On the eve of the sixth edition of the professional football league, The Daily Star's Anisur Rahman takes an in-depth look into an epidemic that threatens to ruin the spirit of the beautiful game in Bangladesh. Match-fixing has been around for a while, starting with seemingly innocent coalitions between small clubs. But over the years, it has taken a darker turn with many insiders claiming that no modern league champion has achieved glory in an untarnished manner. Match-fixing is a systemic and a collective issue and the only way to overcome this is by taking a systemic and collective approach. This is a call-to-arms. The ball finally dropped in 2011.
After years of hushed tones in dark corridors and literal instances of envelopes passing under the table, the first time the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) ever officially took a decision to call a compromised game was only last year.
As expected though, evidence was insufficient and in the end both clubs who were involved, including ultimate champions Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club and minnows Rahmatganj MFS got off with merely a cursory slap on the wrist in the form of monetary fines.
The lack of action on the part of the football authority was galling but in spite of this most people in the sports community were somewhat heartened. Because this finally represented an admission that match-fixing is alive and very much a concern with regards to football in Bangladesh.
In most countries, betting patterns are often the most accurate trends for a fixed game. In Bangladesh, however, betting is almost non-existent which means that any hard proof is that much harder to come by. This is due to the 'unofficial' nature of the fixing. This state of affairs is hardly helped by lack of proper laws, documents, technology and a serious attitude from the game's governing body to clean up this mess.
A number of high-profile former footballers, coaches and officials were consulted and everyone unanimously admitted to have been savvy to fixed matches, either directly or through a convoluted game of collusion involving club officials.
Matches in Bangladesh are fixed less for the benefit of third-parties and more in an effort to appease officials who might be on friendly terms with other officials. This interpersonal relationship between club officials is often leveraged to meet the needs of one specific team with the promise of the other team being appeased at a later date or in the next league.
"There is often long ties among the club officials so when one is approached to give up full three points or one, he is ready to do it to keep their relationship intact," said one ex-player on condition of anonymity.
Political power often also plays a role, especially if both clubs are 'controlled' by members of the same party. A high profile ex-national team player admitted that he was once advised to give-up a game at half-time to quench the thirst of the club officials.
"We were the out of the title race, but it was a crucial match for the opponents. The game was goalless at half-time, and in the dressing room, there was talk of letting the match go. We eventually lost the match 1-0," he said. Officials related to the same game also admitted that there was a ploy to lose the game to throw the title-race into an interesting play-off based on the folly of political leaders who had large stakes in the club.
But it doesn't always have to come from the top. Often clubs target certain players who can help turn the result their way. A former national midfielder admitted that in his first stint as a coach, he found a player in his team engaging in such practices.
"We were playing a game and in the lead. With a few minutes left, my player while defending an attack, suddenly pulled up with cramp and let the striker through who scored. After the game we found that he had packed his bags and left the club. It was later revealed that he had received Tk 20,000 for his 'services.'" Recently, allegations of a similar nature has been bought against the foreign players who under-performed after being allegedly bribed by the opponents.
Team collusions often reach higher levels involving third parties or future points in return of current ones. Title contenders often take advantage of smaller clubs by offering to pay the due wages of their staff in exchange of points. Other times, the return gifts for points are even lesser. As one ex-professional says, "Sometimes a club gives up a match in return for trousers, practice-jerseys, or even just dinner at a Chinese restaurant. "
Mid-table clubs also often meet to create a syndicate to ensure equal points among themselves when they play each other. Forming such syndicates is often an attempt to put a club or clubs outside the capital under the threat of relegation.
What is without doubt is that match-fixing has permeated to the absolute basic level of the sport to the point that it has internalised by each and every club who have embraced this as a basic and wholly acceptable practice. Part of the reason for this rampant spread has been the absolute reluctance of the game's governing body to take stern actions against perpetrators for engaging in actions that do not just bring the game into disrepute but also qualify as criminal offence in many instances.
The prevailing feeling is that match-fixing is a win-win situation for clubs and all, but in truth it shows a stark disrespect for the basic elemental point of sport – where two teams go up against each other in a battle of glorious uncertainty. Take that out and what are you left with?