The Good, the Bad and the Very Ugly

The Good, the bad and the Very Ugly
Interpol Conference on Match Fixing, Rome, Italy
Sports Corruption Industry – part III

Rome: It was the good, the bad and the very ugly. To be a speaker at an international match-fixing conference organized by Interpol is to see the sports corruption industry close up. It was a moving , depressing and shocking vision.

First, the rules of the next few blog postings: there is much that I cannot discuss; names that I cannot give: quotes that I will not source. I will not do so, because I try to be an honourable journalist in what can be a very dishonourable profession. I was invited to the conference. I entered it ready to do my best to help guide the fight against match-fixing. So I cannot afterwards break my word and report confidential conversations.

Still – there is much that I can say, so let us start with the good. It was a surreal and moving experience to stand in a conference room full of hundreds of people all stating that match-fixing is a terrible problem in international sport.

I remember standing alone on a stage in November 2005 at an international conference in Copenhagen. I was giving a presentation warning that a tide of match-fixing was soon going to swamp soccer. I felt the scepticism in the room like an iron wall.

It has been a long battle, since that date, to get people to take the problem seriously. Lots of other people have also fought hard and it was nice to see a full conference room, packed with some of the great of the football world discussing the issue.

Another good point. Amidst those people there are lots who are fighting hard against sports corruption. Some of them are doing very good work. Some of them are concentrating on the wrong issues. Some of them are making serious mistakes, but they are working hard. I will write about some of their well-meaning and well-made mistakes in blogs next month.

I know they are mistakes because I made similar errors in analysis, when I started the research into match-fixing nine-years ago at Oxford. I was fortunate enough to have both time and two of the world’s best academic supervisors. There was the great Diego Gambetta raising his eyebrows, yet-again, to the ceiling as I trotted out some ill-thought out solution to a problem: and the gentle, but equally insightful, Anthony Heath, mildly pointing out over a civilized cup of tea that my logic was unsound. So I know mistakes can be made and the key thing is that many of the newcomers to this field are making those mistakes in good faith.

The bad?

The best way of understanding is in the Freudian slip of one speaker. He was asked if corruption could ever be eliminated from sport. His reply: ‘Fixing will never be beaten. I wish it could be. I wish, one day, that I will open my eyes and that we have no more corruption. Then I will be happy. But then I will be out of a job.’

That phrase – ‘Then I will be out of a job’ – sums up a strong, unspoken theme that runs through the sports corruption industry.

For example, lots of people made lots of presentations at the conference that had phrases like ‘shadowy figures behind match-fixing’, ‘fixing is very complicated’, ‘we have to take small steps on a long road’, ‘we will never be able to eradicate it’. Note what they are doing here. They are planting the foundations of a long-term profitable industry that (and this is important) depends on the fixers! It is – to return to the theme of an earlier blog – exactly like the terrorism-industry that sprang up in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. If there are no fixers, there will be no industry. So they have to ensure that the fixers are never properly identified, let along caught, otherwise their own jobs may suffer.

The ugly? This job-creation feeds into a giant cover-up that is going on in the anti-match-fixing industry. It is protecting some of the most prominent match-fixers and their rich, political backers. It is going on because few people at this time have the courage to stand up and describe the true situation. Stay tuned.

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