Saturday, 23 July 2011

Asiagate scandal: a wakeup call

ANDRES ESCOBAR, a Colombian defender, was murdered shortly after his return from the 1994 FIFA World Cup, where he scored an own-goal as his country was knocked out 2-1 at the first phase by USA. In the most believed explanation, the Medellin drug cartel bet large sums of money that Colombia would advance, and blamed the Medellin-born Escobar for the loss.
In June 2004 in South Africa, 33 people including 19 referees, club officials, a match commissioner and an official of the South African Football Association were arrested on match-fixing charges.
In May 2006, perhaps the largest match fixing scandal in the history of Italian Serie A football was uncovered by Italian Police, implicating league champions Juventus, and powerhouses AC Milan, Fiorentina, and Lazio.
Teams were suspected of rigging games by selecting favorable referees, and even superstar Italian World Cup team goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was charged with betting on football games.
Initially, Juventus were stripped of their titles in 2004-05 and 2005-06, all four clubs were barred from European club competition in 2006-07, and all except Milan were forcibly relegated to Serie B. After all four clubs appealed, only Juventus remained relegated, and Milan were allowed to enter the third qualifying round of the Champions League and went on to win the tournament.
While all these scandals that turned the beautiful game into the ugliest sporting institution in the world unfolded Zimbabwe watched from a distance with an indifference that bordered on disgust.
Little did Zimbabwe - a minor in world football, know that a few years down the line it would attract the football world’s attention for the wrong reasons after failing to do so with its abortive exploits on the field of play.
In what is now known worldwide as the Asiagate Scandal, the Zimbabwe national team had numerous flights to Asian countries to played fixed matches just for the sake of enriching a few individuals at the expense of the nation’s pride.
High-ranking officials, coaches, players and even journalists have been fingered to have fattened their pockets during these shameful games and there have been calls to severely punish all who partook in the dishonour.
Pleas have been made and continue to be made for players to be pardoned from a life ban as they  were nothing but pieces on a chessboard and these appeals should be heard because the players were innocent partakers in a rotten and corrupt ring.
However, this mercy if found guilty, should not be extended to administrators, coaches and journalists but they must without fail be thrown down the bottomless pit of football because their actions have shaken the very foundation of football.
Football has lost significance in Zimbabwe because match fixing has robbed it of the core values which make football popular and unique to other sports disciplines.
On the face of poor administration coupled with poor remuneration in Zimbabwe football the Asiagate Scandal was inevitable. Zimbabwe, at the height of these shameful trots to Asia, was at the crossroads with inflation in hyper mode and the nation on the brink of doom.
This lack of money, real American dollars in a country where football was in financial doldrums resulted in a nagging desire to make money whether by hook or crook.
At that time people from all sections of society, high class and low class made a living through corrupt activities, thus with an all round atmosphere of corruption it was only natural that such an attitude would rub on to the players as well.
With such a scenario it should not surprise anyone that the national team was part of a betting and match fixing racket. And the nation should not fool itself that it will not happen again for as long football is played match fixers will continue being on the prowl for players willing to throw a match for a quick buck.
As the match-fixing revelations, or allegations, rage on, Zimbabwe’s football culture has faced intense, and deserved, scrutiny but both the players and ZIFA have lessons to learn.
ZIFA need to establish a security department that will look into future threats and opportunities that promote match fixing and work to undo such weaknesses.
A security branch may not end match-fixing but could, most certainly, reduce the likelihood of match-fixing attempts, and probably make policing by FIFA and Interpol more effective. Of course, this will require action by the Government, and not just ZIFA and its affiliates. But in this age of reforms, it’s something that should get a fair hearing.
ZIFA also needs to stop treating journalists like kings and should cut off the influence that certain journalists have on the national team for it is this influence that allegedly resulted in some reporters sitting on the technical bench, assisting in the committing of match fixing crimes that have soiled the country’s football image.
If ZIFA act on the Asiagate scandal as expected, the post Asiagate era will bring colour and glamour to football. Already FIFA have promised to pour in millions into ZIFA coffers, this will result in positive change, much needed for the bright future of football in Zimbabwe.
Admittedly match fixing has brought a lot of turmoil and lifted a dust that is threatening to suffocate the life out of football but it should be regarded more as an opportunity than a curse. It’s an opportunity the right more than the wrongs of Asia, it’s a change to reform our football.
There is no denying that football in Zimbabwe has not been tapped, its full potential has been retarded by lack of corporate support. This is the time for ZIFA president Cuthbert Dube and his board to impress the business community that has shunned football because of perceived corruption and maladministration.
The Ndumiso Gumede led Asiagate investigating team has done well and the prayer of the day is that its findings will not be thrown into the dustbin with just a few scapegoats punished while the major players walk away with the proverbial cigar in their mouths.
The Asiagate scandal was a wake up call, a reminder and an obvious example that our football is in need of drastic changes now not tomorrow. This opportunity must not be lost otherwise the vultures will circle again when the dust has settled.

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