What result do you want?
Christer Ahl speaking at Play the Game 2009
29.07.2009By Christer Ahl
Of course, it is not very good for the image of any sport to be talking loudly about manipulation of game results, attempts to bribe referees and other forms of corruption involving the games. Moreover, bribery and similar actions are serious and delicate legal issues, which should not be discussed lightly in the absence of evidence. And the nature of these actions obviously tends to make it almost impossible to come up with clear evidence, so if the absence of evidence leads to silence, then silence is what we will have.
But in my opinion, silence is not the best tactic. The problems with manipulations of games are so serious for the reputation of a sport, that it is not healthy and realistic to ‘bury one’s heads in the sand’ and pretend that the problems do not really exist. On the contrary, it is extremely important to create awareness that handball, like many other sports is facing major risks, that we are vulnerable to attacks, and that it is vital to try to take preventive action!
Frankly, it is not really credible, when people in important positions react with great surprise, when suddenly possible problems are revealed regarding 6-8 matches, as has happened within EHF competition. People with deep knowledge of our sport are more surprised that there have not been many more matches have been identified over the years. And it is definitely not a good thing if it becomes known that some of the matches now discussed were brought up years ago without any follow-up, or that it now becomes necessary to search urgently for solid procedures to handle such matters. But better late than never!
Why corruption occurs
Most of us realize that in politics and business there is a lot of corruption in different forms. But not all of us seem willing to accept that, whether we like it or not, sports at the higher level is to a large extent politics and business. So why should we assume that sports in general, and our dear handball, is somehow immune to corruption??
Federation and club officials see it as a matter of enormous prestige that their team does well, qualifying for World Championships, Olympic Games or major continental events such as the Champions League. And a lot of money is at stake. Staying eligible for government support or Olympic Committee financing tends to depend on results, and the same goes for the ability to hold on to generous sponsors. So, of course it is tempting to go beyond what is ethical or legal to improve the chances of good results! For that matter, it is not farfetched that a sponsor may want to do something ‘extra’ to help improve the ‘return on their investment’ in the form of better results and better PR.
Those who are vulnerable in all this are primarily the referees. (Of course, we also know of teams paying each other for some ‘collaboration’, when one team desperately needs the points and the other one does not). The referees are generally not the instigators, as they do not run around looking for opportunities, so we must be very careful to avoid seeing the referees as the main culprits. I am not saying that there is an excuse if someone is falling for a temptation, but personal problems, poor living standard and other factors do make people vulnerable. We are all human beings…
To make things worse, while handball is not yet affected in the same way as some other major sports, gambling is adding a very nasty dimension to the whole issue of manipulation of results or ‘match fixing’. Legal gambling can be bad enough, but as has been experienced especially in football, the inroads of illegal gambling mafias, typically based in Asia, have become a serious problem. It is not just that they skillfully find ways of manipulating results. They also make sure that people with gambling addictions get into bigger and bigger problems, so that they (perhaps players, team managers, referees) are de facto forced to play along in illegal operations. It is not clear to me that we in handball are fully prepared to deal with this kind of threat.
Of course, the idea that any sport would be capable of simply preventing problems is far too naïve. And creating awareness goes only some distance in dealing with the issue. The EHF has recently announced measures such as the introduction of a Code of Conduct, a multi-faceted Integrity Program and a specific ‘hot line’ so that it is clear where any attempts at bribery and other wrongdoing shall be reported. This seems a good beginning of efforts to make the referees more supported, with less of a feeling that they are all alone out there.
But the best prevention may involve showing the world that there is a readiness to take strong action when weaknesses have been discovered. I am not just talking about legal measures against proven bribery. Some referees have also shown through their actions and performances that they are not up to the task of handling the big matches. This includes situations where the referees becomes totally overwhelmed by the spectator pressure, where they completely lose their courage to take the necessary tough decisions late in the game, or where they constantly look for ‘easy solutions’ in the form of quick whistles, compromise decisions, compensation etc.
Again, these referees should not be accused of corruption, but if this is the best they can do, then they do not belong in the top matches. And while it has happened quietly, perhaps too quietly, the IHF has in recent years weeded out a number of such couples, because the risk is too great that one incident will be followed by more. Moreover, such refereeing shows a lack of strong personality, and from there the step to being vulnerable to illegal pressures may not be very long. So setting examples and showing ‘zero tolerance’ for biased or incorrect refereeing is very important for everyone’s sake.
It follows that the recruiting of new young top referees must have the same emphasis!
But it would be totally wrong to focus exclusively on this kind of action. It is extremely important to have a practical support structure in place (beyond the formalities announced by the EHF). Especially during events, such as World Championships and continental championships, the resources for supporting the referees need to be strengthened considerably. This is a ‘personnel management’ function that has traditionally been totally underestimated and understaffed. Referee Commission members work around the clock but still do not always have time of offer all the personal attention.
The referees need to have a professional environment that enables them to prepare and recover fully, to get feedback and encouragement, and to get physiological and psychological support. Moreover, they must be totally isolated from teams, media and fans, and they also need to be isolated from political pressures. This means that everything related to nominations and evaluations must be handled exclusively by the technical staff. A good example for this whole set of issues is set by FIFA and UEFA.
So I am urging the IHF and its continental federations to deal with this extremely important set of issues immediately, forcefully and openly. Awareness is the first step, but preparation and preventive measures are also required, as is the readiness to take the strongest action whenever needed. This obviously includes harsh punishments against clubs/federations and referees in those cases where bribery really has been proven. And, as discussed, it includes the strict and continuous separation of other referees who do not measure up. Wishful thinking is not going to be enough!
This article first appeared on handball website Teamhandballnews.com and is published on playthegame.org with kind permission of the author.