The Grey Market of Match-Fixing in European Football
Its about the grey market – il sistema – of points buying or match-fixing. This is the unspoken of secret that lurks at the heart of many European football leagues.
If you have seen the announcement by the Spanish authorities of their request for a ban and jail some 41 of their top footballers, you may be scratching your head as to the driving mechanism of this alleged match-fixing. The scandal revolves around a match in late-May 2011 between two teams in the Spanish second division – Levante and Real Zaragoza. The players alleged to be involved are some of the most prominent in football: Atletico Madrid captain Gabi, Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera, River Plate’s Leonardo Ponzio and Leicester City’s Vicente Iborra.
According to the Spanish prosecutors what occurred was, the very usual phenomena in many European leagues (step forward please – Greece, Turkey, Italy, etc), of a grey market of points being bought and sold by the teams. No reflection on the players’ guilt or innocence, they still have to face an actual trial, but lets look at what is purported to be behind the fix.
Points buying is a fancy term for match-fixing.
This is when a team that is in the middle of the division and can neither be relegated or promoted sells the game to a team that really needs to win. This is a great way of making money for clubs who are usually cash-strapped. It has been going on for decades. In Italy it is so part of the economics of running a football club, it is called il sistema.
Payments for the matches do not have to be in money – they can be in transfers of players.
The best examination of a case il sistema is from The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss. If you are interested in the real world of European club football then buy it and read it. The book is worth hundreds of other hagiographies of European football. It is an insightful tale of love-lost and is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to consider themselves an expert in Italian sport.
In the book, McGinnis listens to the players discussing how they will fix an upcoming match which the team management has allegedly sold for millions of Euro.
Senior player: The first [goal] must come immediately. Even before the people take their seats. That way it is not noticed so much. And then two more, as they develop, but all in the first half.”
Junior player: And in the second?
Senior player: (laughing) In the second we all lie down and take a nap.
Junior player: But this will not look bad?”
Senior player: Look bad to whom? Do not worry. No one pays attention at these times. Everyone looks the other way. Only be careful never to shoot at the Bari goal tomorrow. That would be a mistake.
The Russian Grey-Market
In my books – The Fix and Insider’s Guide to Match-Fixing – I examine a case from the Russian League in 2004. The then-manager of Kaliningrad (Russian readers, at this point, raise their eyebrows saying, “Of course! Where else but Kaliningrad?”) tried to work a fix in the grey market by approaching other teams, players and referees to buy points for his hapless squad who would be relegated if they did not win. The problem for the poor manager was that he was taped by someone (presumably one of the myriad of Russian law-enforcement agencies) who promptly leaked the tapes to the local investigative journalist.
The transcripts make for fascinating reading of how the grey market in European football actually works. They are also pretty scarbrous. The four different Russian translators that – independently – worked on the transcripts alternatively laughed or were shocked by the language used. Here is a cleaned-up version of the some of the transcripts:
Aide: So I think it is not a problem [fixing the game]. I will find him (the opposing team manager) now and talk to him.
Manager: Genya. I’m not asking you. I’m begging you. I need the result. Fuck! Life or death! Fuck!
Then to get the fix happening, the manager needs money to bribe a referee. He phones up the sponsor of his club and has the following, hilarious, conversation:
Manager: Yes, that is why I’m phoning you. I wanted you to help me with some money, fuck. Because now with the game coming up, fucking hell, it’s needed! There is little hope from the players.
Manager: What the fuck are you laughing about?
Sponsor: About the players.
Manager: But I really wanted to make you a present – a victory.
Sponsor: A victory?!
Manager: Yes, fuck.
Sponsor: But what is needed from me, so they win?
Manger: I need twenty pieces ($20,000 US).
Sponsor: Shit! Twenty pieces? In order to beat them? Twenty pieces?
The other problem that the manager of the Kaliningrad team had was that – although allegedly some of the other team managers were willing to fix, the badly-paid players were very willing to fix and the referees regarded match-fixing as an occupational perk – he could not guarantee the fix. In other words, the team/players/referees may take his
money and then not deliver the fix. Eventually, he finds an unnamed Chechen who is able to ensure that the fix happens without any problems.
The North Korea of Ireland
This grey market of points buying/selling occurs across European football. Even in Ireland, the Football Association (FAI) has finally woken up to this danger after one team was accused of existing in the ‘North Korea of Ireland for business’.
Given the endemic culture of ‘Thanks, Big fella’ corruption in rural Ireland, this surely is one of the worst insults that Kim Jong-un and his North Korean regime has endured since the South Koreans called him a ‘Cavan Man without the ethics’. He famously responded by saying, “Your man in the Blue House is nothing but a Dublin Castle informant for the CIA.” (At this point, Irish readers are doubled-over laughing, slapping knees, creaking suspenders, etc. The rest of you are undoubtedly puzzled, but take it from me, that this is all very witty.)
There are two key issues.
The first is that while the culture of buying/selling points in European football firmly entrenched, few officials are willing to do anything to stop it. There is a very simple way of stopping il sistema – introduce a play-off system.
The second issue is that, of course, widespread, off-shore gambling is like gasoline on this already burning fire. A team can pay another team to lose match. Then bet on-themselves to win through brokers in the Asian gambling market. This way they refund themselves the cost of the fix. Conversely, the team that takes cash to lose, bets against themselves and can gain ten times the amount of money from fixing.
As for the alleged match-fixing in Spain, expect lots of official condemnation, lots of stern expressions and words from sports officials and little concrete action to stamp-down on this lucrative grey market.
Note: To Spanish speakers I speak at length about the problems in Spanish football. “If you had to design a football league that invites corruption, it would be difficult to do better than Spain.” The interview is with the excellent Professor Juan Antonio’s Doble-Cara podcast and can be found here: