By Cesare Polenghi
London-born Neil Humphreys has made Singapore his home for the last 15 years. Since his arrival, he has been one of the most competent, humorous and sincere voices on football in this little island. He is the author of several best-selling books, including Match Fixer a novel set in Singapore focusing on match-fixing, which he proudly labeled as 'the only published book that tackles the endemic problem as experienced in Singapore and Malaysia.
Hoping to break the ice, I asked Humphreys what inspired him to write a story on match-fixing. As it turned out, I broke a dam instead.
“Over the years in the region, I was exposed to a lot of stories connected with match-fixing one in particular that shocked me was that of Max Nicholson, an English expat who refused to take a bribe and was attacked by two masked men branding hockey sticks," he stated, referencing the former Geylang United and Woodlands Wellington player from the S.League who turned witness in a bribery scandal in 2000 which eventually saw German goalkeeper Lutz Pfannenstiel and Australian defender Mirko Jurilj jailed for match-fixing.
“But the most disturbing thing was, and still is, is how people here don’t seem to really care about it. Match-fixing is basically a culturally acceptable thing, it is considered ‘normal'! 30, 40, possibly more years of documented cheating has likely turned most Singaporeans and Malaysians into passive, cynical spectators of rigged games. It is a given.
“But for me, as a Briton, it is and always will be an unacceptable fact. Still, when I get mad about it, when I talk about it on TV or during my weekly Football Fever Podcast, I don’t feel people here understand what I mean. This cultural contrast inspired me to write the book in the end."
I asked Humphreys if he was surprised to find out that it was yet again a 'fellow' Singaporean, Wilson Raj Perumal, and a syndicate operating out of Singapore that was involved in the current scandal.
“I was outraged, angered and frustrated!" he replied in his pristine British accent.
"But what really saddens me, is how these feelings are not shared by many Singaporeans. This is also so unfair towards those good people working so hard to make football here better. Look at the achievement of the Singapore national team, winning four AFF Championships. But when foreign media reaches for me to ask about Singapore football, it is not about that, it is about match-fixing. How could Singaporeans not to be ashamed of this?"
I then brought up the Liverpool-Debrecen Champions League game, being likely one of the arranged matches. Although the Reds were probably the innocent party, their popularity in Singapore, should result in a major awareness to this problem. Could one of the beloved Premier League teams be the next victim?
“Look, I am almost ‘happy’ that such a big club’s name came up," replied Humphreys.
"Because when it happens to teams that are not in the limelight it is easier to shrug it away. But when you have a popular Premier League club involved, although passively, the problem comes out of the shadow, and more people must be aware of it."
When asked if it was fair to criticise betting, when so much of the capital that runs modern football comes from that industry, Humphreys stated that he did not see gambling as the only factor in this cancerous equation.
“It used to be the tobacco company, then alcoholics, now it is gambling," he listed out.
"In recent decades, football has been associated with a long list of human vices, but the reason why it has become such a huge phenomenon, is due to a combination of reasons. First of all, there is the endemic passion for gambling in this region, call it a 'betting culture'. Add to that, match-fixing, satellite TV broadcasted games, and illegal online betting, and there you have it.
“The problem is also magnified by the option to bet illegally on some particular events within a football match; a yellow card, the first throw-in, the first corner-kick. These can be easily controlled by one single individual, either a player or a referee. Really, sadly, to fix a match is easier than what people think and there is so much money involved, it seems impossible to stop it now. But still we should try to do something about it."
Humphreys went on to note that the situation was salvageable but all relevant authorities, including fans, need to act immediately and without fear. He also warned that adequate protection must be given to those willing to speak up.
“If we allow this to continue, we do a huge disservice to Singapore and to Malaysia," he warned.
"We must be ready to lose some face, to admit that this is a problem if we want to fight it. This can’t be left to be discussed by a bunch of investigative journalists. I do understand that people might be scared, but I have been discussing this for years, and nothing really bad ever happened to me. But there should be more support for those at risk. For example, a young player who is approached by a match-fixer, should know that if he reached out for the authorities to denounce the fact, he will be protected.
"The local fans, football players, coaches, the media and also the governments should do more. This is a matter of national embarrassment, we need to begin with discussing it openly."
You can listen to Neil Humphreys tackling match-fixing and more mundane football-related issues by downloading the Football Fever Podcast, available for free on Goal.com Singapore, Malaysia and India. Humphreys' book Match Fixer is also available on Amazon.