Flashback: El Salvador’s Match-Fixing Scandal

The summer of 2016 is shaping up to be a heck of a summer for international sports, and not just because of the 2016 Summer Olympics. The 2016 Copa America, and 2016 Euro Cup are certain to capture the spirits and eyeballs of billions across the world.

Salvadorans will tune into both tournaments, not so much for the love of any particular country (they aren’t in either of them), but for the love of the game of futbol (it’s common to see Salvadorans split between two camps when the El Clasico is played: those who support Barcelona and those who cry “Hala Madrid!).

If allegiance has ever been an issue, it has stood through some tough times: El Salvador has had little to boast about in international games. In the last 30 years, the only award it has under its belt is the record for the largest blowout loss in World Cup history: a 10-1 romping by Hungary in 1982 (it was also the last time they qualified).

As bad as that was, La Selecta (as they are lovingly nicknamed) supporters faced an even bigger test in loyalty during the 2010s: a widespread match-fixing scandal.

International Sport Institutions

What drives the sense of international unity behind these otherwise *ordinary* sports? The quick answer is international governing bodies—FIFA for Euro and Copa, and the IOC for the Olympics.

Each body has become the de facto ruling bodies for their corresponding international game, which has its pros and cons. While their de facto status has been vital in feeding nationalist sentiments during large-scale international tournaments, it has also made it harder to keep tabs on the legality of their interior financial moves. The more powerful an organization grows, the more likely it is to self-regulate. This can mean that, if needed, it could become difficult to prosecute an organization for even the most obvious of crimes (Forster, 2016).

UEFA_Euro_2016_Logo.svg
Even if it’s far away, Salvadorans will be watching Euro 2016

Take FIFA, for instance. Prior to the FBI-led 2015 raids on FIFA executives, it was not uncommon to hear assumptions of secret back-door deals and monetary kickbacks (the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar did more than just raise a few eyebrows). But for the most part, these were only assumptions. It wasn’t until the raids conducted by the FBI in 2015 that the world saw just how deeply entrenched and widespread corruption was across the governing body.

Soccer in El Salvador has some parallels with FIFA’s opearations pre-FBI raids in the sense that both faced transparency issues. Where they differ in recent history is a type of corruption that wasn’t as prominent in the public consciousness during FIFA’s scandal: corruption involving players, specifically, the art of match-fixing.

While there were hints at match fixing during the sweeping FIFA arrests, the indictment centered mostly on the action of FIFA exec heads (the indictment available here). But make no mistake: like the FIFA organization itself, match-fixing has an incredible international reach, with many schemes originating out of Asia (Hill, pp. 23-24, 2011).

La Primera Division

Why would anyone participate in match-fixing? Why betray the loyalty of millions of soccer fans, ones which stuck it out through rough times, such as a record-breaking loss?

The answer boils down to “money”. But to see why money had such a strong pull in the Salvadoran match-fixing, it’s worth exploring the conditions that lead up to the scandal.

Most of the Salvadoran national squad, which represent the country in international tournaments is picked from players who play in the Salvadoran Premier League, La Primera División de Fútbol Profesional. Similar to European countries which have their own professional soccer leagues, soccer players who aim to play with the finest players in El Salvador play in La Primera Division.

The league is classified as a NGO, which gives it the status of a non-profit organization. This means that it doesn’t pay taxes on its revenues.

Rodolfo “El Fito” Zelaya of the league’s “La Alianza F.C.” has been referred to by many as the best player to have worn a Salvadoran shirt. He received a 12-month suspension for match-fixing

Such a classification isn’t rare; actually, until recently, it was something commonly seen in North America—as of May 2016, the NHL remains the only one of the four major professional sport leagues to retain its non-profit status (as stated in its infamous 2013 collective bargaining agreement: see “Preamble”, page 1). The MLB dropped it in 2007 and the NFL dropped it in 2015. The NBA has always paid its share of taxes.

But such a classification in El Salvador is curious. La Prensa Grafica reported that politicians have had roles in club governing bodies, but their financial contributions and money flows have been hard to trace.

Yet even with these contributions, the same article reported that most of the Primera Division‘s teams post financial losses at the end of their seasons. Taxes, they argue, would ultimately cripple the league. But if this is true, it begs the question: with so little money in team coffers, how much money is set aside for player salaries?

It’s hard to say just how much Salvadoran players earn in La Primera Division. The league and its teams are hesitant to release contract figures because, officially, they worry about player safety: a publicly-stated salary could attract potential extortionists. This is a legitimate concern if this is true, but it also shouldn’t be interpreted as players being payed exceptionally well: in a 2015 interview conducted by the online sport publication El Grafico with Alianza (a Primera Division team) president Lisandro Pohl, Pohl stated that “El Fito” Zelaya was the league’s— and therefore, country’s— highest paid player.

