Match Fixing for Dummies
” Your son looked really happy at school this morning. I loved his new red shoes.”
These are soothing words from a teacher, but from the man who paid your school fees from a thrown game, it is fingers tightening around my throat.
Although people are often surprised by my move to the other side of the world, it made perfect sense to me. A mate of mine (who is a Pakistan national player but was born and bred in Birmingham) played over there and told me I could add two or three years to my career from the warm weather and the less physical style of play. That suited me just fine; he made some calls and, in the shortest time, we were flying into Changi Airport, swapping the sharp air of London for the fan oven of Singapore. Now this, I thought, I could live with.
I played a couple of seasons for Millwall, doing OK; but I always struggled with the constant games. After seven knee operations, particularly in the freezing English winters, I couldn’t take goal kicks and I was starting to miss more and more games. I decided to jump before I was pushed. Apart from my left knee I’ve always kept myself fit and, at 6 feet 5, never had problems with crosses. I felt confident that my size against Asian players would give me a big advantage. I knew they’d be fast, but the high balls would be mine. Playing in the Lion City had to be easier than playing for The Lions.
My first impressions of my new club were really positive. I knew before I arrived that they used to be a dominant force in The S League, but now they had to settle for mid table security. They won the Singapore Cup last year, but hadn’t won the league since 2001. Considering there were only twelve other teams to get above, it seemed to me their turn had to come around soon.The club were only seventeen years old, which felt really exciting to me. Coming from a club formed in 1885, I childishly felt like some kind of frontiersman looking at a land with infinite possibilities. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that second whiskey on the plane. Picked up from the airport by the club chairman, they’d thought of every detail. Flowers for my wife, a gift for my son and a waiting limo to take us to our hotel overlooking the beautiful Clarke Quay. We didn’t get driven to Barnsley like this, I can tell you. The first few days were head spinning as we viewed tiny, but beautiful apartments. The heat made every decision seem exhausting, but we were loving our new adventure. The country seemed so sophisticated, clean and efficient.
I knew the stories about match fixing in Singapore before I got here. I’d done my homework and felt smugly secure, assuming it was only for locals by locals. But what better stooge is there than an English player? No one would suspect. I became a prize target. I had read up about the infamous Wilson Raj Perumal. Ironically, for seven months his match fixing empire was run from an apartment yards from Wembley Stadium. I had also read about how Singapore was not only under the shadow of match fixing at home, but some of its citizens controlled matches all across the globe. If they could arrange a fake Togo team in 2009 barely able to keep running for ninety minutes and even a “ghost” international between Turkmenistan and Maldives, then anything was possible. So I was forewarned, but I know now, not forearmed.
Another bad error I made was assuming this sophisticated South East Asian nation, the first one to leap from Third to First World status, would have checks and balances to prevent this. I quickly discovered that Singaporeans are hard working and efficient but, particularly those with ethnic Chinese backgrounds, they would gamble on two spiders climbing a window. With such huge demand, there are always people around to open the gushing taps of supply. With the exponential growth of betting in China, a country developing at breakneck speed and seemingly unregulated, gambling syndicates needed a patsy who, like European players, seemed unimpeachable and ethical to give their schemes the facade of sophistication.
Even in the early days the signs were there. Getting to know the players, the wages they received just didn’t add up to their beautiful condos in this city state of famously expensive accommodation. The schools their children went to also seemed completely out of kilter with what was coming in. When I asked them how they afforded these things the conversation was always shoed away to safer topics. Looking back, I was being weighed and measured from the beginning. Like a man living a happy and long marriage the years stack up, but it only takes one second’s slip late into a boozy party to unravel the good work of decades. The flirtatious little comments in the early days about how our son could get a better education at the expensive international school, how careers are short and retirement is long (especially with my dodgy knee) was safe fishing at first, nibbling the edge of an understood idea. That was my chance to stop it. To challenge it. To address it by its real name. But small events in busy days accumulate over time, they don’t measure up to corruption in isolation. I was complicit by default; sleepwalking to a crime is no defence.
