The opening kickoff of Brazil 2014 between the host country and Croatia, was set against a series of provocative storylines.
Bribery. Corruption. Match fixing. Social unrest as a result of mismanagement of enormous resources at the expense of schools, hospitals and infrastructure.
The World Cup is a remarkable spectacle, a manipulation of the idea as much as the play. Inside the stadiums, FIFA controls not only the kind of beer you can drink or what credit card you can use, they try and control the way of thinking. "We Are One Rhythm" is the very Orwellian catch phrase the governing body has inscribed on posters splashed outside and inside the stadiums.
"Throughout the backstage area," said journalist Hadley Freeman in The Guardian "there are giant screens that show -- instead of the actual news -- rolling adverts for FIFA that promise FIFA can cure everything, including racism and war, and that is not an exaggeration. "FIFA: Football as a catalyst for change; no football without ethics or integrity" trumpeted a typically 1984-esque email that arrived in my inbox."
Many people in Brazil have responded with their own home-grown messages scrawled on pedestrian crossings and made into beautifully crafted graffiti walls. "There Will Be No World Cup" and "FIFA Go Home" among the most prominent.
At the core of soccer's historical longevity is its unmistakable place in the wider culture. Beyond the ebbs and flows on the pitch, the orchestrated flailing of arms and legs and heads in concentrated rhythm, swaying to the pulse of the gathered throng, is the expressed passion and collective aspirations of the world's working class. If one were to meditate on the game's meaning, the mind would not stray far from the oft-quoted musing of legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly who said:
"Some people believe that football is a matter of life and death; I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."
The World Cup has transformed those romantic notions of the game. The soccer we know today can still be compelling to watch, mystically enchanting on its good days, maddeningly exasperating on its bad ones. Its simplicity is at once its foundation; a match can turn on the brilliance of a single individual, or be dominated by the collective will of its eleven. The romance of the game is still very much alive. And we will watch the World Cup as we always do. Because at the end of the day we still love the game. From the group of kids in an African village playing with a ball made of rags, or a pickup game in a church courtyard in Italy, all the way to the great cathedrals of the game like the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid or the Maracana in Rio; those will always exist in one form or another. Therein lies the grand lament. The micro now subservient to the macro of corporate might and the global governance of the gatekeepers in Zurich who act as if the truth is just a lie undiscovered.
A number of weeks ago, I posted an article titled: "There will be no World Cup." In it I said
"If past World Cups are any indication, look for the hosts to get some help. FIFA wants a show, not protests. They know Brazil has to win to keep people quiet. Dilma Rousseff knows that with a Presidential election coming up later in the year, her chances of winning would be a lot better with a sixth Brazilian World Cup win. A penalty call made or not made. A linesman's flag held up for offside. Or not. It happens. There is precedent."
The opening match saw Brazil get that help. In another match, Neymar might have been sent off for the elbow on Luka Modric. Instead, he scores two goals. The Japanese referee allows a phantom penalty. Brazil win. One popular Brazilian newspaper went so far as to exclaim on their front pages:
"It's all ours: The cup is ours, Neymar is ours, Oscar is ours, Croatia's goal is ours. And so is the referee."
And in the second match of the tournament between Mexico and Cameroon, the referee disallows three goals in the first half alone, two of which were clearly good. It's all there for the world to see. Bad officiating? Or part of a wider nefarious plot?
Match fixing is nothing new in soccer. Former Canadian international Paul James, whom I have known personally since we both went to training camp with the Toronto Blizzard of the old NASL back in 1983, published an autobiographical book called "Cracked Open."
It details the case of the 1986 Merlion Cup in Singapore in which Canada participated. It was shortly after Canada had played in the World Cup in Mexico. The Merlion Cup consisted of teams like China and North Korea, not exactly world powers. Canada was favoured to win.
Four players; Chris Cheuden, Igor Vrablic, Hector Marinaro and David Norman were approached by 'fixers' working for a large gambling syndicate and deals were struck to fix games. James was targeted by the other four, and he agreed to participate. He admits this much in the book.
"While I should have stood up and ran to the management, I instead made a huge mistake. I said yes, I would be part of the fix, which ignited my personal nightmare."
The five would divide a bribe worth a total of $100,000. In exchange, Canada would throw the semi-final against the North Koreans. Canada duly lost 2-0. James had second thoughts, gave his share to the other four, and then reported the whole affair to the Canadian Soccer Association. Five international careers ended that day.
Ralf Mutschke, a former head of the German Federal Police and an executive director at Interpol, is now the head of security for FIFA. He refuses to give the World Cup a clean bill of health and has even identified the matches that carry the greatest risk. In a report by the BBC, Mutschke says that:
"Certain teams and groups have already been identified as vulnerable to fixers
The last round of group matches, involving teams with nothing to play for, are most in danger
Fixers have already approached players and referees. The fix of choice will focus on the number of goals in a match."
For the last two years, Mutschke and his team have been planning meticulously to prevent World Cup games from falling victim to the fixers. "We are not expecting fixers to be travelling to Brazil and knocking on the hotel door of players or referees, but I know there will have been approaches to players and referees," he says.
According to the BBC report:
"...match-fixers are most likely to entice players or referees to influence two betting markets: the Asian handicap and the over-under goals market. More than 99 per cent of wagers in Asia will be placed on these two markets. On the Asian handicap, teams are handicapped according to their form, so a stronger team must win by more goals for a bet to be successful. Over-under markets are simpler. They go to the player or the ref and offer money to throw the match. If he doesn't agree, they go to the next guy," says Mutschke. Gamblers are given the opportunity to bet higher or lower on 2.5 goals, 3.5 goals and so on.
"I would say I am most worried about these two markets," Mutschke said. "The match result is a possibility, but it is much harder to organise because you need so many players. With the Asian handicap or over-under, you may only need the referee or one or two players."
Mutschke and his team intend to speak to every team and match official when they arrive in Brazil for the World Cup.
Let us hope he does his job well.
So far, a cynical mind could say the fix is already in.
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