Recent days have seen the publication of two news stories that undermine the credibility of professional soccer as a clean, honest area of sport. The European police have discovered a network, headquartered in Singapore, which bribes referees, players and coaches in order to rig matches, thereby obtaining massive profits thanks to an illegal betting circuit. The discovery points to a well-organized, worldwide structure: it is estimated that in Europe some 150 matches were rigged (including World Cup qualification matches), plus another 300 doubtful matches in Latin America.
The second cause for concern stems from the supposed connection between the medical doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, currently facing charges for a case of organized doping in bicycle racing (known as Operation Puerto) and the Real Sociedad soccer club. The San Sebastián club, according to certain cryptic annotations made by Fuentes in his papers, appears to have been a customer of his. The suspicion is strengthened by the statement made by Iñaki Badiola, former president of Real Sociedad, to the effect that the club paid money under the counter to the doping network operated by Eufemiano.
Professional soccer is by no means immune to corruption. The betting scandal in Italian soccer was a warning signal to which, it appears, the sport’s authorities have failed to respond. The chance to win easy money through a conspiracy of bribed referees, players and coaches is too tempting to be ruled out in the name of high principles of sporting conduct.
The mechanisms built into professional soccer to defend the game from illegal activities are very weak. The national federations tend to place implicit trust in the conduct of players and coaches, the organized networks of fixing are global in reach, and the international federations are hardly more than institutions concerned with the organization of events, and are themselves not above suspicions of bribery.
The greatest risk is the emergence, in recent years, of online betting. The response can only be the organization of regulatory controls that would place obstacles in the way of bribery and the fixing of matches; and this response must be a rapid one, because if the suspicion takes hold that the national leagues are infested with high levels of fraud, the big-business aspect of soccer may dwindle to a shadow of itself, even before the bubble of its astronomical expenditures is punctured.
It is with the same cheerful disregard that the soccer authorities address the problem of doping. Again we have to turn to the courts to obtain a serious, realistic verdict on the extent of the problem in Spain, if we are to dispel the lingering shadow of suspicion.