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Millions in the world love football, and they love it with a passion and zeal that is not reserved for any other game. It is for this reason that European law enforcement agency Europol’s revelation about massive match-fixing in the game made headlines all over the world and shocked fans. After an 18-month investigation codenamed Operation VETO, Europol discovered that World Cup and European Championship qualifiers were among more than 380 professional football matches targeted by criminals trying to fix games and found that 425 match officials, club executives, players and criminals in 15 countries worked to cheat.
Match-fixing in sports is nothing new and has been acquiring gargantuan proportions lately as sports have evolved into an industry of its own, with billions of dollars involved. Cricket has particularly been tarnished by frequent charges of betting and fixing, and the Indian subcontinent, where the game is more popular than all other games put together, is often rocked by such revelations. But football has been relatively unscathed. Europol’s revelations will change that image. The enormity of the match fixing problem and its unfixability were highlighted by Burkina Faso coach Paul Put, who said that the problem has always existed and little can be done. Players willingly and unwillingly fall prey to the nefarious designs of match-fixing mafias, which are connected to international networks and can even threaten players to fall in line. The networks working in the field are deeply entrenched, have been operating for long, and millions of dollars are involved which will make its eradication difficult. But at the same time, Europol’s revelations will help immensely to cleanse the game by creating awareness among fans, the media and football governing bodies to be more vigilant. In Paul Put’s own words, the worst of betting is behind us.
The onus is now on Europol to get to the bottom of the issue and reveal to the public all the details. The agency must reveal the matches which were fixed and the players involved, which could humiliate would-be fixers into refraining from this nefarious activity. It’s true that such revelations could create the equivalent of a tsunami in sports, but for a change, it will be a positive tsunami. Secondly, those found guilty must be given exemplary and deterrent punishment. No player who is building a future in this game will scupper his prospects by succumbing to the temptations of immediate gains.
Third, football fans need to be more vigilant. There is nothing wrong with watching every match with some suspicion, so that heartbreaks and euphoria at the win and defeat of their favourite teams can be tempered with a dose of some harsh truths. Ultimately, the game will survive all scandals because football’s popularity is matched only by football.