By Vadim Furmanov –
On March 27th Chornomorets Odessa hosted Olimpik Donetsk at their training base for a friendly during the international break. The match, which ended 4-0 in favor of the home side, was not televised and drew only about 100 fans. Under normal circumstances a match like this would have been forgotten immediately.
But, as it turned out, the circumstances were anything but normal. It soon emerged that over $200,000 had been placed on the outcome of the match. The Ukrainian Derby between Shakhtar and Dynamo in late April, in comparison, drew approximately $100,000 in bets. The vast majority of the bets during the Chornomorets vs. Olimpik friendly were placed on Over 2.5, in other words, that there would be at least three goals scored. The match was tied 0-0 until the 70th minute, at which point the Olimpik defense completely collapsed and let in three goals in quick succession – the exact amount that those betting massive sums needed in order to win.
A meaningless friendly held at an empty training ground that was not even televised, drew twice the amount in bets than a potential title-decider in front of thousands of fans between the two most popular teams in Ukrainian football. It does not take an expert to recognize that the result of the Chornomorets vs. Olimpik match was determined by forces outside the pitch.
Legacy of match-fixing
Match-fixing is not a new phenomenon in Ukrainian football. As Futbolgrad has examined in the past, the legendary Ukrainian manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi is known to have set up an entire system of “agreed-upon” matches that guaranteed his Dynamo Kyiv side valuable points on the road.
In the 1990s Dynamo was disqualified from the Champions League for attempting to bribe a Spanish referee before a match against Greek side Panathinaikos.
More recently, Metalist Kharkiv was kicked out of the Champions League in 2013 for an alleged fixed match with Karpaty Lviv that took place in 2008.
All of the foregoing instances of match-fixing by Ukrainian teams were intended to achieve a favorable result. These matches were arranged for sporting rather than for monetary purposes.
But the current epidemic is of a different sort. As the Chornomorets vs. Olimpik friendly demonstrates, matches are now fixed, not to ensure victory for one side, but rather to make money for betting enterprises.
Olimpik under the microscope
Officially, the bookmaking industry in Ukraine has been illegal since 2009. But, as an anonymous employee of a bookmaking company told Tribuna, very little has changed since then, as these companies have simply rebranded themselves as “lotteries” or “analytical centers”, and continue to operate in the open. As a result, this legally dubious, loosely regulated industry has become very susceptible to manipulation by third parties, especially since so many teams are in such a poor financial state.
The club that is under the closest scrutiny is Olimpik Donetsk. Questions about their dubious record were first raised by Ihor Tsyhanyk, host of the popular television program ProFutbol. In April Tsyhanyk pointed out that despite their impressive form in the first half of the season, the side conceded at least four goals in seven of their first nine defeats. “If it happens once – it’s an occurrence, twice – a coincidence, three times – it’s a system,” he said during the program.
Olimpik lost its next two matches: 5-0 against Dnipro and 4-1 against Karpaty Lviv, then in last place. Even its victories were suspicious. On May 17th Olimpik was playing a UPL fixture against Metalist Kharkiv. Olimpik was up 2-0 in the 90th minute. At that point, there were over $150,000 in bets placed on over 2.5 goals being scored in the match. In stoppage time Olimpik conceded a needless penalty, Metalist scored, and the match ended 2-1. It is worth reiterating that the total amount of bets placed on the Shakhtar vs. Dynamo derby was $100,000.
The Olimpik vs. Metalist match has since been ruled suspicious by UEFA, who announced that they will be monitoring the team. Last week the ethics committee of the Football Federation of Ukraine also revealed that they will be investigating the match.
“A critical situation”
Allegations of match-fixing are not limited to the Premier League. Corruption in Ukrainian football runs deep into the lower divisions and even into the U-21 and U-19 competitions.
Francesco Baranca, the general secretary of the anti-match fixing organization Federbet, told Tribuna that the U-19 and U-21 leagues are “totally corrupt.” During his appearance on Hra bez Pravyl he stated that matches at this level are very easy to fix because players can be bought off for as little as $100, while the sums placed on these matches are often well above $100,000.
Once again, Olimpik’s name comes up. Suspicious betting patterns were observed during an Under-19 match between Vorskla and Olimpik in April. The match was not televised, yet over $91,000 were placed on over 4.5 goals being scored. Vorskla won 5-0, with their fifth goal coming from a late penalty.
