Kill corruption, before it destroys football

Corruption and match-fixing has eaten deep into African football, writes Osasu Obayiuwana.

01.03.2013

By Osasu Obayiuwana
In this first of two articles by Osasu Obayiuwana looking into recent match-fixing cases in African football, he takes us through how an Asian betting syndicate infiltrated African football and led Zimbabwe into the continent’s biggest match-fixing scandal.
Corruption - that filthy, discomforting, frightening word - has eaten deep into the African – as well as the world game, precipitating a growing crisis that can no longer be ignored. In a scandal, unprecedented in the continent, 85 people in Zimbabwe were involved in a long-term scam, in which the Warriors, the national team, were pliant tools in the hands of Asian betting syndicates, who used them to fix the results of friendly games, earning millions of dollars in illicit profits. South Africa, Zimbabwe’s next door neighbour, were also caught in the web of the same syndicate, after a FIFA investigation revealed that warm-up games against Thailand, Bulgaria, Colombia and Guatemala, in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup finals, were fixed. Kirsten Nematandani, the current South African Football Association (SAFA) president, is fighting for his political life, as a result, although he has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing. And who can forget the sham involving a fake Togo national team that played against Bahrain, also for the financial interests of the same Asian syndicate? Or the nauseating fact that Ibrahim Chaibou, the Nigerien referee at the centre of that scandal involving Togo, also took charge of Nigeria’s friendly against Argentina in Abuja in 2011, equally tainted by allegations that the result was fixed for the particular purposes of the same syndicate? How did Singaporean Wilson Raj Perumal (since jailed and now helping international law enforcement in its enquiries) become the godfather of match-fixing in the continent, extending his tentacles to the most unlikely of places? 
And when will football’s custodians do their job and protect the beautiful game from the barbarians, fearlessly passing through its gates? One of Africa’s most respected referees recently admitted, in a private conversation with me, that he had been approached, several times, to fix matches, during his travels across the continent. He had these damning words to say about the situation: “It seems an accepted norm in CAF (Confederation of African Football) that people know bribery exists but cannot, do not know how to deal with it or will not deal the matter.” That is not acceptable to me – or anyone that cares about this game. Zero-tolerance for corruption must be the only game in town. Or football can begin to sing its nunc dimittis. How did dirty Asian money destroy Zimbabwe’s national team?
In a long-running scam, which could have lasted for up to six years, masterminded by Singaporean Wilson Raj Perumal, players were bribed, with sums between $500 and $1500 per game, to ensure the Warriors (the name of the country’s national team) lost matches and conceded goals, at specified times, whilst on playing tours of Asian countries. Eighty-five players and officials have received various bans from ZIFA (the Zimbabwean FA) for the long-running scam, including its erstwhile CEO Henrietta Rushwaya, two board members, the national team captain and five previous national coaches. Zimbabwe’s FIFA ranking fell from 72nd, at the start of 2007, to 131st in mid-2009, which was a direct consequence of the rather ‘bizarre’ defeats to lower-ranked nations, such as Malaysia and Oman. Senior ZIFA figures actively colluded with Perumal to manipulate these games. But 3-0 and 6-0 defeats, to Thailand and Syria, triggered the investigation that led to “Asiagate” (as the scandal is described in Zimbabwe). “It is estimated that the syndicate would bring in extremely large amounts of cash on their many and varied betting score lines, in excess of $1,000,000 at times,” said former Zimbabwe Supreme Court Justice, Ahmed Ebrahim, whose independent committee investigated the scandal. A previous probe by four ZIFA members, which referred matters to the Ebrahim enquiry, revealed Perumal often sat on the bench with the coach and shouted instructions to the team, on when to concede goals, which led to the fixed results. Players told the panel how they were sometimes given a few hours notice to assemble at the airport and travel for ‘friendly’ matches, with no knowledge of who their opponents were. Ebrahim’s committee interviewed 115 witnesses. The tip of the iceberg
With the opening of the proverbial can of worms, ZIFA handed down 15 lifetime bans and four 10-year bans. Sixty-six other players and officials were given sentences of five years or less, with most of them being given the option of paying a fine instead. Despite the severity of the sanctions imposed and the number of offenders caught, Justice Ebrahim shockingly observed that his 11-month investigation unearthed what “may well be the proverbial tip of the iceberg.” Cuthbert Dube, the incumbent ZIFA president, insists the sanctions imposed fit the severity of the offences committed. “Asiagate killed our football. It is treasonous, selling your country,” he said. 
Dube subsequently claimed the second leg of a 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier, where Zimbabwe lost 2-0 away to Angola, was rigged. “There were match-fixing agents on the plane to Luanda, talking to the players,” he said, although ZIFA has not substantiated these claims. A natural consequence of Asiagate is the extremely hard task of rebuilding the tattered reputation of the country’s national team. After the defeat to Angola, Dube disbanded the entire Warriors squad and appointed a new coaching crew. German Klaus Dieter Pagels, the new national coach, is building a new squad, with players from the junior national teams. No player from discredited sides - even if such people have not been convicted of match-fixing - can be reintegrated into the national team, except with ZIFA’s express permission. Qualifying for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil is clearly a bridge too far for the new-look Warriors, as a largely inexperienced side take on Egypt, Guinea and Mozambique in the group qualifiers, earning only a point from their first two games. But the restoration of public confidence, in the integrity of the team and the honesty of its efforts on the pitch, is perhaps the Warriors biggest opponent, one that could take them years to outwit. That is the natural consequence of selling the country’s integrity for filthy lucre. Read also: Who will pay for South Africa’s longstanding mess?


Osasu Obayiuwana, the Associate Editor of the London-based monthly magazine, NewAfrican and the editor of Footballisafrica.com, is one of the world’s leading writers on African football. He is a regular broadcaster for the BBC World Service and SuperSport, the pan-African channel. 

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