The Dark Heart of Russian Football
Will winning the right to host the 2018 World Cup force Russia to confront the corruption that stains its domestic game?
To the uninitiated, newspaper coverage following the end-of-season Russian Premier League match between Saturn Ramenskoe and Alaniya Vladikavkaz might have seemed rather puzzling. "An honest game," declared the headline in Sovetsky Sport, one of Russia's major daily sports newspapers. "Saturn — in favour of honest football," the popular sports website championat.ru echoed. An editorial in Sovetsky Sport also praised Saturn "for not playing as if with their eyes shut, competing honestly in a game in which they had little motivation."
Facing relegation-threatened Alaniya on the final day of the season, Saturn were already ensconced in mid-table and had nothing but pride to play for. Alaniya, meanwhile, knew that a win would almost certainly save them from the drop, as the other contenders for an unwanted place in Russia's First Division, Krylya Sovetov Samara and Amkar Perm, were faced with seemingly unwinnable games against the champions Zenit St Petersburg and second-placed CSKA Moscow respectively.
In the week before the game in Ramenskoe, a suburb of Moscow a few miles east of the city centre, there was much talk of a potential fix. Although Saturn were already assured of another year in the Premier League — their twelfth in succession — the club had mounting debts and many of the players had not been paid for months. Indeed, the situation had become terminal by January this year, when Saturn were liquidated after failing to pay off £16.7m of debt. As a result many in Russia feared that with the stakes so high for Alaniya, some of Saturn's squad would be enticed into throwing the game. The day before the match Russian bookmakers were offering odds as high as 3-1 on a home win and 11-2 for the draw. A number of bookmakers, including the Austrian-based bwin, refused to offer odds on the outcome.
Meanwhile fans of Krylya Sovetov wrote an open letter to four of Saturn's players that week pleading with them to play fairly and resist any temptation to make any deal with Alaniya that would pre-determine the result. "Be true to yourselves!" read the missive. "Play this last game as you always do: honestly, passionately, nobly and with talent." In the end there was perhaps no need for all the hullaballoo, as Saturn put more than their fair share of energy into the game, earning themselves a 1-1 draw which consigned Alaniya to relegation. Russian football breathed a sigh of relief and moved on.
Yet consider this: there is no sadder a reflection on the current state of the game in Russia than the fact that a match played out fairly — as we would all ordinarily expect of sporting competition — should be greeted with relief and even a touch of surprise by the media. A series of questionable incidents coupled with the increasing anxiety of betting companies about the probity of matches were headline news throughout the 2010 Russian football season. Russia has a problem on its hands.
Russian football has long had an unhappy association with match-fixing. A book published in 2009, entitled The Fix: How matches are bought and sold in Russia details the history of malpractice in the Russian game in lurid detail. "I played at a time when whole series of matches were fixed," the book quotes Evgeny Lovchev, a player for Spartak Moscow and the USSR national side in the 1970s, as saying. "The captains of other teams would approach me personally and make me an offer… It was us — our generation — who planted in the minds of fans a distrust of football results." Marc Bennetts's 2008 book Football Dynamo similarly depicts Russian football as a haven for fixers, and includes one anecdote in which a referee in Russia's third tier accepts a bribe of a large bag of sugar in lieu of cash payment. In Western Europe high-profile cases in recent years have concerned large-scale betting syndicates attempting to rig matches for profit. The German referee Robert Hoyzer was caught out trying to fix matches on behalf of a Croatian-based betting syndicate in 2005, while in 2009 17 arrests were made after a German police investigation uncovered over 200 matches across a host of European leagues which had allegedly been fixed with a profit motive in mind.
In Russia, however, cases in question tend to adhere to a more 'traditional' form of fixing — to protect a club's league position, for example, or to do a favour for a particular team, without any major profit motive on the part of the fixers. The risk of relegation seems to be a major factor in encouraging sides to fix games. "I'd say around 80 per cent of fixed matches in Russia are 'trades' or 'swaps," said Artur Petrosyan, the editor of the sports website sportbox.ru. "Teams just take three points each from their games against one another in a season, or they will hand back three points to their opponents if they beat them the previous season." In this way, sides can bank on accumulating enough points at least to give themselves a fighting chance of staying up. "I'd say it's still rare that fixed matches are played for certain individuals to make money," he added.
