Russia takes aim at match-fixers

Ahead of 2018 World Cup, officials and lawmakers are turning their attention to the problem blighting the domestic game.

Anzhi Makhachkala fans
FC Anzhi Makhachkala's Premier League win over Amkar Perm in November 2012 is alleged to be one of the domestic league games affected by match rigging [Getty Images]

With Russia preparing to host the 2018 World Cup, observers say the depth of corruption and widespread match-fixing in the domestic game is the most pressing agenda item for football administrators.

With match-fixing scandals dogging European football, Russia has no desire to damage the game’s image once again. Rigging of results has been rife in the Russian Premier League but so far no one has been brought to justice.

FC Anzhi Makhachkala’s 2-1 Premier League win over Amkar Perm in November 2012 blew the lid over alleged match-fixing in the game.

The match was accused of being unfair by many football experts. Suspicions were raised when many bookmakers suspended betting on the game, after gamblers stood to win more than four million roubles (approximately $130,000), a significant amount in Russia.

Even a former Amkar defender was among those placing unusually large bets on Anzhi. Yet, after months of investigation the Russian Football Union, no significant evidence of wrong-doing had been uncovered and the match was pronounced genuine. But this was by no means an isolated case.

In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Russian football legend Aleksandr Bubnov said he believed match-fixing was destroying the domestic game, but until now there were no resources to stop those involved. The former Soviet Union and Dynamo Moscow star has experience fighting against corruption, having sat on a special committee of football experts investigating fixed matches within the Russian Football Union.

The committee was created in autumn 2011, headed by former Soviet goalkeeper Anzor Kavazashvili.

The panel’s duties were to watch videos of doubtful matches, using their valuable experience to identify suspicious actions on the pitch. After operating for more than a year, the committee was shut down as ineffective: it had very little power and had failed not only to punish those guilty of staging matches but even to identify a single fixed game.

Bubnov, now one of Russia’s top football experts, said he feared part of the problem was the lack of punitive measures for those found guilty.

I am sick and tired of seeing these cheap comedies on the field … Match-fixing is a massive problem in the Russian Premier League, and it exists only because no one is afraid of being punished.

– Aleksandr Bubnov

“I am sick and tired of seeing these cheap comedies on the field,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Match-fixing is a massive problem in the Russian Premier League, and it exists only because no one is afraid of being punished.

“There are countless suspicions backed up with facts that scores in particular games in the Russian Premier League were pre-arranged by the interested parties. At the same time, it has turned out impossible to take legal action against all those involved in making football corrupt and an unfair game.”

Legal firepower

One major problem is that although suspicion of match-fixing is very strong there are no effective legal methods to fight corruption in Russian sport. However, the heated discussions in football’s circles combined with growing media pressure has encouraged Russian officials to finally face up to the problem, who claim that tougher laws need to be introduced to target those behind the sham matches.

In January, President Vladimir Putin submitted a bill to parliament containing a raft of strict measures aimed at stamping out match-fixing in sport. The bill consisted of amendments to the law “On Physical Culture and Sports in the Russian Federation,” and proposes tough punishments on those found guilty of fixing.

Igor Ananskih, Chairman of the Committee of the Russia’s lower house of Parliament for Physical Training, Sports and Youth Affairs, said the proposed amendments gave investigators greater powers: “The essence of the law against corruption and match-fixing in Russia is to allow the Interior Ministry to perform wire-tapping and shadowing so we can prevent false games and stop corruption before the match has even been played.

“Previously, police didn’t have rights to perform any operational activities in this field. We are giving them the green light now.”

The match-fixing bill proposes harsh punishments: offenders could be sent to jail for seven years or face up to one million roubles fine (approximately $30,000). Additionally, players, referees, club management and bookmakers will face a raft of new penalties in the proposed crackdown. Russian officials believe this will force potential match-fixing syndicates to think about the consequences of match-fixing and what they can lose after a one-off benefit.

Some, however, fear it may not be enough.

Nikolay Grammatikov, the secretary of the union of football players and coaches in Russia, spoke to Al Jazeera about the lack of transparency within the system:

“The problem of corruption is a result of the leading club’s conflict of interests when they themselves benefit directly from any match-fixing,” he said.

“A lack of transparent management systems as well as unaudited finances in the Russian Premier League are the main factors which encourage corruption to grow.

“In addition, the penalties for match-fixing should be more significant, not only for players and referees but also for the clubs so there will be a sense of collective responsibility and not just for individuals.”

The bill must pass three readings in the Russia’s lower parliament State Duma, then be voted upon in the parliament’s upper house, the Federation Council, and after that signed into law by the president.

It is believed that the bill will be adopted during the Duma’s spring session.

Speaking about the new draft laws, Aleksandr Bubnov said: “I totally support the new law and really hope that the methods will be effective. Corruption in football should be stopped.”

Anna Lidster is a freelance sports journalist who has written for the Siberian Times, Daily Mail and BBC World Service. You can follow her on twitter @AShlyakhtenko

All views represent those of the author only.

Source: Al Jazeera