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Column: 1st casualty of match fixing is innocence

- Associated Press - Friday, December 9, 2011

PARIS (AP) - It's a sad reflection on our times that an amazing scoreline in soccer this week sparked doubt when it should just have inspired awe. Conspiracy theorists with unsubstantiated mutterings of a possible fix prevented Lyon from simply basking in its 7-1 rout of Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League, devaluing the remarkable achievement. With good reason, the French club was angry and hurt.

Yet skeptics also can point to good reasons why it is hard and even unwise these days not to be suspicious about what happens on the field, or to accept all results at face value. Those reasons are clearly identified. They even have names.

Like Ante Sapina and Marijo Cvrtak. Those match fixers are serving 5 1/2-year prison sentences in Germany for manipulating more than 20 games, including a 2010 World Cup qualifier between Liechtenstein and Finland, a Champions League qualifier between Debrecen of Hungary and Fiorentina of Italy, Europa League matches and games in leagues in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Turkey, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Canada.

Phone taps caught Sapina and accomplices honing plans to corrupt the referee of a 2009 Europa League match, with one saying: "Listen! If you can somehow ensure that the home team wins by two goals in the second half. Only the second half ... Do you understand? And you can bet on that."

The Ukrainian referee later acknowledged to UEFA investigators that fixers "told him that he would be a millionaire in two to three years from now by manipulating certain games," according to the Court of Arbitration for Sport panel that upheld his life ban from soccer this January.

Another name is Wilson Raj Perumal, from Singapore. He is serving a 2-year prison sentence in Finland for bribing players and fixing league matches there. FIFA also linked Perumal to a conspiracy to fix games in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central and South America.

Those are just two of many possible examples, just two of the good reasons to not be naive. It seems that each week brings new reports from somewhere around the globe _ most recently, Turkey, where 93 people have been charged _ of the threat posed to sports by fixers and gambling syndicates getting rich by manipulating results. Because this corruption is underground and under-the-table, it's impossible to know exactly how far and deep the rot has spread.

Suffice to say that for UEFA President Michel Platini "match fixing has become the favorite pastime of organized criminal networks" and "an evil as profound as it is intangible."

And the first casualty of fixers is our innocence.

Skeptics like the Twitter user (at)PrimlyStable _ who wondered online whether the Zagreb-Lyon match was fixed _ perhaps shouldn't have jumped to conclusions so quickly and without solid proof.

Yet one cannot fault them for doing so. That is not a swipe at Lyon or Dinamo Zagreb, it's just a sign of the times.

Even if the vast majority of the 29,000 games that Platini's organization monitors per season for indications of betting fraud and fixing are clean, it's not surprising that minds have been dirtied by games that were not. Aside from fixing itself, it is the perception of corruption that presents such a mortal danger to sports. Because if many minds start to suspect that results are fixed even when they are not that could turn them off and away. Saddest of all, it could stop fans believing in that magic ingredient which makes sports such addictive entertainment: the unexpected.

Like Lyon beating Dinamo 7-1.

As Judge Jeremy Cooke said to the three Pakistan cricketers he sentenced last month in one of the biggest fixing scandals to tarnish that sport: "Now, whenever people look back on a surprising event in a game or a surprising result or whenever in the future there are surprising events or results, followers of the game who have paid good money to watch it live or to watch it on TV ... will be led to wonder whether there has been a fix and whether what they have been watching is a genuine contest between bat and ball."

Tragic.

But that cynicism must be kept in check, too. Although suspicion without proof may be understandable, it also is unfair and will ruin our enjoyment if we let it take hold.

Yes, it was amazing that everything happened just as it needed to for Lyon on Wednesday night. To advance to the last 16 of the Champions League, Lyon needed both a deluge of goals against Dinamo and for Ajax to lose the other Group D game against Real Madrid.

Yes, it was surprising the unlikely scenario actually unfolded.

But aren't surprising and amazing why we watch sports?

By themselves, they do not have to mean that a 7-1 scoreline must be too good to be true.

Nor did the wink that Dinamo defender Domagoj Vida appeared to direct at Bafetimbi Gomis as he helped the Lyon forward pluck the ball out of the net after the French team's fifth goal constitute proof of anything. It should, in fairness to all those who sweat and work so hard in sports, take far more than that to get fans tweeting.

Still, admittedly, between doping and fixing, it is getting harder to cling on to the ability to believe in the unbelievable that one needs to enjoy the unlikely feats sports can offer.

Lyon can blame the likes of Sapina, Cvrtak and Perumal for that.

Because of such thieves of innocence, we say "Bravo!" and "Really?" at the same time.

Sad for us all.

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester

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