Earning money by losing games? What sounds odd at first is common practice within the global match-fixing industry. Criminal swindles were among the central issues at the international sport conference Play the Game hosted in Aarhus this year. One of the speakers: Declan Hill, investigative journalist from Canada. Jutland Station jumped at the chance to talk to him. An interview about corrupt club officials and unpaid athletes.
By Paula Rösler
Mr. Hill, as an expert on match-fixing, do you still enjoy watching football, be it in the stadium or on television?
I certainly didn’t lose my love of sport. But what has come in is an incredible feeling of scepticism and cynicism. At the back of my first book The Fix there is a line:“you’ll never watch a soccer game in the same way again,” and I think that’s true.
What were the most shocking findings since you’ve started investigating the topic?
There was one time when I was sitting with an Asian match-fixer. He was fixing games in the Olympics and the World Cup. I had two thoughts in my head: I really hope I will get out of this interview alive, and is this true or is somebody bullshitting me?
Fortunately everything went well. What did the fixer tell you?
I didn’t know at that time that at the Olympics and the World Cup, which are football-matches, watched by billions of people worldwide, the players aren’t getting paid. That is why it is easy for the fixers to approach in those really big international tournaments.
What about the national leagues, which countries are sincerely affected?
The Turkish, the Greek or the Italian football leagues are endemically corrupt. In my opinion they are “dead men walking”. But we see this phenomenon all around the world. Canada for example has also an endemic problem with fixing. And you would think, come on, it’s a rich country, why would that be? It’s because of the globalization of the sports gambling market.
Meaning it’s easier for the fixers to creep in and to undercut the whole system nowadays?
It’s not only that the fixers are creeping in. There are many corrupt people already inside sports. The fix goes in two ways. The Asians are fixing the gambling market and the local people are fixing the games. Some club officials sit down at the beginning of the season and say: Okay, we are going to play forty games this year. We will try to win thirty. The other ten we will fix and lose. And we will make more money in losing these games, than we will by winning the other thirty.
According to Transparency International Denmark is the least corrupt country in the world. Is this also correct when it comes to match-fixing in sports?
The perceived corruption index has nothing to do with corruption in sport. Singapore for example is considered to be a highly none-corrupt country, but it’s a nest of match-fixers. The problem is every country in the world now has illegal gambling markets. That’s why you can also see cases of match-fixing in Denmark before the courts. I’m not saying that it’s a big problem, but to pretend that Denmark doesn’t have a problem would be silly.
Why would players and referees participate in fixes at all?
The number one reason is the not-being-paid problem. I thought at first that all football players would live that kind of rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, huge salaries, big cars. What I discovered is that 89 per cent of the athletes really struggle to put bread on the table.
How can we find out if a match was fixed?
There’s a couple of ways. One is by watching the betting movements. Another is examining scientifically the way that players are playing. Lastly the most effective and legal binding way is just by doing wiretaps.
Sounds doable, why has so little been achieved so far?
There has been the creation of a somewhat false anti-match-fixing industry. Many people are doing good work. But it’s also a great way to make money. After 9/11 you had the creation of all these terrorist consultants. Some were driving the agenda away from actually preventing attacks and trying to make money for themselves. You see the same things happening in the anti-match-fixing industry.
What are your suggestions as on how to change these circumstances?
First, every league should point an integrity person. Second, the structure in the tournaments is really important and has to change. And finally it should of course be sure that there is professionalism about paying the players.
The international “Play the Game” conference is run by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies (Idan) based in Copenhagen. Since 1997 it enables Journalists, scholars, and sport officials from all over the world to meet up in order to strengthen the ethical foundation of sport. “Play the Game has moved from being considered an assembly of provocateurs and political extremists into being a valued partner and a valued forum for discussing ‘The homeless questions in sport’,” Johs Poulsen, the conference’s chairman said in his welcome speech in the City Hall of Aarhus in October 2015.