By Andrew Wychrij
At international level Ukrainian football is on somewhat of a high. Thirteen goals and none conceded in their previous two qualifiers, and winning their last four, have brought them back in contention to reach World Cup 2014 and, with a victory against England on Tuesday in Kiev, they could top Group H if results go their way.
However, club side Metalist Kharkiv’s expulsion from this season’s Champions League on match-fixing charges was an uncomfortable reminder of the extent of a problem that is endemic not only in Ukraine but throughout Eastern European football.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) decision to uphold Uefa’s ruling in late August was the final confirmation of guilt, a death knell for the Ukrainian club’s European campaign.
Metalist were found guilty of fixing a Ukrainian Premier game with Karpaty Lviv in the 2007-08 season, which resulted in a raft of sanctions levied against the two sides. The fall-out of the 4-0 win saw both clubs fined $25,000, six players banned for between three to five years, Metalist stripped of their third-placed finish and their then-sporting director Yevhen Krasnikov banned from football activity for five years and landed with a $10,000 fine.
Metalist complained bitterly; owner Serhiy Kurchenko, who took over the Kharkiv outfit in December 2012, asked for a reprieve on the grounds of responsibility lying with a previous regime. However, though the timing of the ruling is unfortunate with the club on the cusp of Champions League qualification for the first time, no amount of finger-pointing and desperate appeals can compensate for the fact that they cheated and, therefore, deserved to be punished.
This is, however, far from an isolated event - rather, it narrows the focus on the ever-present problem of corruption in the region. There is, regrettably, never long to wait for the next match-fixing scandal emanating from Russia and Ukraine and it is so rife that fans must wonder whether they can trust in the integrity of what they are watching on the pitch.
|In an average Ukrainian league game at least one of the 22 players involved has been approached over match-fixing"
- FIFPro Black Book Eastern Europe
There is no comfort to come from officials either. In the wake of the Metalist scandal the president of the Ukrainian Football Federation, Anatoliy Konkov, was asked by sports programme Profutbol whether a problem with rigged matches existed in the country.
“Yes, there is!” he responded without hesitation.
“We are constantly fighting with it, but perhaps there should be a joint effort. That’s what we are trying to do - to get Parliament to adopt some laws about sports in general.”
Government legislation is at least a positive first step. Russian president Vladimir Putin signed an anti match-fixing bill into law this July with Russia apparently toughening its stance, increasing the maximum penalty for those found guilty to seven years in prison along with a hefty fine.
That said, with the 2018 World Cup coming into view, you have to ask whether this is a move motivated by obligation rather than a sincere desire to initiate a crackdown. Anti-corruption laws are nothing new in Russia, but enforcement has often been sporadic and arbitrary to say the least. With corruption so deeply ingrained across society and senior officials often complicit in misdemeanours, scepticism rightly remains over how rigorously punishments will be applied.
Additionally, it is vital that authorities take the colossal scale of the problem seriously. Europol disclosed evidence in February detailing their recent findings, revealing that they had placed 425 match officials, club officials, players and serious criminals under suspicion of fixing more than 380 different matches across Europe.
“The investigation shows that the situation is even worse than I thought,” said FIFPro secretary general Theo van Seggelen, who attended the Europol press conference.
“Even World Cup and European Championship qualification matches are involved, as well as Champions League matches. This is very serious. This really is organised crime.”
The target of Europol’s efforts centres on criminal gangs from the Balkans, Russia and Asia with numerous matches in Eastern Europe implicated.
Turkey is just one other country rocked by a high-profile match-fixing scandal, with both Besiktas and Fenerbahce failing in appeals to CAS this summer after being implicated in a 2011 corruption case. Besiktas have been barred from this season’s Europa League, while Fener received a two-year ban from European competition after a civil trial last year that incriminated 93 people, including club chairman Aziz Yildirim, in fixing a number of games.
It is a constant struggle for control with the players themselves generally the biggest victims. FIFPro’s Black Book Eastern Europe exposes a terrifying level of pressure and abuse that footballers in the region are subjected to.
“Professional football in Eastern Europe is struggling, with a terrifying lack of respect for the rights of professional players,” the report begins, and the statistical evidence gathered from the 3,357 players who participated in the survey categorically underlines that assertion.
In Ukraine 7.6 per cent of respondents claimed they’d been approached over fixing a game - meaning, in an average Ukrainian league game, at least one of the 22 players have been propositioned - with 13% knowing of corruption occurring elsewhere in the league. In Russia, the figures are worse, with 10.2% approached and an astonishing 43.5% aware of match-fixing in the Russian Premier League.
In Russia, critics argue the number of questionable results over recent seasons begs the question of how much influence betting syndicates have on the professional game? For example, there were unusual betting patterns surrounding one league match when one side was leading 1-0 and the odds for their opponents shortened and the team in front drifted to 22/1. The trailing team ended up winning 2-1.
To make matters worse, if the betting cartels’ apparently burgeoning pockets weren’t enough, allegations abound of clubs regularly agreeing the outcome of matches between themselves. This, it is alleged, is not just a case of money changing hands to influence a single result, but a web of manipulation on a grand scale - a case of a club throwing a result on the understanding that a ‘favour’ will be repaid at a later date.
Action has been taken of late - the arrest of ex-referee and vice president of the Moscow Region Football Federation, Alexander Evstigneev, on match-fixing charges in July was not an insignificant gesture. Evstigneev has yet to comment since he was detained and is still in custody. It remains to be seen though whether this is merely a publicity piece or if the Russians genuinely have the appetite for a fight.
Clearly, this is not just an Eastern European problem. From Fenerbahce to Calciopoli in Italy, this is a ballooning series of scandals that is going to take some decisive action to puncture. However, what is clear is that football is in a sorrier state the longer this continues. Spare a thought for the players, the fans and indeed the current administration at Metalist Kharkiv, innocent victims of the insidious deception of previous employees, but there is no other way. Only punishment, committed, decisive action and rigorous investigation from international authorities both in and outside football can give us a chance to rescue the integrity of the global game.