Why UEFA Should Monitor the FC Astana vs. Celtic Game
Ninety percent of match-fixing in football is easy to prevent.
One of the keys to a successfully fighting corruption is to recognize ‘choke point games’. These are games – 3rd match in opening round of the World Cup, 6th match in Group Stage of Champions League or any Italian game featuring a team in danger of relegation from April onwards – where one team has a lot to gain, while the other has very little.
This week’s home-away games of the ‘play-off round’ of the Champions League is such a choke point. Historically, there have been a number of examples of match-fixing at this stage in the Champions League. The match-fixing Sapina brothers were able to get teams to lose and UEFA looked long and hard at the Latvian team in 2013.
The economics of ‘choke point’ fixing are simple.
There is no effective financial deterrent for a team in losing the game. In this case, the losing team goes on to play in the Europa League.
Therefore the strategy is simple, if you are not a rich team with the resources to compete successfully in the Champions League you show up and play the first match. If it does not go well then somewhere in the match you make the decision to lose big (above the Asian spread on the game). This way the team makes money losing the game and it ends up in a tournament that they have a better chance of winning.
To be clear, this is not to suggest that FC Astana of Kazakhstan engaged in such behaviour in their 5 – 0 loss to Glasgow Celtic. However, it is to say that the second leg of the play-off round to be played on August 22nd, is a match that UEFA should focus on with laser-like intensity.
The need for such a focus is made worst by the fact that the sponsors of the football team FC Astana, the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Kazakhstan, are the same organization who sponsored the highly-controversial Astana Cycling team of Lance Armstrongʼs comeback fame and multiple doping infractions (see: ‘If We Want to End Doping in Cycling, Astana Must Go’ or ‘A brief history of Astana scandals’:
https://www.outsideonline.com/ 1927876/if-we-want-end-doping-cycling-astana-must-go – https://www.cyclingweekly.com/news/latest-news/astanas-uneasy-ride-professional-peloton-139345). The sporting organizations are officially linked together under the same club name.
Again this is not to suggest that Astana football club followed the dubious path of the cycling officials or that the sponsors in anyway encouraged doping but it is to say that there is a sports business atmosphere in Kazakhstan that does not encourage confidence.
This is particularly because FIFPro – the football players international union – declared Kazakhstan to be a hotbed of match-fixing. In 2012, FIFPro conducted a survey of their members in twelve eastern European countries about violence, intimidation and match-fixing. 34% of the Kazak players reported that they had been approached to fix a game in their league and 44% said they were aware of match-fixing in the league. This was the highest number in all of Europe and possibly an under-reporting of the problem as FIFPro had this to say about the difficulties of working in Kazakhstan:
Regarding the collection of information, union representatives found organizing personal meetings with players the most difficult stage. The clubs also intervened and disrupted the process of completing the questionnaires. In Kazakh football, clubs can do nothing without the Federation`s (Football Federation of Kazakhstan – FFK) permission. Problems arose when FFK ignored the unionʼs letters. Clearly, FFK ordered all clubs to disturb the process of the project. As a result, meetings with players had to be organized secretly. Players were really helpful in this regard. There are many problems but no major areas of concern were identified because all (clubs, players, agents) are afraid of FFK. Some of the cases were prepared for the Black Book, but players requested their stories were not published.
FIFPro Black Book Eastern Europe: The problems professional footballers encounter: research, p. 66.
It is little wonder that the players were so frightened. In the same survey, FIFPro also found that almost 28% of the players claimed to have been victims of violence and more than half of those players had been attacked by their own club officials!
All in all, then Kazakhstan has a stained reputation in sports integrity. If UEFA wants to ensure that the credibility of Champions League does not suffer it should monitor the upcoming game very, very, very closely.