroney (a former politician with a credibility problem) being placed in charge of slashing Canada’s health care programs and you have some understanding of the anger of the Greek population.  

This is why so many Greeks are protesting on the streets, not because they are lazy or do not want to pay their taxes but because they have no faith in any of their politicians.

Jan15

Czech Kudos, Turkey's Embarrassment and Yet More Dodgy Officials

Categories // Blog

To start January with good news: well done the Czechs!

I have just returned from the Czech Republic and the police there have done something almost unparalleled in the match-fixing world.   They have swooped in and arrested 25 people and busted up an alleged match-fixing ring in the lower divisions of their football league.

Well, ho hum. 

In football that happens just about every week: police come busting in and arrest loads of players, coaches and referees. 

Ahhh, yes; but this is different!  The Czech police have arrested officials.  Genuine officials.  Not some hapless referees or coaches, but team owners and league administrators. 

Some of the arrested officials may be innocent: but it is at this level of people where the problem of sports corruption is the worst.

The Czech investigation has two general implications.

First, it shows up these ridiculous ‘education’ program sponsored by FIFA and laid-on by consultants and former cops.  How ‘FIFA-sponsored ethics courses’ could ever have been taken seriously is beyond me.   What you have often had is the spectacle of law-abiding players being ‘educated’ on why they should not deliberately lose matches while some of the officials who orderthem to fix the games stand around and look serious at the back of the room.

Two, it shows up that ‘academic research’ that explores the questions ‘why don’t police take match-fixing seriously?’ and ‘do we have the laws that can stop match-fixing?’

Oh please.  If the academics who did this kind of work could ever get out of a conference hall they would discover that they have been fooled by sports officials.  These officials want to hide exactly what the Czech police have allegedly shown: match-fixing is often directed by sports officials.  The very level of people who are telling the academics whoppers like the police do not take match-fixing seriously (60 national police investigations around the world and counting) or that there is not enough legislation to stop it.

The key question is ‘why don’t other jurisdictions do what the Czechs do?’

The answer is Turkey.

It is difficult to overstate the corruption in Turkish football. 

It is even more difficult to overstate the twisting and turning by various officials to excuse the former Fenerbahçe official Aziz Yildrim of his conviction for match-fixing.

To review: in July 2011, Yildrim was arrested, along with 90+ other people connected to football in Turkey.  Many of them were successfully convicted (please take note academics).  The evidence was long and copious.  Hours of taped phone conversations where Yildrim and other officials rigged the transfer market, arranged for sympathetic referees and bought/sold matches.   His conviction was upheld in several trials.  UEFA also stepped in and ensured that Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaşwere banned from European football.  Their decision was reviewed and then upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (the effective Supreme Court of sporting law). 

However, because of the popularity of Fenerbahçe and the various machinations of Turkey’s politicians there has been tremendous push-back against these convictions: legislation has been repealed, a Presidential veto over-turned, the Turkish Football Federation was replaced and now Yildrim is back on trial in Istanbul.  What Yildrim has managed to do is put Turkey’s entire legal system on trial. He is claiming that all of his troubles and the hours of taped conversations were faked by supporters of an Islamic scholar-turned-politician living in Pennsylvania.

The essential point for outsiders is – if you were a police officer would you want to deal with all these attacks or would confine yourself to arresting the hapless players and low-ranking referees?

Understand the answer to these questions and you understand what many Asian countries have been doing for years and why match-fixing is so rife on that continent.

**

Below is a recent interview from the Malta Times written by the very good Kevin Azzopardi.

‘Match-fixing is killing football’

Investigative journalist Declan Hill claims that Asian match fixers are responsible for rigging games all over the world, including Malta. Kevin Azzopardi spoke to the writer of internationally-acclaimed book ‘The Fix’ and ‘The Insider’s Guide to Match-Fixing in Football’

Cancer, malaise, plague, plight...

These are some of the words that are widely used to describe match-fixing and its devastating effects with Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, declaring that the problem was “crushing the soul of football”.

Declan Hill is neither a football official nor a police officer but his investigative journalism has shed a compelling light on the motives and methods of the gangs that pull the strings in the match-fixing underworld.

This is a guy who has come face to face with one of the most notorious Asian match-fixers who, as they spoke, rigged football games in several countries.

“Football and sport have given me some of the most beautiful moments of my life, some great moments of friendship, beauty and competitive spirit,” Hill told Times of Malta.

“And to see the threat that modern-day sport is under... football is now in an existential crisis.

