Brazil – The corrupt referee

The biggest name in Brazilian football right now isn’t proud of the fact – because, as Robert Shaw writes, he’s a corrupt referee, whose actions have led to bitterly contested rematches

Lift left hand in an upright position. Insert thumb of right hand into centre of upright palm while making a ducking, twisting motion with the rest of the right hand. Look around and imagine watching thousands of fellow fans copying your motion, while shouting “Edilson” and you have just been transported to a Brazilian football terrace.

This traditional gesture means the referee has succumbed to bribery; the chanted name a reference to Edilson Pereira de Carvalho, whose match-fixing exploits were exposed by the magazine Veja in late September just as the police were apprehending the subject of the magazine’s front cover. Edilson, one of Brazil’s ten FIFA-qualified referees, admitted involvement in an internet gambling scam that covered national championship games, as well as São Paulo state championship and Copa Libertadores matches. Ethical issues of how transcripts of police tapes appeared in a magazine before any charges were laid have been largely overlooked.

The background to the case is in part the absence of open, legal gambling on football here, and it has come at a time when Brazil’s legal bingo business – allegedly used in the past to launder money – is being investigated in the national congress. The country is also enduring a series of political corruption scandals.

Veja published transcripts of telephone conversations between Edilson and Nagib Fayad, the master of the gambling ring. Edilson and Nagib were immediately apprehended; later came arrests of an intermediary, Wanderlei Pololi, and a second implicated referee, Paulo José Danelon. The Brazilian FA, the CBF, suspended Edilson, as did FIFA: the 43-year-old had been due to be the fourth official for October’s crucial Uruguay v Argentina World Cup qualifier.

Edilson admitted to having big gambling debts and received payments of up to £3,300 for each game fixed (almost six times his match fee). According to his testimony, he often only agreed to take part in a fix shortly before kick-off and players could compromise the best-laid plans: he explained to his paymasters that he could not throw the Juventude v Figueirense game because the latter’s striker Edmundo was simply “too good”. As a result of this compelling evidence, Luiz Zveiter, the president of Brazil’s Superior Tribunal of Sports Justice (STJD), announced that all 11 Serie A games under suspicion would be replayed.

Cash-strapped clubs demanded that the CBF foot the additional match expenses and do their utmost to find a more honest referee. Predictably, the measure also divided clubs along a faultline that separated winners from losers. Having won the original encounters, Santos, Cruzeiro and Internacional demanded a match-by-match analysis rather than a blanket decision. The games in question included a combustible São Paulo state derby between Santos and Corinthians that ended 4-2 to the home team the first time around. A controversial penalty award to Corinthians in the closing minutes of the rematch gave them a 3-2 lead and triggered a pitch invasion, and an attempted attack on the referee, after midfield star Giovanni had blasted the restart into the terraces.

Meanwhile, fans are seeking legal redress – either because they were at fixed fixtures or because they subscribed to pay-per-view packages including these games. Some of these rights are guaranteed under the progressive “supporters’ code” introduced in 2003.

Referees are appointed by a draw held a few days before each fixture. Discrepancies may result. Wagner Tardelli took charge of 24 games between the start of the season in April and October 12, an impressive seven ahead of the next luckiest referee. Tardelli, who Edilson described as “the sidekick” of Armando Marques, head of the national refereeing commission, had been drawn with equally impressive frequency in 2003 and 2004.

One problem is an excess of referees with too few of genuine quality. Former World Cup referee José Roberto Wright, who now works as a pundit, urges caution. “It was only two referees. I think the pressure from directors is much more of a problem. It’s the sort of thing where they say, ‘If you don’t do as I say you won’t take charge of any more games’.” Wright believes it is impossible to say how much refereeing decisions affected the outcome of the fixed matches: “It is difficult to be sure. I think in some cases you could be only 50 per cent certain.”

The scandal means that issues in Brazil’s championship, due to end in early December, may yet be decided in the courtroom, so putting on hold the rationalisation of the domestic game begun three years ago. Yet for struggling Flamengo, it may offer a lifeline. If relegations are suspended this season, 30‑million plus Brazilians may come to recall Edilson as the man who rescued the country’s most popular club from the drop.

From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month