13 December ~ Last week’s suspicious results in the Champions League weren’t the only games coming under scrutiny at a time when barely a month seems to pass without allegations from somewhere in the football world of bribery, cheating and corruption. The US edition of Sports Illustrated revealed that a number of group stage matches in last summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup are under scrutiny from FIFA, mainly involving what FIFA’s head of security Chris Eaton called "incredibly unusual and extreme" odds in Asia offered on in-game bets where heavy losers Cuba, Grenada and El Salvador were taking part.
Cuba and Grenada finished bottom of their groups, with goal differences of minus 15 and minus 14, respectively. Were they involved in match-fixing or were they just rubbish? Neither country boasts a history of major football achievement but they had reached the tournament by making it to the semi-finals of the 2010 Caribbean Championship, both beating Trinidad & Tobago on the way. Nowadays any manager employing reasonably smart tactics can coach an inferior team to play defensively enough to avoid a whacking. Or three.
At the final group game between Guatemala and Grenada, which ended in a 4-0 win for Guatemala, I was sitting in the press box at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, directly behind the Grenada bench. I didn't think there was anything remotely suspicious about the tie at the time, despite the fact that misfiring Guatemala had failed to score in their first two games, but created a whole ton of chances against Grenada. As well as their goals, they hit the woodwork on three occasions. But then this was a Grenada team that had just lost 7-1 to equally low-scoring Honduras (a team that scored just one more goal – a penalty – in their other four games at the tournament).
Looking at the highlights, the first two goals seem especially dubious. The Guatemalan midfielder Jose de Aguila is given an unusually generous amount of time and space to shoot for the first. For the second, Grenada’s Ricky Charles seems to make no effort at all to prevent his opponent Marco Pappa from shooting. In fact, he almost seems to step aside. As for goalkeeper Shemel Louison’s attempt to save it, his grandmother was probably reaching for a pair of gloves and planning to give him a few handling tips upon his imminent return home.
By the second half, a few furious Grenadan fans had gathered in the seating area just to my right. Without any intervention from stewards, the fans spent the second 45 minutes ignoring the game and relentlessly abusing the players on the bench before us. At the time, I thought they were being incredibly harsh and couldn’t believe they weren’t moved away. In retrospect, they clearly saw something strange in their players' performances that fired their ire. Nobody knows better than fans when their team is not playing to its capabilities. They were only placated at the final whistle when some of the players approached them, smiled, chatted amiably and shook their hands.
The Grenadan players seemed absolutely unperturbed by the result or the fact that their fans were steamed up. Depending on your point of view, that could represent an admirably sensible perspective on the importance of football – and the Gold Cup in particular – or a shockingly unprofessional attitude and an insulting slap in the face to the paying public. Or something else we cannot say for legal reasons.
It is worth noting, however, that no Grenadan players perform at the game's top level. At best, a few play in the English lower divisions and Major League Soccer. The rest play in the Caribbean leagues. When so many are being enriched by the game at the top, it is easy to see how the possibility of making extra cash could become tempting for players in their thirties who know they are unlikely to escape the Trinidad & Tobago Pro League or the Cuban top flight.
That is an explanation, not an excuse. If it is proven that Cuba, Grenada and El Salvador threw their games, they should be banned from international competition for a long time. FIFA’s Eaton told Sports Illustrated that the investigations “have revealed a significant international criminal input into match-fixing in football”, but that with co-operation between police, prosecutors and international sporting bodies, he believes the problem can be stopped. It is probably not in his remit to suggest that a more egalitarian distribution of the game's wealth might not do any harm either. Ian Plenderleith