SAMARAGATE FORCES RUSSIAN FOOTBALL TO ASK IF IT HAS A PROBLEM
Allegations of match-fixing are not exactly a new thing in Russia, but the latest claims have provoked a reaction like nothing before. Suddenly the discussion isn't confined to dim corners of smoky bars or the chat rooms of conspiracy theorists and disgruntled fans, but is raging in public. Russian football has admitted that it may have a problem.
The game that has prompted the outrage ("Samaragate", as it has been dubbed) is Terek Grozny's 3-2 victory over Krylya Sovetov Samara on 13 June. With a victory and right results elsewhere, Krylya could have gone top, but instead, having fought back from 2-0 down to 2-2, ended up losing 3-2, as Sergei Bendz headed an 85th-minute winner following a period of, if not sustained pressure, then at least a protracted series of Terek attacks.
Alexei Andronov, the match commentator on NTV-plus, which screened the game live, was openly scornful of Krylya's defending, particularly in the final 10-15 minutes. "I'm not saying the match should definitely be considered a fix," he said. "But what I am saying is that there was no sporting fight from Krylya's players in the second half. No one who is an expert in football could argue. And if the performance of the players was laughable, why should a commentator hide his feelings? I was just describing what was on the field, where there was only one team: Terek."
His reaction itself provoked a reaction as the football establishment, rather than closing ranks as it would usually, instead went on the offensive. "I didn't like the game," said Vitali Mutko, the head of the Russian Football Union. "I'm ashamed, especially for the Samara club. The character of the game was really strange, and now specialists are working on the issue."
He has said the game will be investigated by an ethics commission, although few had previously realised such a body existed in Russian football. Given nobody at the RFU seems able to explain exactly what it is or who sits on it, there seems little hope of a definitive answer.
But then, even with an established investigative body in place, finding proof one way or the other is all but impossible — which is why match-fixing is so insidious; even the most natural human error begins to look suspicious. "You have to have one of the players or someone from the club pleading guilty," Mutko said. "And even then, you can always find an excuse – say that the flight was hard, that the team was tired, or something else."
Last week, I was asked to be part of a panel convened by Sovetsky Sport to examine footage, the idea being to see if a neutral panel of foreigners saw anything suspicious. And the answer, of course, is that certain elements of the game did look a little strange, but that explanations could be found. The last four goals are all soft — and even with the first you wonder whether the Krylya goalkeeper Eduardo Lobos was a little slow to react.
But poor defending is not the same as deliberate malpractice and to cast aspersions at Lobos seems unfair, given he made three or four excellent saves in the second half. The most suspicious aspect is Krylya's defending in that final half hour, which is, at best, tentative. But, as Mutko says, you can always find an excuse. The pitch in Grozny is artificial, and perhaps Krylya simply found it difficult to maintain their footing. The temperature was in the mid-thirties — something that led to the Czech striker Jan Koller withdrawing because of fears about his asthma; perhaps they were simply exhausted.
As Alexei Sorokin, the general director of the RFU, put it, "The RFU delegate who observed this match didn't see anything odd. If he had seen that, he could have stopped the match."
The Krylya Sovetov coach Leonid Slutsky was adamant his side had not thrown the match. "I read papers, blogs and comments about the game," he said. "I want to say with all seriousness: the team played fair. This is football. Someone loses, someone wins. [The centre-back Alexander] Belozerov [number 63] picked up an injury during the game. This was the main reason of defeat. Besides the guys were not fit enough. Every player played fair."
A few days later, having banned his squad from talking to the press — although Koller has said he will leave if the match-fixing is proven — Slutsky gave an emotional interview to Samara television. "Everything that was written is a lie," he said. "This is an extraordinary situation. I never expected this. I don't deserve a hundredth part of what has been said about me. The psychological pressure on the team is tremendous. Somebody wants to put the team in the grave."
But there is other evidence. According to the RIA Novosti agency, a $400,000 bet was placed on a Terek victory on Betfair before kick-off. In total, 96 per cent of all bets placed on the game were on a home win, despite Terek starting in tenth and Krylya in second, something that led to some Russian bookmakers refusing to accept bets on a Terek victory.
And then there is the situation of Terek themselves. Having spent the war years playing home games in Pyatigorsk, they returned to Grozny last season, a move that has been widely heralded as indicating that normality is returning to the republic. Whatever the truth of Samaragate, it can hardly be denied that there is propaganda capital in their success.
Terek's chairman is Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, who has been widely accused of human rights abuses. He was in the VIP box for the game, and has refuted any suggestion the game was fixed. "We don't need such wins, fixed," he told Komsomolskaya Pravda. "And I don't understand, how this could possibly be? It's unpleasant even to speak about this, let alone actually to trade a victory. They're confusing us with someone else. We're not like this."
Kadyrov banned gambling in Chechnya in 2005, but this is not the first time Terek have been implicated in a match-fixing scandal. There were widespread reports when Terek won the Russian Cup in 2004, shortly after the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov, Ramzan's father, that they had bought the final – against Krylya – for $6million. The claims were denied and nothing was ever proven.
Then last season, after the referee Aleksei Kovalev had been beaten up in Terek's Dynamo Stadium, Russian match officials sent an open letter to the RFU and the Russian Premier League protesting against the physical and psychological intimidation they suffered in Chechnya.
Terek were fined 500,000 roubles (£9,500) and given a stadium ban over that incident, but past suspicions do not amount to evidence in this case.
Given that, even if the game were fixed, absolute proof is unlikely ever to emerge, all Russian football can do is to keep the issue alive, creating a climate in which match-fixers know they are under scrutiny. In that regard the Russian media has a key role to play, and they have responded positively.
The game was shown initially only on NTV-plus, a subscription satellite channel but they have agreed to allow Sport, a public channel, to show the game in its entirety on Monday so it can have the widest possible audience. Hopefully, whether Krylya are guilty or not, the debate that stimulates will help foster a climate of vigilance. After all, the first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it exists.
there seems to be a lot of such allegations in eastern europe for some reason... just over the last year ive read about this in russia, poland and romania, of the top of my head. any reasoning behind this?? the communist backround perhaps????