Skënderbeu Scandal Could Be Biggest in Football

Jake Cooper | 11 Apr 2018

A rich footballing history in crisisOne or two isolated incidents, or a completely tainted history of organised crime running football? That’s the question UEFA disciplinary inspectors have to ask themselves as they investigate allegations of match fixing - in effect, match-throwing - against the Albanian team of Skënderbeu.

The team, based in Korce, Albania, was already sanctioned for match-fixing two years ago. They were banned from competition in the 2016-17 season, after they were found to have thrown matches.

That penalty was levied under UEFA’s ‘administrative measures’, however, the current investigation - into ‘a pattern of match fixing that amounts to organised crime controlling the club’, according to reports - is likely to result in much more serious ‘disciplinary measures’.

If Skënderbeu is found guilty of the match-fixing allegations, they could be banned for 10 years - which many Albanian fans and officials believe will be a death sentence both for the club and the country’s football culture.

As a result, everyone from Albanian government officials, to the mayor of Korce, to ordinary football fans, is vehemently opposed to the UEFA probe. There have been demonstrations in the streets of Korce, with thousands marching on February 21, trying to ‘save our team’.

Not the First Match-Fixing Shock

Albania isn’t the first country accused of match-fixing, of course. Skënderbeu goalkeeper Orges Shehi, at the centre of the allegations, is reminiscent of Zimbabwean-born Bruce Grobbelaar, who fell for the lure of easy money when he was keeping for Liverpool in the 1980s.

In 2008, Italian referees were found to have collaborated with champion clubs like Juventus, Lazio, Fiorentina, Milan and Reggina to fix matches - exposure led to fines, bans and one attempted suicide.

Milan and Lazio were also involved in 1980, during the Totonero match-fixing scandal, hatched by a local greengrocer and his partner in crime, a restaurateur - whose establishment was frequented by top players.

And sure, other countries, from Germany to Singapore, have seen some illegal gambling operators bust after match-fixing was exposed, but Italy really do seem to be world champions. In 2010, the Cremonense goalkeeper spiked his own team’s water bottles with tranquillisers to lose a match and pay off his gambling debts. The goalkeeper was banned for five years. After seeing all of this, it’s no wonder that many punters consider playing at an online casino potentially more fair in terms of game outcome, but this still doesn’t stop them putting money down on their favourite sports events.

Death Threats Won’t Deter UEFA

A team beleaguered by match fixingThere is a genuine sense among many Albanian football fans that they are being victimised, and the claims that Skënderbeu president Ardjan Takaj and Albanian finance minister Ridvan Bode are at the centre of the scandal are seen as a stitch-up.

Both men deny any involvement in match-fixing, and the passion of the demonstrators in Korce trying to make UEFA desist from its investigation is heartfelt. A 10-year ban probably will destroy the club, and have a massive effect on Albanian football. Skënderbeu is one of their major success stories.

But not when playing Dinamo Zagreb in 2015 - one of several matches cited in which the results were dodgy, but the most prominent. Despite Dinamo being down to 10 men in their first 2015 Champions League tie, Skënderbeu managed to lose 4-1. They lost the second tie at home 2-1; but algorithms used by UEFA noticed a mass of suspicious betting from people making large sums from the losses by those exact scores.

That’s what sparked the current investigation, which also covers other matches that threw up anomalous betting patterns. It has many Skënderbeu fans so riled up, the UEFA disciplinary inspectors working the case have received death threats.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has vowed not to let that stop the investigation, however. Could this be the beginning of the end for Albanian football?