Something Rotten in Czech Football

We go today to the Czech press, and specifically to the commentary weekly Respekt, for news about a shocking development there that I somehow missed. Apparently, the Czech national football league (that’s “soccer” to some of you) has been revealed as deeply corrupt. Of the sixteen teams that make up the Czech first division, fourteen were implicated, in investigative articles published late last week, in the practice of bribing referees to influence the results of games. As Respekt’s article (Czech Football: End of the Illusion) details, these payments didn’t even feature the twisted elegance of being made to secret accounts in Switzerland or the Caribbean; they were made in cash, “from hand to hand behind the gas pump or in underground garages.” As a result, in that paper’s opinion, “after May, 2004, no one can believe anymore in the cleanness [cistota] of Czech football.”

A full fourteen out of the sixteen leading teams! How could it have come to that? As Respekt author Jindrich Sidlo figures it, the corruption can ironically be traced back to the very poverty of the Czech league. Takings at the gate are small, even given the lower Czech price-level, because attendance is generally small: other than a few high-interest matches, games attract on average around 5,000 spectators. Revenues from the sale of club souvenirs are likewise negligible, and sales of the rights to televise games also bring in very little. But expenses must be paid, including substantial salaries for those stars who cannot or choose not to leave the country to play football, so clubs and the league are heavily dependent on companies which agree to pay to sponsor teams. These count among themselves major firms operating in the Czech Republic – Opel, T-Mobile, ING, Carrefour – but, the thing is, they are essentially only interested in associating their firm’s name with a winning team. Thus the extra payments made to ensure that “their” team wins, although there’s no indication that the sponsors are in any way directly responsible, just that management at the various football clubs knows very well the pressure it is operating under to gain renewal of those vital sponsorship agreements. Thus, as Sidlo puts it, in the grand scheme of things the payments made to referees in that underground parking garage can even be viewed as “investments” to ensure that the sponsorship money turns out to be well-spent.

Perhaps all this only matters to you – as scandalous as it is to witness what is apparently a whole professional league rotten through-and-through – if you are Czech or live in the Czech Republic, and maybe not even then. But Czech football has a unique role in the European football scene as the source of very good players – even as most of them inevitably make their way outside the country to play for most of their careers – and then of course a very good national team when they come together to play for their country in the biannual World/European cup competitions. In this they resemble the Danish and Norwegian national football leagues – good sources of players, even as most leave their native country to play – and these leagues also share the same reason why the native players do this, namely not enough money there to be earned by staying at home. In the Czech Republic this has been due to that being a relatively poor country, which Norway and Denmark certainly are not, but then those Scandinavian lands instead have kept their football leagues at only a semi-professional status, so that players generally have to find an alternative source of money somewhere if they’re going to stick around. Now the Czech Republic simply has gained yet another reason to see its players leave, which is that they will not want to be tarnished by the reputation of what has turned out to be a corrupt league.


That’s if the Czech football league survives at all. Sidlo, for one, draws the logical conclusion from his statement that “no one can believe anymore in the cleanness” by essentially calling for the whole edifice to be blown up and rebuilt again from scratch. Yes, just have the police come in and close the whole thing down, he says – otherwise organized, paid football in the Czech Republic is likely to melt down anyway, as even more fans stay away and, more crucially, no more companies want to get involved in the whole mess by sponsoring or continuing to sponsor. (Although Sidlo concludes his piece on a pessimistic note: Where in the Czech republic, with all its other business scandals over the past decade, are we going to be able to find untainted businessmen to take over and reconstruct the League?)

For now, though, it seems that League officials are continuing to sail on as if nothing is amiss, if a report on the League’s meeting last Saturday in the newspaper that has done the most to disclose the abuses, Mladá fronta dnes*, is any indication. Yes, the final league standings are approved as valid, meaning as usual that the last-place and second-to-last-place teams are relegated to the second division. (There’s no word on whether those were the two teams that kept their hands clean in the whole affair; I don’t think that’s the case.) The only concession to unusual circumstances that was made was that a third team was also to be relegated from the first to the second leagues, Synot, as the bribing-behavior of its officials during the past season was revealed to be particularly bad. Maybe this is just a tempest in a teacup. Maybe it doesn’t matter to Czech football fans that the results of the games they see are rigged, just as a similar situation doesn’t seem to matter to fans of televised professional wrestling. In any event, a mea culpa gesture such as shutting down the whole league just doesn’t seem to me to be very consistent with what I know about the Czech temperament.

*Keep in mind that, as explained on my Czech press page, to find Mladá fronta dnes articles older than a day you’re going to have to register for and negotiate that on-line newspaper’s “Newton” search engine.

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