On April 17th I read the story about Dickson Etuhu, a player I had followed when I was growing up. At 37, and after a highly respectable career in England and more than 30 international appearances for Nigeria, Etuhu moved to one of the biggest teams in Sweden, AIK. Then at 37 years old and thafter he had hung up his playing boots and at 37 years old, Etuhu was arrested for match-fixing.
It’s alleged that in March of 2017 the former Manchester City midfielder and a another former player named Alban Jusufi approached AIK goalkeeper, Kenny Stamatopoulos and offered him £160,000 (roughly $200,000) to underperform in an upcoming game against IFK Goteborg.
As unusual as this is in the United States, it is quite common in European countries and Sweden in particular, a country that is driven crazy by sports betting. I lived and played soccer in Sweden for four years and during that time, I myself would eventually learn just how common match-fixing really is.
First, it’s important to understand just how popular sports betting is in Sweden. When I was living there I watched games from various European leagues almost every night. When commercials would play during half time there was only one thing being promoted: betting sites. I honestly can’t say that I ever saw a single commercial for anything other than a betting website or a betting tips website. Everything was geared towards getting people to open the app on their phone and bet on the game they were watching—and it works. If you happen to find yourself watching a soccer or hockey game with a bunch of Swedes, chances are they are all staring at odds on their phone during the intermissions.
What surprised me more than anything though, was the fact that you were able to bet on soccer games in much lower divisions, where match-fixing is far easier to get away with. I played in Division 2 and Division 1, which despite their naming, are divisions 4 and 3 respectively. Before each season we would be visited by a representative from the Swedish FA who would give a long presentation on the seriousness and the punishments for being involved in match-fixing. For three seasons in Division 2, I didn’t see any of it. But in my first season in Division 1, it was quite clear how common it was.
The first time I saw it was a bit surreal, I could never imagine doing anything to affect the outcome of a game and I had never really heard much about match-fixing in The US. Sure enough, I walked into the clubhouse one day where a bunch of players were standing in front of the TV, one of them pointing the remote to skip back over and over. They were watching highlights from a game in our league. The influence from the central defender and the goalkeeper on one of the teams was undeniable. First, as a ball is played over the top of the defense, the center back is inexplicably rooted in place and leaves a striker to beat him to it and be through on goal. The center back does his “best” to track the runner before bringing him down with a clumsy and reckless tackle for a penalty. When the referee makes the call the goalkeeper is doing his best impression of Bradley Cooper, pleading with the referee that it wasn’t a foul. One would think that if a goalkeeper didn’t want to save a penalty, it would fairly easy to let it in. But this keeper made a mess of disguising the fact that he was trying to let it in. Before the spot kick is even taken, the keeper nearly trips on his own feet. it’s a pathetic sight.
Days later it emerges that the game is under investigation by the Swedish FA for suspected match-fixing. Among the numerous questions that I have in my head, one of them is ‘How much were they paid?’
Over the course of the season however, I would see several results or specific actions that made me scratch my head and wonder if match-fixing had played a role. Lars Korsell, a researcher at the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, says there can be many incentives for affecting a game. “One could be money another could be friendship – you know the person and they want a little favor. But it could also be threats and harassment.”
Bribery seems to be the most common form of persuasion and it’s quite powerful when we look at the numbers. A player in the third division of Sweden can be paid as much as £15,000 to alter the outcome of a game. If their team is safe from relegation and also not in a position to be challenging for promotion, there might not seem like any harm is done at all.
With the emergence of sports betting in The United States, I can only assume that events such as these are on their way. Admittedly it would be much harder to persuade athletes at higher levels to take a bribe to alter the outcome of their game, but if betting is allowed on games at lower levels and collegiately, there will almost certainly be incidences of suspected match-fixing.