Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Match Fixing: South Africa Threatened by Corruption and a Dodgy Referee

Ibrahim Chaibou. Not a name you might instantly recognise, but one worth remembering as the latest round of FIFA match-fixing allegations rocks football.

With Greece, Finland, South Korea and even Sumo wrestling in Japan under scrutiny, FIFA have now turned their gaze to a couple of bizarre games in the build-up to last year’s World Cup in South Africa.

First, as they opened the World Cup final venue at Soccer City, Bafana Bafana (The Boys, The Boys) beat Colombia 2-1 on May 27, 2010. Amid the blaring vuvuzelas, Kenyan referee Langat Kipngetich saw fit to award two penalties – one of them distinctly dodgy - to South Africa that day, leaving the Latin Americans a little irked. I seem to recall Colombia coach Hernan Dario Gomez getting quite angry about it.

Four days later, I drove up the N1 motorway through a forest of toll booths to the brand new Peter Mokabe stadium in Polokwane (once known as Pietersburg) to see Bafana Bafana take on Guatemala. Though BafBaf were ranked 92 at the time (a record low for a World Cup host nation) they contrived to win 5-0, their best-ever international scoreline. Great boost for an anxious nation that as I said when I filed this video

Strange day too. Before the game, with an old goalkeeper friend of mine Deshi Bakhtawer, who now works for the South African Broadcasting Corporation, we stopped off at the Holiday Inns in downtown Polokwane.

A strange but clearly powerful man, short in stature but big on lip, was ordering people about. I chatted to him. He told me he was the “agent” for the game. Bodyguards surrounded him. He told me how he organised such friendlies, sorted things out (for a reasonable fee, I imagine)... before driving off to the ground looking suitably self-important.

The Holiday Inns was chaotic, filled with journalists, fans, officials, players, ex-players and, unless I’m very much mistaken, the referee that night, a man called Ibrahim Chaibou, flown in from Niger.

A couple of hours later, Mr Chaibou saw fit to award two penalties to South Africa, both for handball. The first, after just 12 minutes, was a travesty. Katlego “Killer” Mphela stuck both spot kicks away. Job done.

At the time, I saw both the Colombian and Guatemalan wins (and the subsequent 2-0 win over highly-ranked Demark in Atteridgeville) as perfect preparation for the World Cup for the hosts, who started the tournament on a run of 12 unbeaten internationals. Sure, the refereeing was a little generous, but hey, Guatemala had just suffered a series of earthquakes and their players didn’t look too bothered about the result or the refereeing.

Now, just over a year on, you start to wonder. Just like seeing Bernard Tapie’s Marseille in the early 1990s or Hansie Cronje’s cricketing Proteas at the turn of the century, perhaps I was witnessing something more than met the eye.

Look closer at Mr Chaibou’s recent performances and you’ll see he was the man in charge when Bahrain beat Togo 3-0 last year. That was the day Togo put out a side of nonentities, pretending they were international footballers. Mr Chaibou saw fit to disallow five goals that day, for no other obvious reason other than to keep the scoreline respectable. Critisisms of his performance were swept under the table as the headlines focussed on the bogus Togo line-up and the actions of an agent called Wilson Raj Perumal.

But a month ago in Abuja, our whistle-happy friend Mr Chaibou was at it again. Nigeria were (surprisingly) 4-0 up against a below-par Argentina side when, according to internet bookmakers, there was a rush on betting that there would be a fifth goal in the match.

Matthew Benham, of online betting outfit SmartOdds, informs us: "With 86 minutes played the odds for [a fifth goal] were absolutely insane. But the market was effectively saying there would be no more goals."

Lo and behold, Mr Chaibou allowed nine minutes of injury time (even though the fourth official had signalled only four), then awarded Argentina a bizarre penalty. Nigerian defender Efe Ambrose clearly controlled the ball with his thigh but Mr Chaibou awarded a penalty for handball. Mauro Bosselli took the spot kick, fifth goal went in and the match ended Nigeria 4, Argentina 1. The internet gamblers were the only winners.

At the time FIFA President Sepp Blatter said there would be fair hearing on the issue adding: ''We have voted huge funds on investigations of match fixing and there will be zero tolerance on corruption.”

And that’s the last we’ve heard. Mr Chaibou remains unsuspended and free to referee at the top level. Now look, I’m not in a position to say Mr Chaibou is corrupt. I’m just pointing out that he’s been under scrutiny ever since FIFA announced on June 2 they were “studying betting patterns during the match as part of a wider ongoing FIFA investigation."

And hey, Mr Chaibou retired this year as he hits the referee’s retirement age of 45. Soon he’ll be history. But what you have to ask is: How did he get to referee that game against Guatemala? Did he really fail to notice the Togo side in Bahrain weren’t real international footballers? Why did he allow the game in Abuja to go on and on?

Match-fixing is, as we all know, as lethal to footballing credibility as performance-enhancing drugs are to athletics and cycling.

And then consider the case of Phil Setshedi, the former Bafana Bafana assistant coach, and his recent run-in with South Africa’s special police unit, The Hawks, earlier this month. Apparently Mr Setshedi was keen on seeing a team called Mpumalanga Sevutsa Stars beat Garankuwa United in their feeder division play-offs in Cape Town last month. So keen he offered a policeman, posing as the match referee, R2,000 to ensure the right result.

South African police spokesman McIntosh Polela is quoted as saying: "A member of the Hawks who posed as a match referee met up with the identified suspect at the Southern Sun Hotel in Cape Town. During this meeting the suspect offered to pay the agent in order to secure a win for Mpumalanga Sevutsa.

"Rakhange Humphrey Setshedi was granted bail of R10,000 and ordered to appear again on 9 September... he has surrendered his passport and will report to the Sandton police station twice a week.”

With Greece charging 84 football officials over corruption surrounding 54 games over the last two years, South Korea arresting five players and Mexico also investigating similar charges, South Africa is in danger of being dragged into the grey area of match-fixing.

So far SAFA have made all the right noises with spokesman Morio Sanyane insisting yesterday: "We take this opportunity to assure FIFA of our unqualified cooperation and support should they institute any form of investigation.

"Should any of our administrative members be found to have played any role in the matter, the association will, without hesitation, take appropriate action against the culprits in order to protect its integrity.

“As things stand, we want to believe that the matches under question were played in the spirit of fair play.”

As I said on South Africa's eNews television channel yesterday, so do we, Mr Sanyane, so do we.

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