All eyes on the game

CBI’s step to take note of corruption in sports and set up a specialised unit to handle cases related to sports fraud is a timely one

All eyes on the game
As inevitably as night follows day, where there is money involved, sleaze is never too far away. And when the element of chance comes into play, the probability of the two linking up rises exponentially.

Sport has always attracted a fringe seeking to influence chance into certainty for profit. While records of “fixed” results are scanty from the hoary past, it is almost certain that a certain amount of give and take has always existed around arenas, be they host to wrestling, racing in its different forms, football matches, and even the gentlemanly game of cricket.

Recently, the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s nodal police agency, said it was setting up a special cell to tackle corruption in sport. The announcement came at a FIFA-Interpol workshop in New Delhi, a clear evidence that the powers that be are starting to worry money may already be talking here.

Not very long ago, news broke that a Singapore-based cartel was attempting to influence the results of football matches around the world — and even in the tightly-guarded English leagues. Fourteen arrests followed in the city-nation and investigators said as many as 680 soccer games in 30 countries — and at different levels — had apparently been “influenced”.

Even the mighty Champions League, one of the showpieces of European football, did not escape unscathed. Earlier in the week, a man was arrested courtside at the Australian Open for betting. This was shortly after it was revealed that in excess of $600 million have been bet through online agencies on the first Grand Slam event of the year. This is not the first time the problem has reared its head in tennis: players have been blacklisted or suspended in the past for deliberately losing matches for specified sums after massive bets had been laid on them.

Therefore, the CBI step to take note of the growing menace of corruption in sports and to set up a specialised unit to handle cases related to sports fraud, fixing and illegal betting is a timely one. How effective it will prove to be is another matter altogether. It must be recalled here that the agency is still to submit its final report on the “fixing” scandal that convulsed India in the opening years of the new century.

CBI director Ranjit Sinha is reported to have highlighted lack of a legal framework as the main hurdle in probing cases related to sports fraud. “We, in CBI, have taken due notice of growing menace of corruption in sports in general and challenges in football and other sports in particular...Very soon we shall set up a sports fraud investigation unit in the CBI under special crime branches,” Sinha told the workshop.

He added: “It shall coordinate with other law enforcement agencies of the world and act as a nodal agency to coordinate with states’ police forces. It shall be our endeavour to liaise and coordinate with sports federations to build capabilities to tackle match fixing and corrupt practices.”

“We will send a proposal to the central government on setting up this unit. Even though there is no law, we can still carry on enquiries like we did in 2002 in the cricket match fixing till law proposed by sports ministry comes into being. The purpose is to be prepared when law is there,” a senior agency official later said on the lack of a specific law and legal framework to tackle the menace.

The first major betting or “fixing” scandal that made headlines around the world happened in the US and later came to be labelled the “Black Sox Scandal” as it involved the Major League baseball team the Chicago White Sox. In the 1919 World Series, the White Sox lost the series to the Cincinnati Reds, and eight Chicago players were accused of deliberately dropping matches for money.

They were never convicted, but were banned for life, and the shame of the incident led to the setting up of what was to become the all-powerful office of the Commissioner of Baseball. Similarly, Italy was rocked in 2006 when champion club Juventus, besides teams like AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, and Reggina were found to have established a cosy understanding between team managers and referees leading to severe punishments, including bans and relegation.

Thus, while the CBI’s step along with the All India Football Federation and Fifa may be a timely one, it remains to be seen how far and how effectively corruption in sport here is curbed. Sadly, the precedents — so far as cricket is concerned at least — are not very encouraging.

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