The hype for the World Cup of soccer is gearing up in Canada as broadcasters embrace the "beautiful game" as a Kumbaya crusade, the humble sport of every man. For politicians and network executives, soccer is seen as the key to the multinational profile of their populations. From the baker in Little Italy to the grocer in Koreatown, the optics of the sport are irresistible images for TV.
But the beautiful game also has a seamy underbelly in the world of gambling. With billions bet on the outcomes of these games, organized crime has a vested interest in making sure it controls the results. There have been high-profile allegations of money having its way with the 2006 World Cup team from Ghana. Just last week, Lord Triesman - former chairman of the English Football Association - was revealed to have said that there was "some evidence" that Spain may withdraw its bid to stage the World Cup in 2018 if Russia, which also wants to host the event, helps it to bribe referees in South Africa next month.
As Declan Hill exposed in his book The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime, reputed match fixers can command a place on the dais at top events next to the president of FIFA or the executives of the world's top leagues. Allegations of major bribery scandals have roiled at every level of the sport, from referee bribery in Italy to match fixing in England. In Canada, too, there was a whiff of scandal in the 1980s when several Canadians were implicated in a match-fixing scandal in Singapore.
As Hill points out, the potential for bribery, even at the highest level of the World Cup, remains a tangible prospect. Several teams from poorer nations may not even be paid for their participation in the billion-dollar event. Game officials are compensated at levels that invite trouble. And coaches for some marginal clubs may be lured in by the prospect of a huge payday.
So how will networks such as CBC, which is deeply invested in the integrity of the event, handle the inevitable suspicions that will emerge when the games begin in June? (Especially as Hill was working for CBC when his research began on an assignment with CBC Sports.) Scott Russell will be the host of CBC's coverage of the World Cup. "No, we won't be trying to hide anything if it's there," Russell told Usual Suspects on Thursday. "I mean, look at the stuff surrounding the Spanish team, the possibility that the national organizations might be involved. If we see that going on, we're going to talk about it. Our panelists such as Jason de Vos and John Collins have played at the top levels and they'll call it if they see it."
Nigel Reed is the voice of Toronto FC on CBC and a veteran observer of the sport. He says that some of the World Cup's problems are of its own making. "The thing that bothers me most about the World Cup in this respect is the refereeing," Reed said. "You have these professional footballers who play at the highest level, and they're going to try to get away with what they can when it comes to diving.
"Then you have two referees in the competition from New Zealand. Considering the quality of play these referees see, that's probably two too many. So what happens when these referees are thrown in against the best footballers in the world? It's an invitation to trouble."
James Sharman, who'll host The Score's nightly 10 p.m. highlight package during the event, says his viewers know he won't pull punches.
"We can perhaps say things that a more invested broadcaster can't," Sharman told Usual Suspects. "If we see it, we'll call it. Or else our listeners will be all over us. In particular, we'll be watching the Spain games with a close eye after Lord Triesman's comments. Everything will be watched with a cynical eye at this Cup, and that's a sad thing to say."
Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy is no fan of the boys from Pardon The Interruption (ESPN/TSN). After PTI host Michael Wilbon predicted that the voluble Van Gundy will be cashiered if the Magic lose to Boston, Van Gundy punched back with reporters covering the series. "I have refused to be on [Pardon the Interruption]for years, for five years. … If you go on guys' shows, they don't criticize you. If you won't go on their show, they do. That stuff is never known. There's a lack of integrity in that business." For the record, Van Gundy's brother, Jeff, working the Magic/Celtics series on ESPN, has been giving his bro the gentle rinse during the series. That would be integrity with an "i."