Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Beautiful Scam

Here's a stumper. How the hell do you do fix a soccer game, anyway? Try not to score?

The front page of today's "New York Times" tells me that 15 people have been arrested in Germany for fixing a whole bunch of soccer matches, including a few Champions League fixtures (if you're not familiar with the sport, that's fixing the highest level of European competition, roughly akin to a bag job in an NFL playoff game). Authorities hinted darkly at major revelations to come, and I certainly hope they're not teasing us.

Many international soccer players are paid as much or more as U.S. star athletes. But many more are not. The Champions League contains clubs from small Eastern European countries and from the former Soviet Union where all of life is a racket, let alone sports, and where the value of the national currency means a player's salary won't buy lunch outside his native land. So motive and opportunity for fixing is there. Means, however, I just don't get.

In a sport where scores are few and far between, and the percentage of scores that take place entirely by accident is quite high, fixing games would seem to be a high-risk venture. You have the goalkeeper and a linesman on the pad, and some knucklehead turns in the own goal that sends you fleeing to parts unknown one step ahead of the bookies' legbreakers. I really don't see how a fixed soccer match would be a sure thing unless one had all 22 players for both sides and their coaches and the refs in on the fix -- which sounds like it doesn't offer much return on investment.

Apparently I'm wrong, however, at least according to German authorities. The article states that match fixing is a soccer commonplace, because of all the money gambled on the sport. That's where I really step off the train. The entire world must have a serious gambling problem if it's daft enough to bet money on a sport where 0-0 games are the norm. Worse yet, the end of the article (by the way, readers, the best part of most newspaper stories come at the end) reveals that "Asian gambling rings" fix matches involving "part time professionals" in "lower levels of the game."

That is to say, gamblers in Asia are able to get down millions of dollars in bets on semi-pro soccer games. Where have those books been all my life? People in Guangdong province are wagering heavily on Latvian minor leaguers? People bet on games that aren't on TV? And I thought U.S. plungers who stay up to try and get even on Mountain West Conference tilts had issues.

Oddest of all, the news that the world's most popular sport is crooked is only soccer's second-biggest scandal this week. The biggest, and the world's biggest news story, in fact, was the hand ball turned in by French star Thierry Henry which led to the winning goal in a match between France and Ireland to qualify for next year's World Cup.

Hitting the ball with your hand is, of course, soccer's primal sin. Henry did it, and the ref didn't call it. Video replay (which of course soccer doesn't use in officiating) indicated the ref must have been on his cell phone to an Asian gambling ring to have missed the call.

But then, the same thing happened approximately 47 times in the 2009 baseball playoffs, and we don't think umps are crooked -- just incompetent. That would appear to be the case here. FIFA, the sport's ruling body, is ignoring the resulting fuss with a pompous arrogance David Stern can only envy.

Meanwhile, riots continue in Cairo over Egypt's loss to Algeria in ITS World Cup qualifying match. But soccer riots will only be news when one takes place in Chicago.

All in all, it was a great week for one of my primary theories of sports. Soccer has enormous fan appeal as long as you don't have to watch the damn games.


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