Or, how rotten is too rotten?
To reduce millions of people across the globe to a single, all-encompassing pronoun, if I may: what exactly do you want from sport? One asks only because of the thoughts and feelings stirred up by the impressive two–part New York Times exposé by Declan Hill and Jeré Longman about match-fixing in international soccer. Among the anecdotes: a company fronting for a Singaporean gambling syndicate kindly supplied the South African FA with a house-trained officiating crew for Bafana Bafana World Cup warm-up games in 2010, with predictable results. A betting syndicate set up an international tournament solely for its own profit. The Finnish league was fixed.
The scale of the Asian football betting market is flabbergasting. An executive at the Hong Kong Jockey Club contrasts it with FIFA’s World Cup revenue: “You know what they call $4 billion in the illegal betting markets in Asia?” The scene is run by very determined and ever-so-slightly murderous criminals, and they have a whole world of badly-paid footballers and referees to prey on. How terrible, you’re thinking, that this game of ours, which brings so much happiness to so many people, can be a medium for such awful dealings.
But what are you to do about it, you, the football-loving organism on the street? What are you supposed to do when you watch a game? How are you supposed to know what you’re getting for your dollar? All this manipulation of matches feels rather disempowering. The whole point of watching is that you get to see the production made up before your very proverbials. You want the goalkeeper’s howler to be a true living nightmare for the poor sap. You want the referee’s baffling reinterpretation of the Laws of the Game to come from ripe, heartfelt incompetence. When nobody knows what’s going to happen next, you get to collude in the creation of the drama. But if a mysterious someone does know what’s going to happen, you can’t join in. And if you can’t do that… why bother?
But then you think about all the people involved. We all know what people are like. Everyone has a price and someone willing to pay it. The world of soccer is broader than broad; its tentacles are long and infinite in number. It would be more shocking if there wasn’t some very juicy corruption going on somewhere. Ha!, your regrouped cynicism says, bring me the headline that says “Beautiful Game Is Also the Cleanest” and then, sir, you may presume to floor me with your hard-hitting investigative whatnot.
Do you seethe at the realization that you may have been duped before? Do you suspect everything you see? Or do you keep watching as normal? Do you allow the doubt to drift unnoticed to the back of your mind, to make itself known only with an occasional “Oh-ho!” at a seemingly whimsically awarded penalty before drifting back again?
And if there has to be such corruption—and you hate to say it, but you suppose there really has to be—then isn’t the place for it in some rinky-dink let’s-just-get-through-this-without-getting-crocked pre-tournament friendly? Or in a late-season game between two mid-table teams with nothing to play for in a league you weren’t paying attention to anyway? Or even in a dead Champions League tie? If our wretched species can’t leave well alone, then let the filth be diverted away from fertile ground and into soccer’s many natural sinkholes. As long as, say, the World Cup remains beyond the reach of these—
Oh God. Oh, God. The World Cup. You don’t think… Not the World Cup? No. The Times might think they can give their story a nitroglycerin kick by tagging it to the holy month, but you’re doubtful. You don’t think players and officials would sell their positions on top of the world for a few bucks. And surely the fixers wouldn’t target something as prominent as the World Cup. The Finnish Veikkausliiga? Perhaps. But the World Cup?
But what better way to hide a monster wager than in plain sight, during the biggest tournament in sport? And many of the fixers’ targets aren’t exactly minted. The early games always leave a trail of disheartened players who might be open to ways of making the sad farce worthwhile. Plus, those who know about these things reckon that it’s eminently possible. Soccer players are people, after all. And we know what people are like…
So the tournament comes along, and what do you do? Do you seethe at the realization that you may have been duped before? Do you suspect everything you see? Or do you keep watching as normal? Do you allow the doubt to drift unnoticed to the back of your mind, to make itself known only with an occasional “Oh-ho!” at a seemingly whimsically awarded penalty before drifting back again?
And say a World Cup fixing scandal does come to light, possibly just the tip of one mother of a ’berg. Will this shake your faith in football? Do you have a line which, should football cross it, will prompt you to utterly change the way you see the game and perhaps even write off the whole rotten charade? Or are you too far gone for that? You love a game in which every major administrative decision seems to revolve around the creation and siphoning away of vast pots of income—a game whose world governing body is run by one Joseph S. Blatter, for the love of aaaaarrrgh.
You can rationalize this, surely. You barely feel the strain of compromise anymore. Should this blow make you weary, even then your complex mind can find ways to take it. The world of football is broader than broad, after all; think of all those tentacles.