Blame the Ref? Or Bribe the Ref?

Soccer referee about to show a yellow card to a player during a match

We wrote yesterday about the possibility of the World Cup being remembered for the wrong reasons. The day before, we wrote about match-fixing allegations. Now the two have come together with the news that FIFA (world football’s governing body) has dropped Saudi Arabian referee Fahad Al-Mirdasi from the 2018 World Cup after he was banned for a match-fixing attempt in his own country.

The 32-year-old Al-Mirdasi was banned for life by the Saudi authorities after claims that he tried to fix the final of the King’s Cup (Saudi football’s equivalent of the FA Cup) between Al-Ittihad and Al-Faisaly. Having “considered the evidence,” FIFA declared that the “conditions to be selected for the World Cup are not satisfied anymore” and duly dropped Al-Mirdasi from the list of tournament referees.

Of course, to football fans, referees taking bribes and attempting to fix games is nothing new. Bluntly, it’s the only possible explanation. “How was that not a penalty? And why didn’t their goalie get a red card? The ref’s bent. It’s the only possible explanation.” And you trudge miserably home after a 2-0 defeat.

If you really do want to fix the result of a football match, bribing the referee is the best way to do it. Red cards, penalties, goals disallowed for a “push” that only the referee saw: there are plenty of ways to do it.

Scandal in Italy

And that was what happened in Italy in 2006 – when Italian police exposed the infamous “Calciopoli” scandal, which implicated league champions Juventus and many other major teams in a network of relationships between team managers and referees’ organizations – with the accusation that matches had been fixed in Italy’s top two leagues by selecting favorable referees.

The Italian football authorities handed down a raft of fines, points deductions, and relegations to Juventus, Milan, and other leading teams (although many of the initial penalties were subsequently reduced on appeal).

That was far from the first time the integrity of referees had been questioned. Both Derby County and Nottingham Forest felt that early European matches had been fixed, and for Forest the truth finally came out in 1997. Belgian side Anderlecht, it emerged, had used local gangsters to bribe the Spanish referee. The cost of Anderlecht’s 3-0 win over Forest in the semi-final of a European competition was £18,000 ($24,000), roughly equivalent to £54,000 ($72,000) in today’s money.

Going back even further, long-time fans of Leeds United still question the credibility of referee Michael Kitabdjian, who ruled out a goal and denied the team two clear penalties as Bayern Munich won the 1975 European Cup final 2-0.

Could it happen now?

Twenty and 30 years ago the referee’s decision was final. There was little in the way of TV replays, no multiple camera angles, no communication with a fourth official, and no video assistant referees. Today’s football has all that plus goal-line technology. And yet dark mutterings persist about the performance of referees. “Real Madrid bribe” is a search term which Google automatically completes with “referees.” The Italian press made any number of allegations about the performance of British referee Michael Oliver after he gave Real Madrid a controversial late penalty against Juventus in this season’s Champions League.

No wonder MLB was concerned

We should stress that all of these accusations are nothing more than allegations but, given the allegations, you can understand why a sport like Major League Baseball had so many concerns about the legalization of sports betting in the US. As we have seen in cricket, individual players can affect small sections of a game in a way that is hugely beneficial to gamblers. The same could happen in baseball.

Mike Trout of the Anaheim Angels will earn an estimated $36m (£27m) this year. There are plenty of players earning a tiny fraction of that amount, and gamblers know it. But the actions of one or two players can always be dismissed as just that: Individual players who don’t reflect the true nature of the sport. But when the match officials are found to be corrupt, then the very nature and credibility of your sport are under threat.

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