Those within the betting industry agree. "It's keeping teams in the league that explains the weird results," said Kostadin Yanakiev, an expert on the Russian leagues involved in the betting industry. "For someone to make a lot of money out of match-fixing they would have to go to an illegal bookmaker, who would be prepared to take thousands of pounds on the outcome of a single game — something that legal betting companies simply aren't allowed to do. This is hard to do, lots of things can go wrong, so I would suggest this is all about helping teams to stay up." A senior betting industry analyst, who refused to be named, concurs. "League position is usually paramount," he said. "But those knowing about the fix do make money from it."
As to how often fixes occur in Russia, for obvious reasons figures are difficult to come by. Those in Russia, including Artur Petrosyan, argue that match-fixing is commonplace: "every week there are matches which are decided before they even start." One Russian newspaper last autumn carried an interview with a bookmaker who revealed that in parts of the Russian lower-league system up to 40 percent of matches were fixed; the figure for the Russian Premier League was given as three matches per season, still a significant number. Such are the accepted norms in the country.
Events in the last year have continued the trends seen in previous seasons. When Amkar Perm met FK Rostov in August, bookmakers removed the match from their coupons, citing information which led them to believe the match had been fixed. Rostov were fifth in the league at the time, while Amkar were third-bottom, but by the time bookmakers decided to pull the plug on the game prices for an Amkar victory had dropped as low as 7-2 on, while Rostov were priced at 19-2 for the win. As predicted, Rostov barely turned up for the game and mustered only four shots on goal, although the 1-0 scoreline in favour of Amkar suggested that if any fixing had taken place the players were sensible enough to be subtle about it.
Perhaps they were not subtle enough. One newspaper editorial referred to the match as being like watching "two circus troupes". Sovetsky Sport put the entire 90 minutes of the game online for their readers to view and invited them to decide for themselves whether it was played fairly.
Dropping down a division, FK Volga from the city of Nizhny Novgorod have attracted similarly unwanted attention after a spate of questionable results during the 2010 season. On the same weekend as Amkar and Rostov's tie, Volga travelled to Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East for a First Division game against the local side SKA-Energiya. It quickly became apparent that something was amiss and, again, a number of Russia's bookmakers acted swiftly to remove the match from their list of match prices. Still, others decided to stick with the game. SKA-Energiya went 1-0 up, but surprisingly the odds offered by many bookmakers on an away win shortened. Volga subsequently equalised, and the odds on an SKA-Energiya win lengthened to an astonishing 22-1. Unsurprisingly Volga ran out winners.
As the season reached its climax Volga were involved in another scandal after a derby match against their city neighbours FK Nizhny Novgorod. Volga needed just a point to achieve promotion to the Russian top tier, while Nizhny Novgorod required a win to leapfrog Volga and take their place in the Premier League. The match ended 2-2, but will live long in the memory for many mainly due to the highly dubious nature of Nizhny Novgorod's second goal. In the 84th minute and with Volga 2-1 up and seemingly coasting to victory, a shot by Nizhny Novgorod's Artem Danilenko was parried by the Volga goalkeeper Vitaly Astakhov. The ball rebounded to the Nizhny striker Dmitry Aydov, who looked to have some work to do to score. But in a bizarre, and as yet unexplained twist, the Volga defender Dmitry Polyanin appeared to run out of the way of the ball, allowing Aydov an unopposed strike which he duly dispatched to level the scores.
These two games, along with a third, the return fixture between Volga and Nizhny Novgorod, were cited by Uefa in a letter to the Russian Football Union (RFU) demanding an investigation. Despite this Volga will compete in next year's Premier League. But the case of Volga, and in particular Polyanin's farcical defending, remains enormously embarrassing to those who hold Russian football dear.
