Credit: AdamtheLibrarian

Remember Tim Donaghy?  The now-disgraced NBA referee officiated from 1994 until 2007, when he abruptly resigned.  The reason behind his resignation became obvious a mere five weeks later when he plead guilty to federal charges related to altering the outcome of NBA games for gambling purposes.

The controversy lit the powder keg of fan distrust of NBA refs.  After his very public downfall, Donaghy began throwing out accusations that other notable games were fixed, including games that had been controversial for their especially bad officiating (i.e. Game Six of Kings vs. Lakers in 2002). Fans found videos of stunningly bad calls from Donaghy in crucial games, and the NBA was in full-blown crisis mode.  Tim Donaghy was only alleged to have changed the point total of the games, not the victor.

With all the controversy that generated, European soccer has Tim Donaghy and the NBA by a mile.  Last week, Europol—the European Union criminal intelligence agency—announced that they had uncovered 680 games where the referees had likely altered the outcome for gambling purposes.  And these were merely the games that Europol caught; there were likely far more than that.  The system was extremely intricate: A Singaporean mob boss orders a lieutenant in an unknown country to tell a Hungarian mid-level gangster to fly to whatever other random country the match is in and meet with the official, where the gangster then delivers the money in some laundered fashion.  It is such a complex web of jurisdictions and international considerations that everyone knows who the mobster is, yet nobody can touch him.

This is far from the first such occurrence in international soccer.  The sport is littered with similar controversies, and ex-FIFA head of security has stated that earnings from illegal match fixing likely reach one billion dollars in Asia alone.  But don’t worry, FIFA is on the case—they’ve set up a hotline for concerned citizens to report their local soccer corruption.  As toothless as that reaction seems, what is there to do?  International soccer is a conglomeration of hundreds leagues and associations, and people gamble on the results of all of them.  One billion dollars is a lot of money, and makes one wonder why we don’t see more referee corruption, rather than less.  So why does the US only have Tim Donaghy?

If the US has particularly fairly-officiated sports, it might be because of highly criminalized nature of sports gambling in the US.  While there are obviously some hotbeds of legalized gambling, many if not most Americans have settled with gambling with friends, and thus kept the money out of the Casinos where mobsters can take money from other gamblers.  However, this could be a product of many other things as well; sociological concerns, well-paid referees, or the sheer volume of international soccer matches making it appear like corruption is more rampant than it is.

–Jacob Schumer

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2 Responses to International Soccer Laughs at Our Puny Tim Donaghy Scandal

  1. Kim Smith says:

    Unfortunately, I do not see stories like this compelling much change. I am really interested in what sort of response you get when you call the hotline though. FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s twitter account was recently hacked and, while the tweets were obviously fake, but for a minute they seemed like a very plausible admission.

  2. Andrew Solinger says:

    Great inside Jacob. It’s also worth highlighting, as you did, that this problem of match-fixing is not limited just to European soccer. Today, in fact, it was announced that international star Didier Drogba’s former team in China, the Shanghai Shenhua, have been stripped of their 2003 title, will pay a mediocre fine, and will be penalized at the start of this year’s season with a six-point deduction all due to a finding of match-fixing by team officials. This corruption within the soccer world has even reached the highest levels of national teams and FIFA itself as the president of South Africa’s football association as well as a member of FIFA’s Executive Committee have been suspended and banned for life (respectively) for their roles in corruption schemes.
    I would also be careful not to understate the prevalence of this sort of sport-related corruption in the United States. While there may never be a scandal of this magnitude within the US, we are not immune from such conduct. For decades there have been allegations and investigations in to corruption in college and less-commonly in professional athletics. As you pointed out, this may just be based on the fact that the US typically has a single governing body overseeing all activities in a given sport instead of the disparate organizations and associations in the realm of international soccer competition. But as Tim Donaghy shows, when big money and sport collide there is bound to be some “shady” dealing by some.