This is a subject I have been meaning to get into for some time.
You may have heard that a few months ago, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that games in the semi-pro Canadian Soccer League had been fixed by international gambling syndicates.
The CSL is a third-tier league composed of clubs in Ontario and Québec. Its members include the academy teams of Toronto FC and the Montréal Impact.
Last week, the CBC followed up its investigation with news that the Canadian Soccer Association had cut ties with the CSL and removed its official sanction. Part of that report included a disclosure of the sum which had been bet on CSL matches: over $100 million. The CSL issued a response to that report which stated that the sum was in fact "about $185 million."
Think about that for a moment: $185 million was gambled by international syndicates on semi-pro soccer games in Canada.
Not quite the same as the prop bets you placed on the Super Bowl, is it?
Well, that proved to be just one tip of a larger iceberg. On Monday, the pan-European police force Europol published the results of its long-running investigation into match-fixing in Europe and beyond. Europol found that some 680 games across the globe had been fixed in recent years, including World Cup qualifiers and UEFA Champions League games.
Veteran Canada-based investigative reporter Declan Hill has been covering match-fixing in soccer for some time now, and his writing in recent days is also worth reading. I would particularly recommend this essay on one particular gambling syndicate that is based in Singapore, and run by a person named Dan Tan.
In the wake of the Europol investigation, Hill published an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen which offered a further explanation of who Dan Tan is and why matters. That column includes a reference to a direct link between Tan's betting syndicate and the corrpution in the CSL. Read this investigative report by Hill that was published in the Citizen last December for more details.
(Among the most significant detals in these stories is that international arrest warrant for Tan exists, but the Singaporean government has not yet served it. At the same time, Interpol and FIFA are planning to jointly build a $20 million research centre in Singapore to investigate match-fixing. Quite a coincidence, isn't it.)
Why does this matter to you? After all, there has never been a known instance of match-fixing in Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer Leagues or the United Soccer Leagues.
Well, here's about the simplest way I can put it. If match-fixing can happen in a relatively anonymous semi-pro soccer league in Canada, it can happen anywhere. And as we now know, it did happen in the Champions League and World Cup qualifiers around the world, as well as many domestic leagues.
So if I may say so, you should care about this.
MLS, the NASL and the USL certainly care. I asked representatives of all three leagues for comments on how their leagues deal with match-fixing, and got answers pretty quickly. They are published in full below.
I was sent statements from MLS headquarters and USL president Tim Holt, and got a phone interview with NASL commissioner Bill Peterson.
Some of you might judge MLS and the USL for not having officials do phone interviews for this story. I would ask that you not, and I say that as someone who has often judged individuals and organizations in many sports for lack of access.
In the interest of full disclosure, I made my intial requests for comment via e-mail. I also believe that sometimes, it's easier to give a complex answer in a written statement than it is in a phone conversation. So I was fine with allowing responses in that form.
In addition, I sent some questions to the U.S. Soccer Federation. The USSF's media relations staff is understandably busy at the moment, between Wednesday's World Cup qualifier for the men and a training camp for the women that has just begun. I was told that they would be able to help me get information soon.
So here is what I have as of now. I will let you know as I receive more information.
Statement from Major League Soccer
(1) In 2012, MLS enrolled in an early warning system that monitors gambling worldwide. Additionally, we have a soccer security agent in Las Vegas that monitors gambling activity there.
We recently completed a 2-day training seminar with Interpol and CONCACAF wherein we were exposed to current best practices.
This season we are instituting a ban on phones and electronic communication devices from within the locker room 60 minutes prior to kick until match's end. This includes social media.
With the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), we conduct thorough background checks of all officials working in the League.
(2) We are developing a comprehensive education program for all those that "touch" the game including players, coaches, refs and support staff. In the interim, all are being made aware of the league's intentions to amplify its efforts in this area. Messaging will be included in every preseason team meeting conducted by Competition Department members and it will be reinforced by the MLSPU.
(3) While we have faith in the integrity of those associated with MLS, we will not ignore what has already transpired around the world. We are not so naive as to think we are immune.
We are hiring a Director of Security who will be charged with developing an integrity program as well additional defensive measures. This area will be a primary focus.
