No one cares about match fixing. Not really.
We’ve heard too much about it, and never in games that matter. It’s always a South African friendly or a game in the Norwegian second division. It never gets anywhere near the soccer we actually watch.
All the constant talk about fixing has done is subtly alter the experience of viewing the World Cup. It’s made us all paranoid seekers.
That particular brand of football ESP was tingling electrically on Thursday as Ghana took the field against Portugal.
Ghana’s football association has a long history of warring with its own players. If previously those were introductory skirmishes, they’re now in the midst of their Gettysburg.
The team was promised a portion of the minimum $8-million (U.S.) FIFA gives to all of the 32 competitors here. The money was slow to arrive. The players grew edgy. Ahead of their final group game, they demanded payment in cash.
Threatened with a team strike, the Ghanaian government agreed to fly $3-million to Brasilia for distribution. Brazil’s Globo carried live shots of the motorcade moving from the airport to the team hotel. Apparently, Brazil’s reputation for brazen street crime is oversold.
The money was handed out in a ballroom. Someone took a grainy shot of defender John Boye kissing his $100,000 stack as he went back to his room.
The next morning – about five hours before its final game – Ghana announced it was throwing two of its biggest stars off the team. Kevin-Prince Boateng was accused of verbally abusing the manager. Sulley Muntari had apparently gotten in a wild fight with a senior Ghanaian official about the yet-to-arrive money and given him a pretty decent kicking.
This was all beginning to sound more complicated than Dallas on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963. Characters moving in and moving out. The team in clear turmoil. There was also the spectre of a British TV sting from earlier in the week that accused Ghanaian football officials of selling the results of upcoming friendly games involving the same national team. More games we don’t care about.
The story caught almost no traction outside Britain, but it was beginning to seem prescient.
As you sat down for Portugal-Ghana, you would not have actually said the word “fix,” but, man, it was on your mind. Money changing hands, veteran players pushed out of the way, a power play in the dressing room over God knows what – this had the stink of a predetermined result.
This feeling deepened in the 31st minute when Portugal’s Miguel Veloso popped a ball into the Ghanaian penalty area. The ball was rising on – you guessed it – John Boye. Instead of heading it away, Boye tried to knock it out of the air with his foot. He managed to skin it off his shin and up into the corner of his own net.
As own goals go, this one was impressively stupid.
Did he do it on purpose? Probably not. Almost certainly not. That would’ve required more skill than most would credit Boye with.
But there’s that voice in your head going, “Don’t be naive.”
Boye plays for Rennes in France. He makes a very good living. He is the sort of player who should be immune to shady inducements.
And while you are still thinking that, 15 minutes later, Boye does nearly the same thing again. Another Portuguese ball into the box. Another comical flail at it. This time, Boye’s looping clearance sails wide of his own net.
Ghana goes on to score. For 20 minutes, they’re one more tally from qualification for the Round of 16. Then, Portugal pulls one back and it’s over. Ghana is headed home.
Was there a fix? Again, almost certainly not.
It’s too hard to piece together at this level, and far, far too hard to keep quiet afterward. The players are already too well-paid. FIFA has too many systems in place to track huge, unusual wagers. However romantic the idea of a global footballing cabal sounds, it’s damned difficult to put together on the ground.
FIFA’s problem is that the constant chatter about fixes on lesser, more corrupt stages filters up to its product.
Although fix-culture has no effect on appetite – World Cup viewership continues to rise every four years – it does induce paranoia.
When Cameroon’s Alex Song chased Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic down the field and clumsily elbowed him in the back, you wondered. Cameroon was another team in an embarrassing pay-for-play row with its football association.
When Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev allowed a routine shot to dribble through his hands and into the net, you wondered. “First goal” is the simplest prop bet for a goalie to fix.
You don’t even want to start thinking about the iffy officiating decisions. The referees are, after all, the lowest-paid participants in the show.
Once you begin looking for them, there are dozens of moments of doubt. Every bad mistake begins to look like an artful dodge.
That’s the real reason FIFA is so anxious to clean up the game at the lower levels. Not because they believe that rot can work its way up this high. But because even the suggestion that it could poisons the confidence of its customers.