Column: Football must not make cycling's mistakes
PARIS (AP) — Football, like cycling after the disaster that was Lance Armstrong, will be half dead as a sport if it reaches the point where spectators commonly think "Fix!"
That day inched closer this week, too close for comfort.
The somewhat self-aggrandizing announcement from Europol that organized crime gangs have fixed or tried to fix hundreds of football matches around the world wasn't, strictly speaking, news.
Long before the European Union's police agency spoke out, those who have monitored match-rigging in football with mounting concern already knew that law enforcement authorities in Germany previously identified 340 games there and elsewhere that they suspect may have been fixed in recent years.
Add to that at least two dozen league and cup matches that a gambling syndicate operating from Singapore is alleged to have rigged in Italy from 2008 to 2011, plus bribes that convicted fixer Wilson Raj Perumal paid to players in Finland, and you quickly approach the figure Europol cited of 380 suspect games in Europe.
Because Europol refused to actually name suspect matches, players, officials or fixers, it wasn't evident whether the agency was breaking significant new ground or largely reheating previously known information so it could share in the limelight of the world's most popular sport. Certainly, its football press conference made a bigger splash than, say, Europol's announcement last week that police made 103 arrests in dismantling a network that smuggled migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere into Europe.
Still, Europol was right to trumpet that criminal gangs betting on the outcome of rigged games are corroding football from within. A few hundred possibly rigged matches, the vast majority not in football's most glamorous leagues and tournaments, might not seem like a huge threat for a sport with tens of millions of registered players and tens of thousands of matches played around the world each year. But complacency can be fatal. Football needs only to look to cycling to see how fragile credibility can be.
To imagine that fixing could continue to grow to the point where the very top reaches of football — its brightest stars and biggest tournaments — are corrupted looks, for the moment, over-dramatic. But it also seemed for years unlikely that Armstrong could be getting away with one of the biggest sporting frauds in history. One of the most valuable lessons from the doper's downfall is that it is healthy to be skeptical. Be certain now, not sorry later.
Now, when a leading player misses a penalty or scores an own goal, we can accept that that is just one of the uncertainties that makes football so entertaining. How quickly that would change if an agency like Europol announced that World Cup final games were rigged or that football icons were on fixers' payrolls.
"One of the great harms is that when you see something spectacular happen in terms of a comeback or spectacular happen in terms of a defeat you ask yourselves: 'Is what I saw something that really happened or something that was fixed?' That's one of the great harms of match-fixing," the secretary general of Interpol, Ronald K. Noble, said in an Associated Press interview. "It's undermining credibility."
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