umanity is the keystone that holds
nations and men together. When that collapses, the whole structure
crumbles. This is as true of baseball teams as any other pursuit in
— Connie Mack
Theories about why sport attracts the attention it does are as plentiful and varied as Djibril Cissé’s haircuts, though some at least make a little sense. Sport has been proferred variously as an alternative to war — which is why I take a bayonet to Champion Hill — as a channel for the unhealthy energies of young boys — your John Terry joke of choice here — and as the opiate of the masses — on which this, this and this. Rather charmingly, Declan Hill offers a simpler theory: that the attraction of sport is that it is the one arena of life that is free from bullshit. That it is honest, open, fair and free; that the triumph of A over B is nothing more than the reflection of the relative levels of luck, ability, and performance.
Or at least it should be.
Which brings us to The Fix. Hill’s investigation into the world of football match-fixing is well-written, meticulously researched, passionate, brave, and forthright. But, more than any of these, it is hard to believe. Not because the events recounted seem unlikely or far-fetched; in truth, the grubby world of slimy bookies, bent referees, incompetent administrators and the occasional brutal murder rings uncomfortably true. But because being told, and then being shown, that football matches up to and including World Cup knockout games were fixed, or very likely to have been fixed, leaves even the most cynical football fan wanting to stuff their fists in their ears and run away screaming: “It is just a river in Egypt! It is just a river in Egypt!”
I vividly remember the first time I ever had it suggested to me that footballers might be on the take. Not some footballers in the past, or in places distant, but real actual footballers, there on the television on front of me. Footballers I cared about. My reaction was, upsettingly, a little like the actors in Blackadder III: a sort of farcical blend of panic, anger and helplessness. No they’re not. They can’t be. Shut up. No they’re not. They can’t be. Shut up. Yeah. That’s you told. (I drew the line at the nose-tweaking.)
Obviously, I was young and foolish. It takes a wilful effort to look at football and miss the bleak history. Even Britain, a country that bows to no-one in its own moral self-regard, has form: Billy Meredith’s bribery scandal; Manchester United and Liverpool fixing a 2-0 United win in 1915; Jimmy Gauld’s 1964 betting scams; the persistent whispers around Don Revie’s Leeds; Bruce Grobbelaar’s complete vindication. Not to forget floodlight-failure-gate, where a shadowy cabal of Malaysian fixers conspired to plunge Premier League fixtures into premature darkness. Yet these are always treated as isolated cases, and the idea that they might be indicative is not entertained. To function, sport requires a willing suspension of cynicism.
One of the most engaging asides in the book is an account of how match-fixing has killed before. Hill cites the case of professional rowing, which used to be one of the largest spectator sports in North America and Western Europe. Hill sketches “the constant gamesmanship, cheating and fixing that meant eventually professional rowing became largely discredited and it faded into that graveyard of sports the public has largely abandoned”, and uses this to illustrate that football, however impregnable a leviathan it might appear, is just as reliant on an underlying sense of integrity. This is an intuitive truth. However awful a football match, however dull, dour or drab, it has to contain that integrity — which is what, from a spectator’s point of view, constitutes value — that can only come from both sides playing the game for the game.
Because fixing is not cheating in the everyday banal sense. It’s not a dive, or a cynical foul, or an extra few yards at a free-kick; these are the transgressions of a player looking to win, driven by the motive force that propels a football game, that gives it purpose. In a narrative sense, the point of a football match comes not only from not knowing the ending, but from knowing that the ending is unknown. (A known unknown, pace Rumsfeld.) And while there’s a favourite — one team is almost always better than the other — the story still needs to be told, and the protagonists — the players, the managers, the officials — all need to be playing their parts, which is to say, themselves. Otherwise it ceases to be a sporting narrative and becomes a kind of nonsensical calisthenics, a sham of a story, with no value in itself except to allow the unscrupulous to remove money from the pockets of the unwitting.
Theft, in other words, but not just monetary. The money is gained illicitly, but the sport itself loses something less transitory and more abstract: call it the soul, call it the heart, call it the narrative, or call it the underlying sense of competitive honesty. It amounts to the same thing: the point. Every other argument that anybody has ever had about football has been predicated on there being a point to the whole shebang. Pretending football is invulnerable, or clean, just because we need it to be is as unhelpful as it is idiotic, and it is idiotic in the extreme.
This is a strangely parasitic review, in that I have very little to add beyond the thoughts above: no further evidence, no supporting examples, no claims or counter-claims that I can bring to bear. I haven’t spent years researching the structures of criminal organisations, or worn wires into clandestine meetings. I can, however, report that I desperately want Hill to be incorrect, or mistaken, or some kind of weirdly self-aggrandising liar. I want nothing more than the comfort of knowing that my principle diversion and primary distraction is founded on good, solid stone, not treacherous sand. But wanting isn’t having. Hoping isn’t knowing.
We can perhaps tweak Pascal’s wager to our purposes. If we (and by we I mean the entire of the legitimate footballing community, of which I happily acknowledge I am a but a vanishingly tiny part) take this seriously, and Hill is wrong, then we lose nothing, bar time and money, and we gain comfort, confidence, and the knowledge that it’s all okay. If we do nothing, and Hill is right, we lose everything that football can give us. Frankly, that’s no choice at all.