Most handball fans have heard lots of stories about match fixing, in football and many other sports; but in handball, no, that could never happen! It is nice to defend your sport and your idols, but it is not so good to be naïve! I have written several times about match fixing, both the ‘traditional’ type where a team can afford to lose intentionally in return for a ‘favor’, and the more ‘modern’ one where the cause of the match fixing is related to betting. And I have suggested that is indeed naïve to think that handball is immune to such methods.
Now we have evidence about one aspect (forbidden betting), and the suspicions about the other part (losing intentionally) are being investigated by the police. And it does not involve some low-level match in some obscure corner of the handball world! It turns out to involve one of the most famous players in the world, Nikola Karabatic, and his teammates in Montpellier, a perennial top club in France and in European competition. Karabatic, several of his current and former teammates and a number of their family members, were detained by police directly at the end of their French league match against Paris, their new big rival, last Sunday. Montpellier was crushed in that match, 24-38, but that is now a side story and perhaps they knew what was coming…
At issue is a match late last season. Montpellier had secured the league title the previous week and now was facing an away game against lowly Cesson-Rennes who needed to win to be sure of avoiding relegation. Perhaps it was all along a match that would be risky for someone interested in betting. Montpellier could be expected to play without motivation. And on the evening of the match it became clear that six of their better players, including Karabatic, were injured. It is not clear if this fact was generally known, or if it was known only to the team. This is relevant, because such information, which is useful to bettors, is not allowed to be revealed by team members. But this is probably a minor issue by comparison.
What was not minor in terms of sports ethics and regulations in French handball was that Karabatic and several other players, through friends and family, decided to bet large amounts (although smartly in small installments) on both a half-time lead and a victory in the match for their opponents. What seems so absurd is that the amounts, which came during a small window of time and from just a few locations, were large enough to set off alarms in the monitoring system (and therefore close down the betting and alert the police) but that the potential gains were still rather modest for persons as wealthy as Karabatic and his colleagues. They certainly did not desperately need to take such enormous risks to win those amounts. But the fact that they were betting on their team to lose has been confirmed, so that is not in dispute.
However, that is a matter for French sports authorities and for the relations between Montpellier and the players. The club is now finding its strong image badly tarnished. And this is not because the club is being accused of anything. Indeed, not even the opponents who badly needed to win are suspected of having done anything improper to influence the result. But what remains as the issue that the French legal authorities are now pursuing, is the question as to whether the Montpellier players lost the match intentionally!? This amounts to corruption and could in principle result in prison terms if anyone is found guilty, as this would mean that a fraud was committed against those who innocently were betting in favor of Montpellier. They have the right to expect fair play and ‘may the best team win’.
But, as always will be the case in a situation like this one: how can you ever prove, in a legal sense, that a team is losing intentionally?? The result was 28-31 (12-15) and it was not exactly an absurd situation where Montpellier players started scoring against their own goalkeeper… They were the team without motivation, and they played without six important players! So the result is not really implausible and perhaps Cesson was ‘the best team’ that day.
But can one argue that the accused players really were able to play for 60 minutes without thinking about the money they would win if they lost the game? And did they really bet against their own team just to have some extra money as consolation if they lost the game? Yes, you and I can have our opinions, but how can you find legally binding evidence? There have been reports about phone-tapping and hidden cameras, but even if it seems stupid that the players took such risks, would they then in addition be so stupid that they spread around remarks about losing intentionally? It will be interesting to see the eventual outcome, but I would not advise a betting person to put any money on a guilty verdict…
I actually say that with a sense of regret. Not because I personally have any reason to see the players found guilty. Rather, I am concerned that the ability to lose a game intentionally in such a way that there is no legal evidence, is one of the inherent weaknesses in sports. Experienced players and, yes, experienced referees, can easily find ways of affecting the outcome of a game in such a subtle way that it does not leave strong suspicions, let alone formal evidence. As I see it, this means that we need to be much more alert and suspicious than we normally tend to be. We may never see ‘evidence’, but over time we should be able to recognize a pattern, and we should be able to find indications that may not hold up in a court of law but that would be enough under rules and regulations of sports to weed out the athletes, officials and teams who threaten to ruin our sports.
As the legendary French coach Daniel Costantini said yesterday: one must condemn players who are so stupid that they are ready to risk a world-class career for modest gains. They are no role models who deserve our respect. But what Costantini added is also astute and correct: all of us in the world of handball contribute to this situation by building up young, talented but often immature athletes into idols who feel that they are above it all, that they can do nothing wrong. Federations, clubs, fans, media can, and should, play a positive role in ensuring that it does not go that far. And part of that role is also to make sure that we are not so naïve about the risks and the problems that do exist!