sports blog by andy shenk

Match-Fixing and the Balance of Power in Russian Football

In Russian Football on January 6, 2013 at 3:03 PM

This is an article I contributed to The False Nine football blog. To read the entire piece click here or at the bottom of this excerpt. 

Russian football rumbles often with news of match-fixing, from the lowest to the highest levels. In 2009, Krylia Sovetov lost 3-2 to Terek in Grozny in a Premier League encounter that reeked of corruption. Though neither team suffered any consequences, Leonid Slutsky, Krylia manager at the time, commented several years later on the suspiciousness of the match: “I understood that the substance of that history was known at all levels – from Mutko [head of the Russian Football Union then] to the journalists. It’s just that no one’s yet to write the truth of the match in Grozny.”

The following year, in the second division, Sakhalin defeated Dinamo Barnaul 3-1 at home, despite trailing 1-0 at halftime. Following the match, word got out that two Dinamo coaches, Sergey Kormiltsev and Vadim Britkin had wagered over 25,000 rubles between them that their club would win the first half, but ultimately lose in the second. Thanks to an investigation by the Professional Football League (PFL) headed by then-president Nikolai Tolstykh, both coaches were banned, but the results of the match were not overturned. Neither of the clubs were punished, either.

Several other matches have drawn suspicion: Rostov-Amkar and Volga-Nizhny Novgorod in 2010, Torpedo Vladimir–Mordovia and Dinamo Bryansk–SKA-Energiya in 2011. The Expert Council on Fixed-Matches, established by former Russian Football Union (RFS) chief Sergey Fursenko in 2011, in charge of investigating the 2011 matches named above failed to release any guilty verdicts through December 2012.

In 2012, particularly during the beginning of the 2012/13 season, referees took center stage. Spartak Nalchik slipped by Torpedo Moscow 2-1 at home, thanks to a penalty in the ninth minute of added play. Zenit earned a shady 1-0 win over Kuban in mid-October when the official judged that a Kuban defender had blocked Roman Shirokov’s free kick with his arm in the box. Replays showed the defender had no chance of avoiding the ball.

Spartak Moscow’s loss in Makhachkala to Anzhi the same day as the Zenit-Kuban match caused even more of an uproar. Referee Eduard Maliy handed out six yellows in the first half, four to the visitors, and one minute into the second sent off the visitors’ Kirill Kombarov with his second yellow. Anzhi used their unexpected, many said unearned, advantage to shift the momentum, escaping with a comeback 2-1 win.

The big clubs dominated the headlines, but lesser clubs, in particular Volga Nizhny Novgorod, voiced their frustrations, too. Volga coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev vented often to the press: “I’ve never seen such biased officiating in my experience. In half, if not more, of our games, awful mistakes by the referees affected the outcome.”

Following these and other similar matches, discussion centered on both the ability and scruples of Russia’s officiating corps. Italian Roberto Rosetti, head of the RFS Officiating and Inspections Department, fell directly between the crosshairs of many Russian journalists. The media and fans alike wanted to know why the officiating continued to disappoint, despite his highly-acclaimed appointment in 2011. Rosetti officiated at the highest levels of European and world football, before retiring at age 42. Many in Russia hoped that an outside professional would be able to bring order to the often slipshod, if not outright corrupt, standards in Russian officiating.

Luckily for Rosetti, the attention shifted in November from his crews to two scandalous matches involving Russia’s two most scandalous clubs – Zenit and Anzhi. The first, Zenit’s abbreviated visit to Dinamo Moscow on November 17, resulted in a technical defeat for the St. Petersburg club and a ban on spectators in their next two home games (Dinamo lost the right to home fans for one game). The heavy punishments came after a flare exploded near Dinamo goalie Anton Shunin in the first half of the contest, forcing him out of the game, and out of concern for the rest of the players, the game to be abandoned.

Though the flare came from the Zenit supporters’ section, the club protested the RFS Disciplinary Committee’s harsh decision vehemently, going so far as to threaten withdrawing from the Russian Premier League.

Within Russian society, however, the action of the presumed Zenit fan met with universal outrage. Politicians, football officials, and journalists bemoaned the depths to which Russian football had fallen. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for life bans for fans who misbehaved at stadiums. Of course, most everyone rejoiced when Zenit’s punishment was meted out.

Nine days later, on November 26, Anzhi traveled to Perm for a Week 17 match with local side Amkar. The Makhachkala club left behind injured starters Lassana Diarra and Christopher Samba, as well as star striker Samuel Eto’o, who, with three yellow cards, did not want to risk disqualification for Anzhi’s showdown with league leaders CSKA the following week.

Anzhi coach Guus Hiddink further left off four regulars in the starting lineup: Tagirbekov, Boussoufa, Zhirkov, and Shatov. Amkar manager Nikolai Trubachev, meanwhile, kept back leaders Narubin, Peev, and Ignatovic, each with three yellow cards, as well as regular Cherenchikov. He commented on the weakened lineup following the game, referring to Amkar’s upcoming games against weaker opponents Mordovia and Krylia Sovetov, “I don’t think anyone will blame us for what we did. I think everyone understands that our two remaining games are much more important than this one.”

Then, prior to kick-off, news spread that the betting line on an Anzhi win had dropped dramatically in the days leading up to the game and that bookmakers in Perm had closed further bets on the game. A Sport-Express journalist contacted Anzor Kaziashvili, head of the RFS Expert Council on Fixed-Matches, who reported that the committee was closely following the match and would investigate any abnormalities.

Continue reading at The False Nine.

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