“In other words, if we don’t solve this problem of match-fixing, it’s over. It’s not going to be over this Sunday but in the next five to 10 years you’re going to see what’s happening in Bulgaria happen in Malta where the crowds would dwindle, the sponsorships would go.

“So, we have about five to 10 years and then it will be over, we would have killed sport.”

Football has been shaken by a series of match-fixing scandals in the last decade.

A few years back, the Bochum police unearthed a network of corruption that they believe may have been responsible for manipulating as many as 300 matches across Europe, including Malta’s Euro 2008 qualifier against Norway which led to former international midfielder Kevin Sammut being banned for 10 years.

Hill lauded the police for their sterling work but bemoaned the response from the authorities.

“I just don’t think, I’m sure it is the tip of the iceberg. I believe that, in most cases, police have done fantastic work,” Hill said.

“Everything that we know about this match-fixing world comes from Bochum, it comes from a number of police investigations around the world.

“I’ve had the good fortune of uncovering a match-fixing ring in Asia.

“They were arrested, some of the guys were arrested in Finland and convicted, so that stuff is coming out. The court cases are coming out.

“However, the response of the gambling industry and sporting authorities has been nonsense.”

FIFA and UEFA have long advocated a zero-tolerance approach to match-fixing while governments have, on countless occasions, pledged to beef up their fight against corruption in sport but Hill has clearly not been impressed.

“I think much of their efforts are shadow puppet theatre,” he claimed.

“They are dancing around... I’m not trying to say that they are crooks but they simply will not take this seriously. It’s a really big act that they’re doing.

“Look, here’s the headline for your readers.

“We know who most of the fixers are, we know their photos, we know where they live, we know what they’ve done and, consistently, they have either not been arrested or currently a number of them have been arrested but they’re put in detention and they’re never put on trial.

“If you put those guys on trial, European football would have a major shock because they would talk about football associations corrupting, they would talk about teams corrupting, they would talk about famous players and famous coaches corrupting,” Hill added.

“However, I believe that it’s better for us to have that massive shock, it’s better for us to remove the tumour from the body and then we go on because then people would be afraid.”

Given that the majority of the players are not full-time professionals and the clubs are bedeviled by financial problems, it is generally assumed that Maltese football is easy prey for match fixers.

“I’ve seen fixed games at almost every level of football,” Hill remarked.

“The key is not how much you pay the player, it is whether you pay the players at all and this is something Franz (Tabone, MFA integrity officer) and I are in complete agreement with.

“If a club signs a contract with a player, most of the time in football they are just nothing, worthless pieces of toilet paper and we have to get into the sporting industry the context of modern business that if you sign a contract saying that you pay a player a €1,000 a week, you have to pay them €1,000 a week.”

Extraordinary story

Hill described his discussion with the top Asian fixer, whom he called Chin Lee, as “the most extraordinary conversation I have ever had”.

“Part of the issue was that every syllable of what he said I found out later were true,” Hill observed.

“We met in a private golf course, there were very good-looking women in the room, a couple of his aides around. He had four telephones and he was just fixing games right there, including one in the Bundesliga.

“And I was like, after an hour and so, I said ‘What’s the biggest game you have ever fixed? He said... ‘I don’t know, what’s bigger the Olympics or the World Cup’.

“Two things went through my mind... One is I really hope I get out of this alive and two, if this man is not the biggest bullshitter, this is an extraordinary story.”

It has long been acknowledged that the most notorious match-fixing syndicates are based in Asia.

“We have to say that Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia... these people are coming to Malta, they’re coming to Greece, they’re coming to all the countries around the world, including Canada, and they’re fixing our sport,” Hill said.

“(The message should be) It’s your problem and you guys have to take this seriously, if you don’t arrest your guys and put them on trial or extradite them to our countries, you are not part of this international sporting movement and frankly, who would care.

“Like if Singapore and Malaysia, where most of the fixers are, were thrown out of the international Olympic movement and thrown out of FIFA, would we care? Their teams are not very good, their sports aren’t very good.

“Why? Because corruption has ruined it but they are exporting their football fixing around the world.

“I will give you an example...I remember in 1985, after the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels where UEFA said to England... ‘No disrespect, but your people are coming to our countries and they are killing our people, so we’re not going to allow you in football for the next five years, you have to clean it up.

“And fair play to the English, they cleaned it up. Now, does football hooliganism still go? Yes, it goes on but much, much less than before.