But Olimpik are far from the only team involved. Hoverla’s youth side is also under considerable suspicion. In May $115,000 was placed on over 5.5 goals being scored in the Hoverla U-19 fixture against Metalurh Zaporizhya. Predictably, Hoverla lost 6-0. In comparison, a Metalurh U-21 match from the same tournament drew $700 in bets.
The blatant match-fixing prevalent at all levels of Ukrainian has led Baranca to say that “the situation is critical.”
Who is responsible?
When asked who bears responsibility for the current situation, Francesco Baranca responded bluntly: “I don’t blame the club, I blame the players.” And he is correct, to an extent. Match-fixing is possible only because players are willing to accept money in exchange for influencing the outcome.
But simply placing all the blame on the players ignores the deeply-rooted problems in Ukrainian football that create the circumstances in which fixing matches becomes an attractive proposition for a player.
Petro Kaplun, the president of Persha Liha side FC Hirnyk Komsomolsk, said on Hra bez Pravyl: “Players who don’t get paid, can you imagine how they play? They need to live on something. They have families, they’ll look for a way to get paid from somewhere.”
When over half the teams in the Premier League and many more in the lower leagues have difficulties paying wages, the prevalence of match-fixing becomes understandable.
“Take, for example, a club like Hoverla,” football agent Dmytro Selyuk told segodnya.ua. “Salaries have not been paid in over a year… and yet, only a few players under contract with the club have expressed a desire to leave Uzhhorod. In my opinion this is a clear that they are involved in some corrupt dealings, otherwise what’s the point of playing for free?”
But even the problem of unpaid wages cannot fully explain the regrettable phenomenon. Olimpik, for example, is one of the few clubs in the Ukrainian Premier League that has no outstanding wages owed its players. And yet, as discussed above, Olimpik is widely believed to be heavily involved in match-fixing.
The unfortunate reality is that, most likely, not just football players are complicit. Roman Adamenko is a former defender at MFC Mykolaiv, yet another club suspected of match fixing. As Adamenko told Hra bez Pravyl regarding a match against FSC Bukovyna, not only were his teammates obviously not making an effort, but also there were rumors that the club’s Vice President and manager made some money. “There are some teams that survive only because of [match-fixing],” he said.
Obviously in the case of Olimpik, it is speculation whether or not the club management is also involved. But that match-fixing has become deeply entrenched at every level is not speculation– it is the grim reality.
What steps can be taken to clean up Ukrainian football? Baranca claims that “this problem can be solved only by the introduction of criminal liability.”
While that is clearly a necessary step, it is only one part of the solution. Yevhen Platonov, a public relations specialist at the bookmaking firm Marafon, argues that “we need to raise the prestige of Ukrainian football and increase the level of interest, and create a product that is interesting to the viewer.” How this will be accomplished is unclear.
Bookmakers themselves have a role to play. Irina Serhienko, general director of the Ukrainian Union of Bookmakers, told Tribuna that “fixed matches are a cause of serious concern to bookmaking operations.”
Cooperation between league authorities and bookmakers, however, has been non-existent. Neither the FFU nor the Ukrainian Premier League has ever reached out to the bookmakers to address concerns over match-fixing. Serhiy Yeremenko, operational director of the bookmaking company Favbet, believes that this lack of communication is a result of the absence of regulation of bookmaking at the federal level.
Platonov added that “the problem is possibly a result of the lack of desire on the part of the majority of officials, for them it is necessary to keep their positions and changes are always unpredictable.”
Some promising steps have been taken. A law that would introduce criminal penalties for those implicated in match-fixing has been registered in the Ukrainian parliament. The general director of the UPL has also announced that the league may reschedule matches deemed at-risk for match-fixing.
In addition, the large bookmaker firm Pari-Match, which officially has not conducted any business in Ukraine since 2009 but which, in reality, is one of the largest firms in the country, will become the official sponsor of the league next season. The legitimization of the bookmaking industry raises the hope that a joint effort by league authorities and bookmakers will become feasible.
Match-fixing is clearly a symptom of a wider crisis facing Ukrainian football. The financial difficulties faced by so many clubs make the league a breeding ground for match-fixers, who take advantage of the fact that players often go for months without getting paid. That is the harsh reality of Ukrainian football.
Nevertheless, the crisis of match-fixing must be addressed, lest football in the country lose all of its prestige and legitimacy. As Baranca warned, “this summer is the last chance for Ukraine to begin the fight against this virus. It is very easy to lose football altogether.”
Special thanks to Oleksandr Tkach.
Vadim Furmanov is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago. He is a supporter of Dynamo Kyiv and the Chicago Fire. Follow him @vfurmanov.