Beauty, Chaos and Tales of Match-Fixing at the Africa Cup of Nations

For those who have not been following the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON 2019), it has been a classic example of the beauty and chaos of Africa’s football world.

“In French football you know that 10% of the money will disappear, in African football it is 90%”
Joseph Antoine Bell, ex-Cameroon, Olympique de Marseille and Girondins de Bordeaux goalkeeper.

Beauty in the extraordinary talent and athleticism of the players. Given their abilities and the capacity of many of the indigenous coaches (try to succeed with the challenges they have and you will see how amazing they are), then the perennial question of when will an African team win the World Cup resurfaces. Certainly, the fans across the continent have been willing their teams on in massive open-air spectacles of support.
However, there has also been extraordinary chaos. If you are not used to African football, it might seem unbelievable: the President of the organizing committee – the African Football Confederation (CAF) – allegedly keeping two sets of accounts; stories of bribes, pay-offs, sexual harassment and, of course, match-fixing.*
The first story of alleged match-fixing is an odd one. It comes from a Madagascar newspaper, which claims that players on the Zimbabwean team had sold their last game of the opening round against DR Congo. Without serious examination, the story has a ring of credibility. After all, the Zimbabwean national team and association were, essentially, the play-things of Dan Tan’s match-fixing gang for years. At a past tournament, the fixers walked into the Zimbabwean team’s dressing room at half-time and started telling the players how they should play (lose) to get more money on the gambling market.
The alleged fixed game also fit the usual pattern of being the last one of the opening round from which the Zimbabweans had little hope of progressing to the next round.
The actual match – against the DR. Congo – was an odd one. The Zimbabweans had done well in their other matches. This time they lost 4-0 with one goal being scored in the first ten minutes and a penalty (in a statistical study, I showed that these are red-flag indicators of certain kinds of fixed matches). There were also a series of alleged playing errors on the part of the Zimbabweans that raised eyebrows.
The only problem with this story is that it is all based on a purported conversation in a hotel lobby with a mysterious chap from what turned out to a non-existent media organization. The claims centered around a purported AFC investigation into the DR Congo team which would affect them for their next game. Who were they playing in their next game – Madagascar.

The Frustration of Cliff Mardulier

If I were Cliff Mardulier I would be frustrated. Mardulier is a former Belgian national team goalkeeper. He played in Lierse, a small club in northern Belgium. He fixed a number of matches at the behest, he claims, of the team’s officials. One of these officials was allegedly the coach Paul Put. Belgian police arrested Mardulier who furiously denied the charges, but his career died nonetheless. Put was suspended for three years by the Belgian Football Association. However, thirteen years later, at AFCON 2019 Put has shown up at the centre of another match-fixing scandal.
In an interview with Foot 100%, Ibrahima Traore, the captain of the Guinea team and a Borussia Mönchengladbach winger, claims that Put, the coach of the team, was at the heart of some form of “racketeering”.
The TV interview in French can be found here:

Racket au sein du Syli National : « C’est un fait avéré » révèle Ibrahima Traoré

A very rough translation of some of the interview, provided by the website, follows:

There are physiotherapists who came to see me, who told me that, indeed the money they were receiving, they had   to pay some of it, he says, and it is the coach who took money, which was also to some of it to a gentleman named Tom, who has no connection with the federation or the National Team, but who actually receives commissions and puts pressure on those people. Then when they did not want to pay and who feel, I want to say, a little threatened I had their confidence to solve this problem. As soon as I knew that, I started fighting this fight…

Put denies all these allegations. The Guinea Football Federation has fired Put for “poor results” and “”atmosphere of mistrust created and maintained by the coach between the players and the technical staff.” However, the case has yet to be properly investigated to see if this is all nonsense.
There is another factor to the chaos (again, almost unbelievable to people unused to African football) – that is the number of national teams at this continent-wide tournament who did not pay their players!
No other factor so encourages match-fixing as not paying the players their agreed upon wages. I have seen it at the World Cup and in countless other games across the globe. Strange. Because it is by far the easiest of all the strategies for fighting corruption: make sure the team officials do not steal from their players. Even more strangely, FIFA and other footballing organizations still have not implemented systems for paying the players directly.
In this tournament, Uganda, Nigeria and Cameroon all had player strikes. The players stopped training because they claimed that team officials had pocketed their salaries or bonuses. The worst case? The team allegedly involved in match-fixing (but not really) Zimbabwe. The players had to threaten to boycott the first game of the entire tournament because they had not been paid. Then, after their final game, it was ‘discovered’ that team officials had FORGOTTEN to book the players’ airline tickets back to Zimbabwe. One of the star players had to actually pay for his team-mates to get home.
As long as there are stories like that, there will be no African World Cup winners. No matter how beautiful the football, the chaos of corruption will defeat them every time.

The stories of AFC alleged corruption here:

Players Strikes

Nigeria’s Africa Cup of Nations squad halt strike action

Zimbabwe came to Egypt as a team, but they left one by one

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