“The same thing needs to be done to these four Asian countries, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

“Their people are coming to your country. They set up with Ante Sapina the fix of your national team.

“Now Sapina is in jail, Kevin Sammut is expelled from football for 10 years but what about the Asian guys who were running them?”

 

Dec12

Canada's Embarrassment

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It was the incompetent meet the tolerant of corruption.

If you had the good fortune to miss last weekend’s draw for the Women’s World Cup hosted by the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and FIFA, then you missed one of those dreadful ‘Yes sir/no sir’ events beloved by branch managers across Canada when their foreign bosses drop in.

The foreign bosses in this case are FIFA: an organization that has become synonymous with corruption as a whole series of its senior executives have either been convicted of bribery or entrapped by journalists taking pay-offs.   At the draw, FIFA was represented by its second-in-command Jérôme Valcke, a man who once lost his job after testifying to a New York court of his “commercial lies”.  However, in FIFA terms Valcke is one of the good guys.

As for our own CSA, their executives are a laughable lot who have been blessed with the opposite of King Midas’s touch - everything they touch turns toxic.   From the Canadian men’s national team who are currently languishing at 110th in the world, below soccer powerhouses like Benin, the Faroe Islands and Latvia; to the strange prevalence of match-fixing in Canadian soccer, the CSA has distinguished itself by a steady mixture of incompetency.

Now, with this upcoming Women’s World Cup (“Canada welcomes the world”) CSA and FIFA have outdone even themselves in their capacity to attract unwanted controversy.

They have come up with a plan to play the games of the tournament on artificial turf.

Soccer players of every professional level loathe artificial turf.   They claim that it is harder on their joints when sprinting. It is tougher on their legs when tackling.  In short, it causes them more injuries. When top soccer teams like Manchester United, Barcelona or Real Madrid go on tour, their officials insist that their games are played on real grass.  Want them to play? The organizers have to put in natural grass or there is no game. 

At the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, as in every previous men’s tournament, the games were played on grass. 

Men play their World Cup on grass: women should play their World Cup on grass.  To say otherwise, is sexism pure and simple. 

This is the view of dozens of the world’s top female players including almost the entire American national team and 13 U.S. Senators. The women have hired a lawyer to file a suit before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.  Other top female players have, according to documents filed before the Tribunal, been intimidated by soccer officials to withdraw their support for natural grass.


The excuses not to have grass for Canada’s hosting of the World Cup have ranged from the feeble to the bizarre.   Some have suggested that our country does not have enough grass in June to properly cover the fields (news to most of us who live here). 

Others have suggested that because the only other official contender to host the tournament was Zimbabwe, critics should just shut up (when Zimbabwe, a third-world hell-hole, is used as the standard of comparison, you know there is something wrong with the argument).

Others have suggested that it is all a matter of cost and Canada as a country simply cannot afford the couple of extra million dollars to have real grass on its fields (Maybe we should now change our slogan to “Canada kind-of-welcomes the world to a stingy, second-class event”).

Whatever the real reason: CSA and FIFA have given a clear, unmistakable message to fans around the world.   Their stance says that there are two types of soccer.  One is the real kind - played by men.  Then there is a second, inferior sport played by women.

Dec05

It Just Got Worse: More on Greek, Turkish Football and Systems of Corruption

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After thugs beat up the one of the referee coordinators with iron bars you would not think it could get worse.

It just did.

Yesterday, the Greek press published articles about a letter signed by UEFA and FIFA that warned the Greek authorities about their stance on corruption in their football leagues.

You might think, “Great!  Finally the international football authorities are moving to protect the long list of abused players, beaten-up referees and journalists in Greece.  Finally, FIFA and UEFA are swooping in to ensure no club owner or league official is ever arrested for possible corruption because they have established a secure system to deal with sporting corruption.”

You would be wrong.

You see Greek politicians and prosecutors are trying to clean up their football.   One of their national prosecutors has kicked off a major investigation against sports corruption with a series of arrests and their parliament is debating a series of Draconian laws against match-fixing. 

However, UEFA and FIFA’s letter is a warning to Greek authorities NOT to interfere in football.  It is a warning for the Greek authorities NOT to arrest anyone. It is a warning that Greek authorities should NOT prosecute anyone connected with Greek football.

We do not know how many of the people arrested so far in Greece are actually guilty.  However, it would be nice if we could actually have an independent investigation to properly uproot a system of sporting corruption so endemic that FIFPro – the player’s union – warns its members not to play in Greece.

What is the significance for people uninterested in Greek football?

