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December 11, 2011, Sunday

Match-fixing all over the place

Match-fixing does not only make it to the headlines in Turkey. These days the Dutch papers are full of it as well after a remarkable change of fortunes last Wednesday involving Dutch former Champions League winner Ajax Amsterdam. What happened?

In the last games of the qualifying rounds for the Champions League, Ajax played at home against Real Madrid and Olympique Lyon went to Croatia to face Dinamo Zagreb. The Spanish team was already through to the next round; the Croatians were out after losing all of their previous games. The key question was which of the two other teams in Group D would make it to the second stage: Ajax or Olympique. Before the last matches started, the Dutch team was in a much better position, having three points more and a positive goal difference of +3, compared to the French squad’s -4. At the end of the evening though, it was Lyon that made it after beating Dinamo 7-1 and Ajax losing 3-0 to Real. Both teams ended up with 8 points but the goal difference changed dramatically in favor of the French, +2, compared to Ajax 0.

Since then, many all over Europe wonder how it is possible that Dinamo, the present leader in the Croatian national league, lost so big at home. At half-time the score was still 1-1 after the Croatians took the lead despite the fact that they were down to 10 men after 30 minutes. In the second half, Lyon made six goals in half an hour (three of them even within four minutes). In a widely publicized picture, the Croatian defender Vida winks at the French striker Gomis and puts his thumb up after Lyon scored 5-1, suggesting that some kind of deal has been made.

Ajax asked the European football federation UEFA to start an investigation. Already after one day UEFA decided not to do so after they checked on hundreds of European gambling offices and did not find any irregularities. In the meantime, several stories about the bad reputation of Croatian football have been published. Many teams are having problems paying their players and apparently two years ago it was UEFA itself who suspected dozens of matches being rigged in the Croatian league.

On the other hand, some observers have stressed that Dinamo lost big against Real Madrid as well, has shown a lack of fighting spirit before and simply has an awful defensive record, ending up with a negative goal difference of 19 after six Champions League games.

Whatever the reasons behind Wednesday’s super defeat, I agree with the Canadian journalist Declan Hill, who wrote a revealing book about corruption in international football called “The Fix.” Asked for his comments, he strongly pressed for further investigations, referring to Croatia’s long history of fraud and bribery. According to Hill, if UEFA lets this incident go unchecked, the credibility of European football will be further undermined.

Which brings me to the integrity of Turkish football and Turkish politics. Much has been said about the controversial bill that seeks to introduce shorter jail terms for match-fixers, which was vetoed by President Abdullah Gül last week, but was still passed in Parliament last Friday without any changes. I do not want to go into the speculations that changing the law now is directly related to the ongoing match-fixing and fraud investigations, involving, among others, Fenerbahçe Chairman Aziz Yıldırım. Let me formulate is carefully: In a case like this, politicians should avoid even the semblance of being influenced by the powerful football lobby. They have not been able to convince me.

Why has the refusal of the president not been used in a constructive way to look for a compromise between the long, very harsh sentences in the present law and the short prison terms in the amendments at hand that, as has been pointed out by many critics, do not offer a sense of justice or deterrence? Instead of taking some time to reconsider and try to find an acceptable middle ground, the three big parties opted for a full confrontation and pushed their unchanged proposals through Parliament as quickly as possible.

I am afraid that both UEFA and the Turkish Parliament fully underestimate the feeling among many Turks and other European citizens that today’s highly commercialized football seems to be above the law. That impression is extremely damaging, both to football and the rule of law.

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