In hindsight, the reason I had so much attention was because I’m a goalkeeper. A striker can deliver a win, but a strong goalie can influence outcomes both ways. I think the slightly wary response I got from new team mates was because if I didn’t play the game, their game, then they would be out of pocket. More importantly, the men who ran the gambling cartels would be short too. Then there would be problems for us all. Without being too big headed, I’m a decent stopper and a hard trainer, so those first few days were puzzling. Like a pet dog, I was doing everything I could to get their affection. I knew it’s always tough as a new player at a club. You’ve often replaced one of their friends, or you’re seen as the coach’s pet. So I worked double shifts to impress them, happy to put in the hard yards to earn their praise. I couldn’t work out how they responded; but now I know.
I think my determination to prove myself (it was also so much easier to train without the constant dull pain I lived with in England) forced them to address the issue sooner than they were comfortable with. Suggestion soon became arm twisting. Players would say that only two games a season were bought and the gambling syndicates were kind enough to make them away games so that home fans didn’t see the startling variation in our performance. My initial anger gave way to an understanding that, for local players, there was no jumping on a plane to bolt back home. This was their lot. They were pawns in a scheme validated by complicity right to the very top of international organizations. Morals don’t get the bills paid.
So why did they choose to sign me? A decent keeper with no record of gambling, married and settled. I was the premium placed on a proposed transaction. I increased the fun of watching spiders on a window pane because I could, in the early days, walk away. A perverse challenge for a bored investor yearning to find a margin of error like a Roman Caesar sleepily seeking toys to play with and, if they broke, ushering in the next. Perumal, getting bored with playing God at sporting events, looked for thrills gambling on legitimate contests. Betting on Manchester United or the Chicago Bulls showed life couldn’t imitate his artifice and, over a three month period, he is believed to have lost over 10 million Dollars. But my masters couldn’t lose. Even if they wanted to. To add insult to injury, I had
to signal bowing my head to their yoke by standing just off centre of my six yard box. In my head I could hear the gloating fixers pointing to me from their VVIP box and boasting about buying an Englishman:
“You don’t believe me? Look at where he stands, la! I told him to do that. The British might have controlled us with opium, but now we control them with their own game. How many goals you want him let in? Up to you, la.”
Most of the results were arranged in advance so that sweat shops of battery betters could drip feed $3000 bets, confident that online betting sites were highly sensitive about sharing their customer activities with anyone else. Occasionally, for show, a high ranking Important Person would get the privilege of deciding the score as the match kicked off. The coach would call the captain over after getting his decision, give him his instructions in an earnest “let’s make a tactical change” way and the script was written. The efficiency was impressive. What made it easier was that the opposition and officials were bit part actors, some paid more than others. Keen to impress in the hope of a future starring role, our captain would seek out his opposite number, appear to square up to him to deliver the familiar foul mouth rant of a footballer, but really he was passing on his play. And, like a highly rehearsed set of moves by a Superbowl champion, the lines were rarely fluffed.
And so it comes to this. Waiting for a man I have paid to come and beat me up. My wife and son spend the day at Universal Studios on Sentosa Island while Daddy gets plenty of rest for our important away game in three days. A game that everyone expects us to win against a team down in the relegation places. When they come back they’ll find Daddy and Husband roughed up. There won’t be too much damage, but someone has taken a heavy and blunt instrument to his left knee. The bone will be broken and the ragged, patched up ligaments will be cut loose for the last time.
My masters may turn on their mafia rivals, convinced that a message is being sent to them from a new “Kelong” (the Malay word for match fixer) King. More likely they’ll pause, shrug and move on to the next project. The worst mistake I ever made was to think that I was important. Finally realising that I am powerless and insignificant releases me and creates a freedom I previously never had. You win. You were always going to win. But now I have the ultimate power of failure. For Perumal, his punishment is yet to begin from former allies:
“Fifteen minutes alone, he walks to the bathroom, he’s dead. It’s easy. They offered to pay me $300,000 to go to Hungary and sit on a roof with the sniper to identify him.”
For me, I will be a brief footnote late into a conversation:
“Remember that big English guy? The goalkeeper? Shame what happened to him. We were just starting to have some fun.”