Russian Doping & Fixing: A Normal Way of Business

In the light of Richard McLaren’s report on doping in Russia.  Here is a backgrounder from The Fix on corruption in Russian sports.  Russian

Kaliningrad is a grim, grey city stuck at the far western end of Russia. It is full of crumbling dockyards, high unemployment, and mobsters. The city is an odd outpost of the remains of the Soviet Empire. It is a Russian Baltic port, completely cut off from the rest of country and wedged between Lithuania and Poland. It also had a pretty bad soccer team, Baltika Kaliningrad.

In September 2004, Baltika Kaliningrad was in the Russian first division (meaning, in the complicated terminology of European soccer, that it was actually in the second division). The Russian soccer season runs from March to November, and by this time it was clear that Baltika was in trouble. They had had a terrible time, collecting only twenty-six points out of a possible ninety-three. If they continued in this fashion, they would be relegated to a lower division. The team president, Dmitri Chepel, decided to try to fix two games, in an effort to try to save his team. Over several weeks, his phone was tapped and his attempts to arrange the games were recorded. It is unclear just who taped Chepel’s calls. The best guess is rogue, presumably soccer-loving, elements in one of Russia’s myriad security agencies, such as the FSB (formerly the KGB). They leaked the tapes to a local magazine, Novye Kolyosa, run by a maverick and energetic editor, Igor Rudnikov. Rudnikov created a huge controversy in Kaliningrad by publishing the transcripts of the tapes in his magazine.

I was alerted to the story by a colleague who studied the Russian judicial system and its illegal alternatives. It became one of the best cases for me to understand why contemporary European club officials get involved in fixing a game. So over the next few months, in the library or at the grounds of my college, half-a-dozen different Russian students translated, re-translated, and then checked one another’s work to get an accurate portrait of what went on. The transcripts themselves read like a cross between The Sopranos and an Abbott and Costello movie. However, Chepel is not a member of the mafia, so the whole incident is more like a Chekhov or Gogol short story: a hard-working member of the public service working in a very corrupt environment who is just trying his best to save his beloved team by whatever means possible.

Aide:                          So I think it is not a problem [fixing the game]. I will find him now and talk to him.

Chepel:                      Genya. I’m not asking you. I’m begging you. I need the result. Fuck! Life or death! Fuck!

Chepel’s desperation shines throughout the transcripts and illustrates the first key question in the decision of a corrupt club match-fixer: is the game important enough to bother fixing? The answer, for most club officials, depends on the time of the game in the season. There are certain key games that are worth far more in terms of the standings than any others because of where they fall during the season.

For Chepel, in the unglamorous Russian first division, successfully arranging a fixed match at this point in the season greatly reduced Baltika’s chances of being relegated. Financially, this was key. The difference for a team in England between playing in the Premier League or the Championship (effectively the first and second divisions) is estimated to be £60 million. In Russia, the figure is lower, but it still ensured that the two late-in-the-season games held enormous stakes for Baltika and Chepel.

The next question is a moral one: is it ethically right to fix a match? In his telephone conversations, Chepel and his aides seem completely unbound by any moral considerations. In fact, when one person doesn’t want to fix a game for ethical reasons, Chepel’s aide is unable to under- stand and imagines that he must be afraid.

Aide:                     

Hell, Dmitri, I managed to talk to [the president of the other team]; he says that he doesn’t want to fucking do anything [fix a match].  Their coach is too principled . . . So I said to him, “It doesn’t matter: your team is already relegated.” And he said, “Well I understand, but we won’t fix.” I don’t get it! Maybe they are chicken?

Morality is a tricky thing to judge. It is easy to sit and think, Oh, I would never fix a game. But what would happen if lots of other clubs in the league fixed games? There are actually two questions that a possible fixer has to ask himself: Am I moral and is my competition moral? In this case, one of Baltika’s opponents was too principled, even when the team was already relegated, to fix a game with Baltika. However, the real con- sideration for Dmitri Chepel is whether another team, a rival of Baltika for relegation, may fix their games.

The problem at this stage for Chepel is that he simply does not know what other rival teams might do. It is this factor that gives rise to incentive payments in the Russian league, where some teams pay their rivals’ opponents to play honestly and not accept any potential fix. CSKA Moscow is one of the top teams in the Russian league, and their president, Yevgeny Giner, has spoken openly of paying incentive payments to teams so they would not take part in fixed matches that would help CSKA’s rivals. Almost unbelievably, Giner was, in 2006, also the president of the Russian Premier League. So if this situation is normal in the league, Chepel’s decision not to think about the morality of fixing is understandable. It is also understandable that one of the Asian fixers I met spoke of his colleague who worked out of Russia. He claimed that he had a number of regular teams that he worked with. Presumably, it saved them all the bother of fixing games themselves.

The next question a corrupt official asks himself is a practical one: Can my team win honestly? All things being equal, even fixers prefer to win games honestly: less trouble, less expenses, no headaches. However, Chepel had absolutely no confidence in his team. Nor did many other people, as this excerpt from the conversation with a team sponsor, whom Chepel approaches for fixing money, illustrates:

Chepel:                  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.

