As the media gathered at FIFA headquarters in Switzerland this week, the army of assembled international journalists seemed for the first time to be holding FIFA to account. Journalists who previously would have been too fearful to upset Sepp Blatter and his media force field for concern that it would adversely affect their careers, were now ridiculing world football’s dictator, answering back, and trying to force him into answering uncomfortable questions.
Predictably, anyone raising awkward issues was swerved and rebuffed, but more than this, they were patronised and disrespected by Blatter whose delusional proclamations about the state of football’s worldwide governing body were as morbidly amusing as they were unconvincing.
The resultant media storm has put pressure on FIFA to reform, it’s made the issue into front-page news with stories about wiping corruption out of the beautiful game and ensuring that those who run it are doing so with the best intentions for the sport, rather than *ahem * anything else.
Curious then, that events of the last couple of years that have seen alarming trends of concerning instances, not in Swiss offices but on the field of play. Yet they have continued to be ignored by the media at large.
The instances in question were described on social network Twitter as ‘flagrant match fixing’ commonly seen in international friendlies, and seems to be once more in evidence this week. The same day in fact, that Sepp Blatter was re-elected unopposed as FIFA president.
The suspicious game this week was “Guinness® The Match – Nigerian Super Eagles vs Argentina” as it was billed on announcement. The press release reads like a nauseating cinematic preview, the hero being Guinness® for “stepping in on behalf of the millions of football loving fans in Nigeria”, and providing them with the “event of a lifetime that no true football fan should miss.”
Interestingly, it goes on to say
“Guinness® has gone even further and created opportunities for the public to be more than just a fan by allowing fans to take part in Guinness® The Match in a unique number of ways. These will include being an assistant coach, official photographer, official TV and radio commentator as well as the chance to get behind the scenes, meet the players and more besides.”
However, to many, it seems that external participation and influence in this game was already far too high.
The game itself was between a strong Nigeria side missing just a couple of first choice players, against an Argentina ‘B’ team. This is the squad that Sergio ‘Checho’ Batista will be calling up for predominantly European based friendlies. It consists of mainly under-25 players who play in Europe and the idea is to give them a first step into international football.
Well, that, and make money. The Argentina name is one that will sell out most games and this was no exception, the money that the Argentine Football Association (AFA) makes from their three teams playing friendlies (the third team being one of domestically based players) is a significant income for the AFA.
With the Copa America squad announced the day prior to this friendly, those left out would be forgiven for feeling demotivated and this was in evidence early on, as Nigeria dominated the game and opened the scoring through Ikechukwu Uche. They scored a second from the spot shortly after when Ibrahim Chaibou, a FIFA-graded referee from neighbouring Niger, gave a penalty against Sevilla defender Federico Fazio for seemingly no reason. At the time it seemed like simply a bad decision, a mistake, but further actions threw events into suspicion.
Nigeria continued to play well, scoring another goal before half time and then one soon after. 4-0 up and cruising, the Nigerians began to enjoy themselves and relax in the knowledge they were beating (in name at least) one of the world’s top sides. Argentina’s players showed little inclination or ability to turn around the result and the game was fizzling out to a quiet finish.
Only it didn’t.
Suspicious betting patterns were rife across the internet, with just a few minutes of normal time remaining, the odds for there to be a fifth goal in the game were odds-on, around the 1.75-1.9 mark (approx. 5/6).
For those not in the know on all matters gambling, these odds are extremely short and were seemingly triggered by a strangely large volume of bets backing there to be another goal.
The referee indicated to the fourth official that there should be five minutes of stoppage time and there were. With minimal further delays, all the Nigeria players seemed slightly bemused as the game seemed to continue past this point.
In the 98th minute, a speculative cross was whipped into the Super Eagles’ penalty area and booted clear comprehensively with no Albiceleste players even in the box.
The reaction from the players was sheer incomprehension, seemingly given as handball with the ball no more than two feet from the ground, spectators gazed around themselves perplexed, hoping somebody else would be able to enlighten them on what they’d missed. As Mauro Boselli’s penalty rippled the back of the net, the final whistle was sounded on a 4-1 victory to the home side, a tremendous result but The Guinness® Match had left a bitter taste.
The thing with betting patterns is that there’s little way to prove when there’s something sinister going on. With the modern betting exchanges, it is a reactionary market and people are always keen to explain anomalies away as nothing of concern. With markets available on penalties, both teams to score, and goals, there are plenty of methods for the unscrupulous punter and their fixers to use.
This isn’t the first time though. In international friendlies, nor with Ibrahim Chaibou.
Chaibou has been refereeing international football since 1996, so is coming towards the end of his career as an official. Curiously though, it’s the third time in his last four friendlies that he’s given two controversial penalties in a game. He officiated South Africa’s 5-1 win over Guatemala where one of the two penalties was simply a ludicrous decision. He also oversaw Ecuador beating Venezuela 4-1 when both penalties came in added time.
In a recent friendly competition hosted in Turkey in front of minimal crowds; Latvia, Bolivia, Estonia and Bulgaria played two games with seven goals. All seven goals came from penalties and even one was retaken when it was missed. Again, these were accompanied by some alarming betting patterns.
Last September, FIFA said it couldn’t formally investigate a friendly between Bahrain and a fake Togo national team because neither federation complained.
Somehow the questions aren’t being asked though. It doesn’t affect England, France, Spain or any of the major nations seemingly so they’re willing to let it pass. Even the Argentine media seem unmoved by what they’ve seen happen to their own team.
There is a lazy argument that in meaningless friendlies like this, all the interested parties make some naughty money but nobody really gets hurt. Regrettably where the game is being brought into such brazen and unashamed dispute, football is getting hurt.
See for yourself (and it must be seen to be believed)
2nd penalty (including match highlights)