Statement from United Soccer Leagues president Tim Holt
There are no known instances of match-fixing at a USL game at any level of competition.
USL has been working and communicating with US Soccer, CONCACAF, and Interpol to increase its level of education and vigilance with respect to this global problem in our sport. We are also sharing available information with our teams to allow for them to better protect all those associated with their organizations.
Any player, coach, or staff member alleged to have been involved in match fixing would be afforded due process through the established protocol, however we would permanently ban any player, coach, or team personnel proved to have participated in the fixing of a soccer match.
We have been disheartened to see the recent news reports on the level of money wagered on matches in certain North American soccer leagues, but it serves as a wake-up call to all that this is a serious problem and no professional soccer league (irrespective of its geography) is immune from elements related to sports gambling including match fixing.
Interview with North American Soccer League president Bill Peterson
Has there ever been a known occurrence of match-fixing in the NASL in its current era (i.e. since 2009?)
We're not aware of any occurrences of match-fixing. We don't have any reason at this time to suspect that there has been any.
What is the NASL doing now to prevent match-fixing from taking place?
Obviously, for us, this report out of Europe was news. So we're trying to digest the news and also we are waiting to see what other information might be released as part of the process.
We gathered our senior executives this [Tuesday] morning to talk about what has been in place in the past and the need to make sure we have the proper communication and policies in place going forward.
The communication would include not only members of the league – meaning coaches, players, front office staff. Everyone will need to understand the importance that this has in the sport, and the importance that we will put into having no match-fixing in our league.
And then we'll set up a system where if someone has any information they'll be able to provide that anonymously, and we'll determine what actions to take.
At the same time we'll be reaching out to U.S. Soccer and looking for some guidance from them, and I'm sure there will be a lot of conversations among organizations on how best to frame the way forward.
Are there punishments currently in place if a player is caught engaging in match-fixing, and if so, what are they?
If a player is proven guilty of match-fixing then we would have a variety of disciplinary actions, including removal or suspension form the league. But we need to spend sometime thinking about what the proper reaction is and what we are able to do.
Are there punishments in place if a non-player member of a team organization or the league office is caught engaging in match-fixing, and if so, what are they?
I would expect it to be dealt with the same way. We won't separate the punishments.
What was your reaction when the news came down of a major match-fixing operation in the Canadian Soccer League?
Well, the reaction is that it's always disappointing when any outside force infiltrates a sporting organization or player to try to do something illegal, and to do harm to that sport. You're always taken aback that some of these things can happen.
There really are not a lot of details yet that I've seen, but I'm confident that the CSL will do everything they can to get to the bottom of it and prevent it from happening again.
And as I said earlier we'll be coordinating with key bodies, and since we are a North American organization we'll be speaking to [organizations in Canada] as well.
In a sense they're a little bit further down the road on the issue, so hopefully they'll be able to provide some guidance for us in forming our own policies.
The NASL presently has a team in Edmonton, and there is one coming to Ottawa in 2014. Have you talked with representatives of either team about what they knew about the CSL scandal and whether they were involved in any way?
I haven't as of yet, but obviously we'll be talking to those teams and also to the Canadian Soccer Association.
You mentioned earlier your wish to work with the national federations and other leagues in North America to combat match-fixing. If you would, expand on what you would like to see.
I don't know what it would mean but there's a lot of experience in this country. There's a lot of opinions on the way forward and this is an issue that attacks the sport, not an individual team or league.
So I would propose that it is in everyone's best interest that this is an issue on which we coordinate and work together to make sure it doesn't happen here.
There may be some people in the American soccer community who would say match-fixing wouldn't happen in this country, because players are honest and there's more transparency here than there is elsewhere. What would your reaction be to someone who has that belief?
That the person would have his or her head in the sand. There's no immunity built into sports in North America, and it's important that those of us who are responsible for managing those sports take every potential threat and activity that can harm the sport seriously, and do everything we can to prevent things like this from happening.
But our players are human, and there's just as many dark forces floating around this part of the world as there are anywhere else. So it's important now - obviously it has become a news story, and very topical. I think everyone needs to consider the seriousness of it and get together and sort out the best possible defense against it happening.