Team Sponsor:  (laughs)

Chepel:  What the fuck are you laughing about?

Team Sponsor:  About the players.

Chepel:               But I really wanted to make you a present – a victory.

Team Sponsor: A victory?!

Chepel:                          Yes, fuck.

Team Sponsor:But what is needed from me, so they win?

Chepel:                         I need twenty pieces (U.S. $20,000).

Team Sponsor:            Shit! Twenty pieces? In order to beat them? Twenty pieces?

Chepel:                       Yes.

The players of Baltika Kaliningrad are considered so laughably inept that they could not possibly win a game without fixing. However, strong teams will also fix games against weaker teams. In May 1993, Jean-Pierre Bernès and Bernard Tapie decided to fix a soccer match. Bernès was the general manager of Olympique de Marseille, Tapie the team president and a one-time cabinet minister of the French government of the time. Marseille was to play Valenciennes FC. On paper it was an easy match for Marseille; they were one of the strongest teams in Europe and Valenciennes were third from bottom of the French first division. But Tapie and Bernès got one of their players, Jean-Jacques Eydelie, to approach some of the Valenciennes players to throw the match.

After Eydelie contacted them, Bernès spoke to one of the Valenciennes players and dropped the line “You are going to lose anyway. Why don’t you lose with 30,000 francs in your pocket?” It is a great phrase that is the key to many players and referees accepting bribes to fix games. It also sums up the question that many observers had about the affair: why did Marseille bother to fix the game? What on earth possessed Tapie and Bernès to risk their entire careers to fix such an easy game?

The answer is a complicated one. It is partly, as Eydelie would write later, that a culture of fixing had arisen on the Marseille team. The culture had become so embedded that the officials had all grown too confident and cocky and “cheating had become second nature.” It was partly to save their players from injury; they had another big match the next week. But there is also a concept from betting that is useful in understanding what goes on in the minds of corruptors. At the heart of all wagers is the mathematical idea of probabilities: that there is predictable rate of chance that will always occur unless significantly altered in some fashion. For example, tossing a coin one hundred times, will result, roughly, in fifty heads and fifty tails. Successful professional gamblers and bookmakers use derivations of this idea to either place bets or calculate their odds. Those odds on a soccer game can be altered by buying better players or changing coaches. However, within that theory is a fundamental concept that drives match-fixing: no matter how strong one team becomes, there is always a chance that the weaker team could win the game. If the value of the game is low, a corrupt manager is willing to risk this chance that his stronger team will win honestly. However, as the value of the game grows – and for Olympique de Marseille, it was a very important game; win and they could win the entire French league championship, estimated to be worth more than 30 million francs – the incentive to leave the outcome to chance diminishes on the part of the corruptor. This is why in important games, corrupt officials will fix matches, even against much weaker teams. The officials are searching for certainty in the very uncertain world of soccer games.

The next question that a fixer must answer is can he afford to fix the game? A weak team may lose to a strong team and be relegated, but the cost of fixing the game is so prohibitive that it is simply not worth doing it. For example, many people may want to fix a game against Manchester United, but aside from the players being unwilling, they just cannot afford to do so. This consideration played a large part in Dmitri Chepel’s discussions. Many of the potential participants seem to be willing to discuss the possibility of fixing the game. It is whether Chepel can afford their price that is the central point of the discussions. In the following excerpt, he has negotiated a fix with the opposing team. However, he does not have enough money to complete the deal and is forced to ask for more time.

Chepel:                                     It’s not ready. I don’t have the whole amount. We have to fix. We have no other way. I have only thirty-five [$35,000]. Fuck. But I am preparing something. I could bring you the rest on Saturday. But at the moment I just don’t have anything.

Rival Team Official:                    Oh fuck.

Chepel:                                        We can give you this thirty-five now. And on Saturday, Iwill bring you the rest. What the fuck! You understand we only have thirty-five . . . And then I will give you the rest on Saturday. Maybe after the game, we will collect something from the tickets and I will give it to you. Fuck. I will bring it Saturday. I have to get at least three more. I cannot make a mistake here. Maybe we will win anyway. But we may lose and I do need guarantees.

The final question that a corrupt club official asks himself is whether the league or another outside force (the police) will impose sanctions on him if he is caught. There are effectively two parts to this question: will I be caught? And then, secondly: if I am caught, will there be heavy sanctions?

Bernard Tapie got it completely wrong. He was discovered and eventually sent to jail. But, in the Baltika case, Chepel and his aides did not seem to consider any possible sanctions for their corrupt activities. Their attempts to fix the game are genuinely impressive in their thoroughness. Allegedly, they approached almost every conceivable person who could help them fix the game: rival players, coaches, administrators, and referees. Yet from what we can tell both from the transcripts and subsequent coverage, no one revealed their actions to the authorities and no soccer sanctions were ever taken against Chepel or the Baltika team.

Chepel appears to be no corruption neophyte, struggling with the decision of whether to fix for the first time. To explain this we need to know a little about the environment of the Russian league in which Chepel was operating, as the Russian soccer leagues of the past two decades have had a body count that rivals Al Capone’s Chicago.

 

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