PARIS – Football, like cycling after the embarrassment that was Lance Armstrong, will be half dead as a sport if it reaches the point where spectators commonly think, "Fix!"
That day inched closer this week, too close for comfort.
The somewhat self-aggrandizing announcement from Europol that organized crime gangs have fixed or tried to fix hundreds of football matches around the world wasn't, strictly speaking, news.
Long before the European Union's police agency spoke out, those who have monitored match-rigging in football with mounting concern already knew that law enforcement authorities in Germany previously identified 340 games there and elsewhere that they suspect may have been fixed in recent years.
Add to that at least two dozen league and cup matches that a gambling syndicate operating from Singapore is alleged to have rigged in Italy from 2008 to 2011, plus bribes that convicted fixer Wilson Raj Perumal paid to players in Finland, and you quickly approach the figure Europol cited of 380 suspect games in Europe.
Because Europol refused to actually name suspect matches, players, officials or fixers, it wasn't evident whether the agency was breaking significant new ground or largely reheating previously known information so it could share in the limelight of the world's most popular sport. Certainly, its football news conference made a bigger splash than, say, Europol's announcement last week that police made 103 arrests in dismantling a network that smuggled migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere into Europe.
Still, Europol was right to trumpet that criminal gangs betting on the outcome of rigged games are corroding football from within. A few hundred possibly rigged matches, the vast majority not in football's most glamorous leagues and tournaments, might not seem like a huge threat for a sport with tens of millions of registered players and tens of thousands of matches played around the world each year. But complacency can be fatal. Football needs only to look to cycling to see how fragile credibility can be.
For the moment, it's over-dramatic to imagine that fixing could continue to grow to the point where the very top reaches of football — its brightest stars and biggest tournaments — are corrupted. But it also seemed for years unlikely that Armstrong could be getting away with one of the biggest sporting frauds in history. One of the most valuable lessons from the doper's downfall is that it is healthy to be skeptical. Be certain now, not sorry later.
Now, when a leading player misses a penalty or scores an own goal, we can accept that that is just one of the uncertainties that make football so entertaining. How quickly that would change if an agency like Europol announced that World Cup final games were rigged or that football greats were on fixers' payrolls.
"One of the great harms is that when you see something spectacular happen in terms of a comeback or spectacular happen in terms of a defeat you ask yourselves: 'Is what I saw something that really happened or something that was fixed?' That's one of the great harms of match-fixing," the secretary general of Interpol, Ronald K. Noble, said in an Associated Press interview. "It's undermining credibility."
Money and greed motivate both dopers in cycling and players, referees and administrators in football who take fixers' bribes. Betting on a football match they've fixed can be less risky for criminal gangs than other illegal enterprises but still plenty profitable. Alone, football can't beat the mafia. It needs more help from governments and police who can wiretap, question, arrest and seize.
"To get the organized crime figures takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of resources, a lot of global cooperation," Noble told the AP in December. "For the most part, even when they're caught, a penalty of one or two or three or four years in jail — if you've made 10, 20, 30 million dollars — doesn't seem like a severe penalty."
Armstrong prospered partly because too many people — sponsors, fans, journalists, sport administrators — were too ready to swallow his lies. Those who run football and those who love it must not be equally short-sighted about match-fixing. Cycling administrators missed or passed over opportunities to unmask Armstrong earlier, and people in the sport didn't speak out when they should have. Football administrators haven't always been as smart, vigilant or vocal as they need to be against fixers.
Chris Eaton, former security director for football governing body FIFA, said Perumal wouldn't have been so successful as a fixer had football administrators he dealt with performed "simple business due-diligence" on the Singaporean who used fake FIFA business cards and a front company. Football is "a very wealthy global business that still operates as a club game," Eaton said in an AP interview. That can make it vulnerable to criminals.
Because of Armstrong and his generation of cheats, it will be a long time before we look at a winner of the Tour de France without thinking: "Can I believe what I'm seeing?"
Fixers must not be allowed to do the same thing to football.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester