Column: A World Cup fix & flaws in referee integrity checks
A precedent has been set about replaying crooked soccer games, but there’s still far too much uncertainty.
During a World Cup qualifying campaign where the failures of Chile, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States were seismic, the ripples created by the order to re-run the South Africa-Senegal fixture hardly washed beyond Africa.
But the repercussions could be significant for the game worldwide and are only now becoming apparent, alongside flaws in the way football’s governing body assesses the integrity of referees.
FIFA established the referee in the World Cup qualifier was so mired in a match-fixing conspiracy that annulling the result was the only option. It wasn’t necessary to prove a motive, or even demonstrate the official gained financially from the subterfuge in November 2016 in the town of Polokwane.
The corruption case against referee Joseph Lamptey was built using algorithms and statistical models rather than requiring confessions, wiretaps or envelopes of cash.
Fans in the South African stadium and television viewers watched in disbelief as the hosts scored two inexplicable goals at the end of the first half against Senegal.
A penalty was awarded for handball despite the ball obviously hitting a Senegalese leg. Lamptey should have been “200 percent sure” of the decision, his assessor said in evidence released this week. In the 45th minute came a less blatant but similarly suspect incident: a rapid restart led to the unprepared Senegalese conceding a second.
As South Africa went on to win 2-1, alerts were already flashing up on screens monitoring match fixing at companies which specialize in detecting suspicious betting patterns. Then it became necessary to determine whether Lamptey innocently blundered, was incompetent or had acted dishonestly.
FIFA concluded there was had been a pattern of deceitful refereeing by Lamptey. Six other games presided over by the Ghanaian had “suspicions of match manipulation,” according to newly-released documents. They weren’t a coincidence. Lamptey had also been suspended from duty for “poor performances whereby he had numerous publicly documented scandals.”
These abnormalities should have been exposed much earlier by a competent appraisal of a referee proposed by his home Ghanaian federation, then endorsed by the Confederation of Africa Football and FIFA.
Yet months before fixing the World Cup qualifier, Lamptey was considered so highly by FIFA’s refereeing committee that he was taken to Brazil for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
The red flags should have been raised in 2012 after Lamptey’s handling of Portugal’s game in Gabon . Three penalties were scored and he tried to award the hosts a goal despite the ball clearly not crossing the line. Only five years later, when FIFA’s external ethics team was building a case against Lamptey, was that friendly game identified as suspicious.
Little wonder that few within soccer governing bodies want to discuss why Lamptey wasn’t stopped long before being banned from the game for life after the South Africa-Senegal fixed game.
The African federation did not respond to a detailed series of questions. FIFA shifted the blame onto its African subsidiary for proposing Lamptey and by saying the fraudulent refereeing happened in non-FIFA competition games.
When World Cup places are at stake, it is clear Lamptey should have been nowhere near a FIFA refereeing list let alone on a pitch in qualifiers.
Lamptey’s dishonesty was so renowned that his in-game actions were “anticipated on the international betting markets by bettors (who) seemed to hold prior knowledge of goals given,” FIFA investigators concluded. The “pattern of behavior” exhibited over several years enabled FIFA to charge Lamptey.
The growing sophistication of match-fixing detection software indicated that bettors had prior knowledge of at least three goals being scored in the South Africa-Senegal game, Sportradar reported to FIFA two days later in November 2016 based on monitoring regulated and unregulated black markets.
No players were implicated in the conspiracy, or found to have colluded with Lamptey. The Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Lamptey’s assertion that “innocent mistakes” meant his FIFA-imposed lifetime ban from soccer should be overturned. No proof was required by the court’s arbitrators that Lamptey plotted with others.
When the World Cup qualifier was eventually played again a year later, the result was reversed. Senegal won to end South Africa’s hopes of appearing at the finals in Russia.
South Africa, the 2010 World Cup host nation, had dropped plans to appeal against the game being replayed after accepting there had been “ethical and moral grounds.”
FIFA has never detailed why such drastic action was required on this occasion, or the level of manipulation required for a game to be staged again. Sports prosecutors did not require evidence that Lamptey plotted with anyone.
Andreas Krannich, managing director of Sportradar’s integrity services, said “the motive was never questioned” because of the wealth of data from betting patterns.
“I don’t remember any case where a federation took a decision to replay one of their qualification matches for their most important competitions because of match fixing,” Krannich, who works in partnership with FIFA through Sportradar, said by telephone. “This is a very strong stand and sets a new standard.”
FIFA could not say how it had specifically addressed apparent shortcomings in the selection of referees.
This time it was an African qualifier that was tainted. Next time it could be a game at any World Cup finals.
FIFA sought to reassure fans by saying: “All referees officiating at FIFA competitions must sign a declaration of integrity.”
For a fixer determined to illicitly profit from soccer, that doesn’t seem much of a deterrent.