Nigeria and Match-Fixing at the World Cup: The Vulnerability Remains

Just to end the week on a depressing note, we hear about a BBC Newsnight report that says FIFA was warned Nigeria might be “vulnerable to match-fixing.”

BBC Newsnight understands a member of Uefa’s Disciplinary Services Unit – which is responsible for investigating match-fixing – first became suspicious during qualifying rounds of the World Cup.

It is alleged that certain Nigerian players came forward and said their team was vulnerable to manipulation.

On the morning of Nigeria’s first match, he alerted Fifa’s new Early Warning System, set up to look for signs of match-rigging, of his concerns.
German journalist Christian Bergmann also had a call just before the first Nigerian game of the tournament from a Uefa contact who said there were suggestions that “some players from the Nigerian team are actually involved in some form of manipulation”.

In their second game of the tournament, Nigeria were strong favourites to beat Greece and took an early 1-0 lead.

But after just 33 minutes Nigeria had a man sent off and Greece subsequently scored their first ever World Cup goals to win 2-1.

As ever, we turn to Declan Hill for the informed commentary, and he follows up on his earlier concern about the laxness of FIFA’s “early warning system” to look out for match-fixing by commenting that it does little to protect players who come forward:

FIFA’ early warning system is practically useless. They don’t investigate. They don’t protect the players. If you are a whistle-blower and you come forward to expose your fears, don’t expect protection and don’t expect the situation to improve.

And again, as he did earlier in the tournament, Hill makes clear that the root of the problem remains the fact that players performing at a multi-billion dollar sporting event, elite professionals in the world’s richest sport at its apex, aren’t guaranteed to be paid the money due to them because FIFA refuses to pay players directly:

The Nigerian Football Association has been so utterly incompetent for so long that many Nigerians have been desperate to close it down and start again. The Nigerian government got involved. Perhaps more tellingly, the great star Jay-Jay Ochoa pleaded with FIFA not to pay the World Cup bonus to the Nigerian FA. His fear was that the money would disappear before it could reach the players.

The basic scenario that leads to corruption at World Cup tournaments is that many of the national football association are so incompetent they cannot guarantee their players will receive any salary or bonuses for playing in the world’s biggest tournament. Until FIFA stops this exploitation, pays the players directly and establishes a proper investigative unit (as UEFA has) they expect lots of these types of stories.

FIFA’s glitz and riches will be on display this weekend in its showcase pair of final World Cup games. But we should not forget its hesitation in tackling this issue. If we think the failure to deal with the need for technological aid for referees in key decisions until it’s too late is bad, it pales in comparison to the unwillingness to deal with a threat that may well eventually allow a major scandal at a World Cup to unfold due to the failure to take enough preventative action on the threat of match-fixing.

The World Cup, because of the scale of the gambling on it, is the easiest event to hide unusual betting patterns on. And evidence continues to grow that until FIFA takes the action urged by Hill — “pays the players directly and establishes a proper investigative unit” — the World Cup will remain vulnerable to being undermined in a far darker way than just by innocent officiating errors.

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