Just how much does the “country’s highest paid player” earn?

That’s another figure that’s hard to tell because of limited publicly available information. But one could arrive at an educated guess through some investigating.

    • First, one could look at revenue streams: 2013 total box-office sales for the apertura tournament generated just over $816,000 in revenue (see: Taquila por fecha por equipo > Taquilas Apertura2013 (global)). This revenue stream was then shared between the league’s 10 teams. Broadcast rights generated between $30,000 and $50,000 in revenue for large market teams (which amount to 3 teams). Sponsorship figures added a bit of icing. With such low revenues, it would be tough for any team to pay all their players anything higher than a few thousands of dollars.
    • Second, one could look at El Fito’s pay: according to a statement on an Alianza Facebook fan page, El Fito asked for a $10,000 contract to play in the 2012 season. Based on the reaction generated by the post (which was pure speculation), the assumption can be made that $10,000 is an outlandish amount of money for a Primera Division soccer player.
      • Thus, the assumption can also be made that the average salary for a soccer player in Primera Division is far below $10,000. On top of that, players pay their club a 10% “tax” on their earnings.

Whatever the average salary of a Primera Division may be, one fact is abundantly clear: Salvadoran players aren’t payed anywhere near the salaries of the Messis, Ronaldos, or even the top MLS players of the soccer world.

So, in a country where minimum salaries range from US$98-$200/month (depending on the industry), it comes as no surprise that a professional soccer player would so readily throw a game for financial gain.

Did I say “a” professional soccer player? I meant 22.

Soccer charts
List of Salvadoran players suspended from the national squad for match fixing. Red: lifetime suspension; Blue: 5 year suspension; Green: 18 month suspension; Orange: 12 month suspension; Purple: 6 month suspension. Players who have played outside of La Primera Division are in bold.

The art of Match-Fixing

Sure enough, and consistent with what Declan Hill exposed in his book, it was discovered that behind the match-fixing scandal was a criminal out of Singapore known as “Dan Tan”.

El Grafico uncovered the scandal in 2013. Initially, it reported that seven Salvadoran players agreed to throw a game against the MLS’ DC United in 2010. The plot was hashed out after the members met with three conspirators during a stop in Virginia. At the meeting, the players agreed to lose the game by 2 goals in exchange for $10,000 each. But this was only the tip of El Grafico’s investigation: soon after, it discovered that the team’s match-fixing schemes spilled into its international games. An infectious disease had spread through the team’s locker room. Additional rigged games included:

For many Salvadorans, the news was a national tragedy. Insight Crime reported that to add insult to injury, goalkeeper Miguel Montes, who was the “prime suspect in coordinating, recruiting and paying players on behalf of the match fixers” was allowed to flee to the US without any trouble.

That said, a curious aspect of match-fixing which news articles seldom explore is worth, well, exploring. When analyzing the underground element of match fixing, there seems to be less attention put on the “extortion” angle that exists in these schemes.

Asian match-fixers use similar tactics that Salvadoran gangs use to obtain what they want: violence. Hill (2011) speaks at numerous instances of how gangs use the threat of violence on either the soccer figure himself, or family members of players, to get the soccer figure to accept bribes (pp. 34-35). It will likely never be known if this was the case for El Salvador’s national squad; if it was, it would serve again as a reminder of the weakness of the government: organized criminal activity would be allowed to thrive in the country with little state intervention (it already does, with or without soccer).

What have we learned

Perhaps we should all heed the advice of our schoolyard teachers: it’s just a game, so don’t take it too seriously. There’s no question that sports provide an escape for everyday problems.

Unfortunately, criminals find ways to exploit soccer for their own gain. But who were the criminals in El Salvador’s case? Were they the players involved in the
match-fixing, looking to make a quick buck? Were they the plot’s masterminds in Singapore? Were they both?

Or is match-fixing just too easy? This case, as well as many other match-fixing rings, reminds us that the illusion of professional sports as being inherently free of crime is just that: an illusion—at its most extreme, the 2015 FIFA arrests remind us money can turn human beings into case studies on ethics.

The Black Sox scandal is an early example of match-fixing

Which leads me with one final thought: match-fixing and sport corruption is not endemic to the world’s less-developed regions. One could look at the cases in developed countries to argue this point, such as the drug scandals in the Olympics, steroid regimes in the MLB during the 1990s, doping in Le Tour de France, the Black Sox scandal of 1919, NBA match-fixing…the list is endless.

What was different about El Salvador was soccer’s importance to its people. Many look to the game as an escape from the political and economic issues within the country. Imagine coming home, turning on the TV, and learning that the one thing you thought would never be corruptible was draped in money.

Match-fixing or no match-fixing, many around the world will have their eyes glued to TVs from June to July for Copa America and the Euro Cup. La Selecta, along with its millions of fans, will be watching the tournaments for the love of the game.

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