Having lived and worked as a journalist in Singapore for a decade, before recently moving to Australia, Brit writer Neil Humphreys has learned much about Asian culture. His latest book Match Fixer shines a light on the scourge of match-fixing in the region and has been based on his experience as a sports writer.
The diehard West Ham fan tells inSing.com why he decided to write this book, how match-fixing disgusts him, and what he proposes to fix this problem, once and for all.
How long had you been in Singapore, and what did you know about match-fixing activities prior to your arrival?
I lived in Singapore for 10 years and knew nothing about match-fixing in this part of the world before I arrived. I was incredibly naive. But then, I grew up watching West Ham United, so it often felt like every game was fixed.
Was it a problem in the UK—is it still a problem—and were you surprised by what you discovered in Asia?
There were examples of alleged match-fixing, the famous ‘bung’ case involving former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and a Malaysian syndicate springs to mind.
And in the last couple of months, some extraordinary cases have come to light, with a probe suggesting more than 200 games were fixed in German football, including Champions League matches.
That said, I was shocked by what I saw in Asia.
Did you see anything 'dodgy' first-hand while covering football in Singapore?
I most certainly did. I saw things, witnessed matches first hand, and heard some incredible stories from famous footballers and coaches, some football legends in South-east Asia, who I won't name for obvious reasons.
I received tipoffs from people within the media before games that tonight's match would see plenty of goals and I was advised to "play goals". I was appalled by it then and I still am.
Brits have got their faults, I know that, but the idea of deliberately cheating, of throwing a match or lying down, just goes against the grain, it's not in the DNA generally.
And in Australia, even more so. Just mentioning the concept of match-fixing is enough to make the average Aussie sportsman/sports fan turn their stomachs.
They don't mind losing, just not cheating. They, like me, just can't get the head around it. Never could.
Your book is inspired by true events—how much of it is based on personal experience? Have you ever spoken to a professional in the game about match-fixing and bungs?
I've spoken to a number of professionals in the game over the years who have shared all kinds of stories–the truth is always stranger than fiction.
The book is fictional, but it gives the reader an idea of what really goes on in professional football in parts of Asia. There really is nothing beautiful about it at all.
Just two weeks ago, I met a retired Socceroo (Australian national soccer player), who'd played for Australia many times.
He told me that while he was playing in Malaysia, he arrived an away game with the rest of his team, and half a dozen teammates were immediately arrested and taken away by the police as part of a match-fixing probe.
Some things you just cannot make up.
Why did you want to write this book?
In all honesty, anger.
I'm tired of hearing about how Asians are football crazy. For the minority, this is true. For the rest, they are football betting crazy.
My book Match Fixer basically throws out the question: are Asians really serious about football or are they just serious about football betting? Most of us know the real answer, but we have chosen to ignore it for far too long.
Frankly, I did not become a football writer to write for deadbeat gamblers, I became a football writer to write for football fans. I'm not some naive idealist. I'd never say that no one should have a bet on a football match. That's just a bit of fun.
But in so many parts of Asia, it's all-consuming. The bet is bigger than the game itself. People can't watch a game without "having an interest". It got tedious after a while.
As I said, no one had ever dared to tackle this controversial subject head on before. Match Fixer does.
What are your own proposed solutions for fixing match-fixing? Or is it an inevitable problem?
The two major problems can only be solved by their two obvious solutions.
First, the gambling obsession in Asia appears to be deeply entrenched. Chinese New Year–the cards always come out. At weekends, the mahjong tiles come out. In the supermarkets, the 4D queue stretches into the street.
On match nights, bets are always placed. It's part of the culture and has been for generations. Deal with that, get to the social roots of the issue, and you have a chance of tackling it.
Second, many Asian leagues, like African leagues and some of the lesser leagues in Eastern Europe do not pay particularly well. In South-east Asia, there have been many cases (I covered a few) where players were not paid at all.
If a footballer is not paid the going rate or, even worse, not paid at all, he is always going to be susceptible to a bribe. If I'm a young Asian goalkeeper with a family to feed earning less than $500 a month and I'm offered $1000 to throw a few in at the next match, how much persuading am I going to need?
If Asian football is serious about its domestic leagues, pay the players a reasonable salary and pay it on time.
Is there anything else you'd like to say about the book, or your time in Singapore?
I genuinely feel that Match Fixer is the book that true followers of The Beautiful Game have been waiting for. If you truly love the game, then you will like Match Fixer.
For others, the truth will hurt. There are many who see the game as a betting outlet and nothing else. There are those who know that games are probably fixed and do nothing about it.
Match Fixer will piss them off. It is a controversial book. There has never been a novel like this about Asian football or Singapore before. So Match Fixer is going to irritate people. Good.
I'm just putting the message out there. This is the state of the Beautiful Game in South East Asia and it doesn't always look so beautiful. It's for others to do something about it.