Well, quite a lot actually.  

A few months ago, another report was published by well-meaning academics claiming that football authorities were hampered in the fight against match-fixing because police and prosecutors either would not take the issue seriously or the legislation in European countries was not sufficiently robust to prosecute match-fixers.

Sadly these researchers swallowed outright nonsense.

The Greek case shows what law-enforcement sources around the world repeatedly tell me: they are very willing to arrest dodgy sports officials, players or referees.  The problem is getting support from sports authorities.   Their view can be corroborated by a simple Google search; it will show that there have been waves of police investigations across Europe.  Often these investigations have resulted in successful convictions. The problem then is not with law-enforcement but with the people running sports.   

FIFA’s stance is reminiscent of the dreadful non-investigation of match-fixing in South Africa just before the 2010 World Cup.  Currently the South African authorities and FIFA are playing an odd game of pass the potato to avoid doing any serious investigation.

UEFA’s stance in Greece is even more inexplicable when you remember that when their anti-match-fixing investigator visited Greece a few years ago, his address and telephone number were leaked to the press putting the poor fellow in some danger.

As for Turkey, the country’s whose abject stance on football corruption most resemblances Greece, there is, once again, a direct comparison.  

In Greece, the politicians are hampered by football authorities in prosecuting corruption. 

In Turkey, once the police had managed to get convictions of the Fenerbahçe officials: the Turkish politicians overturned a Presidential veto and lessened the sentence for the Fenerbahçe officials found guilty.

So it is not clear which country – Turkey or Greece – is currently ahead in the sports corruption league: but we do know that once again football is the loser.

Dec04

It is All Happening Again: Greek, Turkish Football and Systems of Corruption

Categories // Blog

To start with the obvious: I like Greece, I like Turkey.  I love many of their peoples and I intensely dislike what I now have to write.  However, it is the truth, so here goes:

Greek football is deeply corrupt.  

Actually, that is an understatement.   What I should say, is that Greek football is so deeply corrupt, the entire sport should be closed down for a year while an independent, well-resourced investigator cleans it up.

For those who search for a metaphor for the extent of corruption in Greek society, the state of their football says it all.  It is difficult to overstate how bad Greek football is: murdered fans, beaten journalists, attacked referees, intimidated players, imprisoned club owners and now, the president of the top club in the country - Olympiacos FC - arrested. 

At this point, we do not know if the president of Olympiacos FC and the various high-level league officials also arrested are guilty.  Presumably, after umpteen years of court delays, trials and hearings some verdicts will emerge (the Greek legal system is a joke). 

What we can say that is that the only country that comes close to the sheer endemic nature of corruption in Greek sport is Turkish football.  It must be some obscure form of competition between these two countries.  A kind of ‘anything you can do, we can do dirtier’ that dates back to Byron and the War of Greek Independence.

As I write, I am reviewing a slew of documents sent to me by a British public relations agency hired by a Greek businessman who is disgusted at the amount of corruption in his native country’s sport.  Their sub-titles say it all:  organized crime in Greek football, corruption in Greek football, existence of a referee’s mafia, etc, etc.  I sent the documents to a Greek colleague fearing that they may have been faked. He read them, confirmed their veracity and replied, “Oh yes, all this is very well-known (emphasis added) here in Greece.”

Reading the Greek documents reminds me of reading the transcripts of the Fenerbahçe trials of their club officials. Fenerbahçe is Turkey’s biggest sports club.  It has approximately 25-million fans.  In the last few years, a number of different courts, including a UEFA tribunal and a Council for the Arbitration of Sport hearing, either convicted or upheld the convictions of Fenerbahçe football officials for corruption based on a set of secretly recorded telephone conversations. 

What was surprising about these conversations was not the match-fixing: there are a number of European leagues: Italy, almost any of the former Soviet countries, where the extent of widespread fixing is not a surprise.    What was genuinely astonishing about the Turkish documents (and now Greek) is that almost everything connected to their sports seems to have been fixed.   Not just fixed-games but also transfers, selection of referees, media coverage and administrative sports elections were all rigged: systematic corruption seems to be the way of doing of business in Greece and Turkey.

Or in the words of a young French player who found himself playing in Greece and now publicly warns against any international player doing the same, “It is a complete Mafia!”

Here are the real victims of this sport corruption: the fans. 

This is the reason that for the most part they stay away from the stadiums. The football in these countries now exists to facilitate corruption.   The lesson for sports-lovers in other countries is do not allow something similar to happen to your game.

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