Asiagate: Zimbabwe’s match-fixing scandal

With the media and government silent, few people will likely be punished as the beautiful game is dealt an ugly blow.

Zimbabwe-Japan football match
FIFA President Sepp Blatter visited Zimbabwe earlier in July to investigate widespread match-fixing [EPA]

When reigning FIFA President Sepp Blatter was pictured laughing and shaking hands with President Robert Mugabe in Harare, Zimbabwe, the dirty business of fat brown envelopes, dubious gift-giving and bitter bid losers seemed a world away. In his first visit to the country to watch the Zimbabwe women’s national team play against Malawi in the COSAFA (Council of Southern African Football Associations) championships, Blatter vowed to give financial support to the development of women’s football in Africa.

Beyond diplomatic pleasantries and photogenic smiles while gushing over the beautiful game played by the fairer sex with the president’s men, Blatter had travelled to Zimbabwe with FIFA security personnel tasked with investigating a massive match-fixing scam of more than 300 games played in Africa, Asia and Europe by dozens of countries, including Zimbabwe.

Dubbed “Asiagate” by the local press, it has emerged that between August 2007 and January 2010 the Zimbabwe national team and other local clubs went on tour, mainly in Asia, as well as the Middle East and North Africa, and were paid to play losing matches. The dodgy operation was discovered when the Sports and Recreation Commission ordered an investigation into why the national team had toured Malaysia in December 2009 without official authorisation from the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA).

The probe revealed that, not only had Asian gaming syndicates paid each player in the Zimbabwe squad $2,000-5,000 in cash for each match lost, but also that, last July, Monomotapa Football Club had twice impersonated the country’s national team and played Malaysia in international friendlies. As planned, they lost 4-0 and were handsomely rewarded.

In Tunisia, Monomotapa FC played Etoile du Sahel in a 2009 Cup of African Football (CAF) Champions League match. Having been instructed to concede three goals to the Tunisians, Etoile du Sahel only managed to put two soft balls into the net. As a result, specific players and officials involved in match-fixing lost money. Although the discovery of match-fixing resulted in blows between an enraged team captain and a profiteering manager, what happened in the hotel rooms of Tunis, stayed in Tunis.

Nothing new, but something big

Corruption in Zimbabwean football is nothing new. In the past, the former head of Zimbabwean football Leo Mugabe, the president’s nephew, was the chief accused in the disappearance of at least $250,000 of FIFA funds earmarked for football development. Although cleared of any wrongdoing by the courts, nephew Mugabe’s name is still associated with the overall deceitful mismanagement of ZIFA.

Unlike the factual and fictitious tales of Mugabe’s unethical personal benefit from ZIFA, the global extent of Asiagate is a first in the brief history of Zimbabwean football. The Sport and Recreation Commission’s enquiry report reveals a string of fixed matches with several countries including Bahrain, Bulgaria, China, Jordan, Kenya, Oman, Singapore, Syria, Thailand, Vietnam and Yemen. Match-throwing led to the Warriors freefalling in FIFA rankings to as low as 130. Currently, Zimbabwe ranks better at 87.

Run as the private betting enterprise of politically connected elites and their obsequious subordinates, Zimbabwe’s senior football officials, including ZIFA’s CEO at the time, were repeatedly named as the central figures behind Asiagate in a 162-page investigative report compiled by the Sports and Recreation Commission. Receiving at least $10,000 for each dirty game, the former CEO of ZIFA, Henrietta Rushwaya, programmes officer Jonathan Musavengana, and FIFA-registered match agent Kudzi Shaba made their fortunes through convicted Singaporean betting agent Wilson Raj Perumal.

Perumal, the Asian syndicate mastermind, was previously convicted for match-fixing in 1995. Hiding out in a London flat near Wembley Stadium, Perumal was a man on the run, wanted for running over a policeman. Until his arrest in February, Perumal was part of a worldwide million-dollar match-fixing system, running scams with teams from Finland, Togo, Singapore and Botswana, among others.