Though nothing new, the rumours surrounding the Russian game have taken on a new dimension in 2010, as media scrutiny of suspicious matches has grown and calls for intervention and investigation into match-fixing are on the rise.
There have been two major catalysts which have turned match-fixing into a cause célèbre. First and foremost, the growth in scrutiny of Russian football from abroad has Russians sweating about any potentially awkward revelations about their domestic game. The award of the 2018 World Cup is an obvious point of contact between Russians and foreigners, and there is a certain anxiety among Russians that match-fixing might become a stick with which to beat them. But more generally, increasing communications links between Russia and the 'outside world', particularly via the internet, has made any suspicious-looking matches all the more visible and open to analysis. Once Dmitry Polyanin's farcical defending could have been hushed up; these days YouTube allowed it to be shared around the globe within hours of the final whistle. Similarly, with Western-based betting companies now prepared to offer odds on the outcome of Russian Premier League games, any suspicious patterns of betting immediately show up and become issues of international, and not just domestic, concern. Such greater visibility has got many Russians worried about the reputation of their game abroad.
The second reason is the frankly inept response of the Russian footballing authorities to the problem. In May 2009 the RFU created a body entitled the 'RFU Ethics Committee', and a year later it issued a 'Code of Honour', both of which were intended to herald a cleaning-up of the sport. Today the Code of Honour is a mess — "the most useless document in Russian football", according to one commentator — and the Ethics Committee has singularly failed to deal with the dubious matches described above. It did meet to discuss the fall-out from the Amkar-Rostov match, but after handing details onto the police declared the game to be nothing out of the ordinary. It also ruled that the club presidents of both Volga and Nizhny Novgorod, Viktor Zaydenberg and Aleksey Goykhman, be given a one year suspended disqualification from their positions — about as close to an assertive decision as it has got. The body has fallen into serious disrepute, leading Russians to question why an issue which is vexing both the press and the general public is being treated so lackadaisically by the game's authorities. "Everyone laughs at this organisation here," says Artur Petrosyan. "There has been absolutely no sense in it. It's ridiculous.
It is precisely this kind of inaction which Kostadin Yanakiev believes fans the flames of paranoia about match-fixing. "Overall there probably aren't that many games that are actually fixed," he said. "But it's all about perception. People look for suspicious matches, and because of the historical problems of the Russian league people make assumptions. They're basically seeing match-fixing even where it's not happening." For Yanakiev, only firm action by the authorities can halt that vicious cycle. "What needs to happen is for someone to be caught and severely punished as a deterrent. The Russian authorities need to show some action. Every time something dodgy occurs, there might be an investigation but no results are published, and the whole topic just fades away. That only helps feeds the rumours."
Now may be the time. Optimistic as it seems, there has been no better time for Russia to mount a serious fight against corruption in its domestic game. Particularly with the World Cup on the horizon, and with fans and the press demanding more than ever that action be taken, more serious noises are being made from the Russian authorities about finally tackling match-fixing. "We are ill at ease about this issue, very ill at ease," the head of the RFU, Sergey Fursenko, told Russia's Pervyi Kanal television channel in December. "The [Ethics] Committee is only just taking its first steps. It is extremely difficult to resolve these questions… [but] fans should not think that we are just sitting around not paying attention. We already have quite a quantity of information that will lead us next year to keep an eye on several matches." With that in mind the Ethics Committee has recently been strengthened, its numbers increasing from seven to fifteen.
Is this a serious change of direction for Russian football? Even the journalist Igor Rabiner, a notoriously vocal critic of the RFU, sees green shoots of progress. "I don't doubt that the RFU Ethics Committee will do everything in its power to root out filth," he said. "It just remains to be seen how great its powers will be."
"Nothing has changed — yet," said Artur Petrosyan. "But I believe it needs time." Fans, the domestic press and an ever-growing band of international observers are holding their breath to see what happens next.