Lured by Perumal’s big, easy money, Rushwaya and her colleagues created a more fraudulent legacy than the crooked reign of the president’s nephew. Rushwaya’s running of a Genghis Khan-lite administration is described in the commission’s report as having “a propensity to instil fear in her subordinates and those she dealt with through cunning ways of name-dropping in her conversations”. Though dismissed for insubordination and mismanagement last July, Rushwaya’s personal friends include the president, the deputy prime minister, and the heads of state security and the second biggest opposition party.

There is little chance that she will face criminal prosecution, not least because of her political allies, but mainly because there is no law criminalising match-fixing in Zimbabwe. There is talk among ordinary sports pundits turned legal experts overnight of the difficulty of charging Rushwaya with corruption, because the country’s laws are specifically designed to combat corruption by publicly elected servants such as MPs and ministers, not private individuals working for non-state bodies.

However, depending on the outcome of the ZIFA disciplinary hearing that will resume in September, the board may decide to pursue a criminal investigation for fraudulently misrepresenting ZIFA to Asian syndicates. Street pundits give more consideration to Monomotapa FC being charged with impersonating the national team, but making these charges stick will be difficult, judging by ZIFA’s attitude.

Waxing lyrical, waning punishment

The gap in local and international reactions is startling: FIFA is baying for blood, but ZIFA wants to issue a slap on the wrist.

Blatter has threatened to issue life bans from FIFA and permanently blacklist officials and players involved in match-fixing, while, after an extensive year-long investigation, ZIFA is considering a more humane, lenient punishment. In an interview with a national weekly, Sunday News, the current head of ZIFA, Cuthbert Dube said:

“ZIFA will be reasonable, fair and to some extent lenient in the way it will handle those players and officials found to be on the wrong side of the football laws. They are human beings and [they are] very much aware of the consequences of life bans.”

With such diplomatic statements, the commitment to cleaning up Zimbabwean football appears to be nothing more than nice pull-quotes for newspapers and great sound bites for television interviews. As it stands, ZIFA has yet to take any definite steps to create mechanisms of accountability and transparency to prevent future scams or criminalise match-fixing. Although the Minister of Education, Sport and Culture, David Coltart, has repeatedly called for the police to conduct criminal investigations of Asiagate, punitive reprimands and made-for-TV chin-stroking rhetoric seem to be the order of the day at ZIFA.

Asiagate exposes the football association as rotten to its core and calls into question its commitment to FIFA’s zero-tolerance policy. But the scandal also places the credibility of the media under scrutiny. Witness testimonies reveal that certain journalists who routinely travelled with the teams received cash payments for their silence and a nice puff-piece in the news. Pursuit of profit instead of pursuit of truth seriously damages the trustworthiness and integrity of journalists and the newspapers they work for – some of which are state-run and pro-government.

Without full public access to the report, it is difficult to ascertain if what is being reported is the full truth or merely an economic version of the truth. Meanwhile, implicated officials, journalists and newspapers behave like crabs in a barrel, pushing and shoving to find their spot on the right side of history.

The media’s silence on the government’s silence also speaks volumes. In possession of ZIFA’s detailed match-fixing report since May, the state still has not issued an official statement on Asiagate. The government’s delayed reaction suggests a wish for the matter to die quietly, as there are no criminal or civil consequences for match-fixing. With implicated sectors of the press unable to credibly hold a largely disinterested state to account and ensure the guilty are duly blacklisted, officials waxing lyrical about leniency are likely to have their way when investigations are finally wrapped up.

If the worst possible outcome is that the football committee’s year-long probe amounts to wasted pages of time and effort, written at the risk of death threats to chief investigators, the possibility of cleaning up the beautiful game are greatly diminished. Asiagate’s stench extends beyond local clubs to South Africa, Libya and Poland, where some of the allegedly bribed players and officials are contracted.

In the interests of saving what’s left of Zimbabwe’s footballing reputation, a harder line, of the Turkish variety, needs to be taken on those at the centre of Asiagate. Fenerbahçe officials have been issued with arrest warrants, while Georgia and South Korea have issued bans to players involved in the scam. Turkey, unlike poor Zimbabwe, appears more committed to cleaning up the beautiful game.

Tendai Marima is a Zimbabwean blogger and doctoral scholar at Goldsmiths, University of London whose research interests include African literature and global feminist theory.

Follow her on Twitter: @KonWomyn

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.