Match-Fixing and the Balance of Power in Russian Football


As part of a series of articles on Russian football during the Winter break, False Nine Russian correspondent and debutant contributor, Andy Shenk, pores over the latest scandal in a saga of incidents that have brought match-fixing to the forefront of the squabbling authorities’s attention…

Russian football rumbles often with news of match-fixing, from the lowest to the highest levels. In 2009, Kryliya Sovetov lost 3-2 to Terek in Grozny in a Premier League encounter that reeked of corruption. Though neither team suffered any consequences, Leonid Slutsky, Kryliya manager at the time, commented several years later on the suspiciousness of the match: “I understood that the substance of that history was known at all levels – from Mutko [head of the Russian Football Union then] to the journalists. It’s just that no one’s yet to write the truth of the match in Grozny.”

The following year, in the second division, Sakhalin defeated Dinamo Barnaul 3-1 at home, despite trailing 1-0 at half-time. Following the match, word got out that two Dinamo coaches, Sergey Kormiltsev and Vadim Britkin had wagered over 25,000 rubles between them that their club would win the first half, but ultimately lose in the second. Thanks to an investigation by the Professional Football League (PFL) headed by then-president Nikolai Tolstykh, both coaches were banned, but the results of the match were not overturned. Neither of the clubs were punished, either.

Several other matches have drawn suspicion: Rostov-Amkar and Volga-Nizhny Novgorod in 2010, Torpedo Vladimir–Mordovia and Dinamo Bryansk–SKA-Energiya in 2011. The Expert Council on Fixed-Matches, established by former Russian Football Union (RFS) chief Sergey Fursenko in 2011, in charge of investigating the 2011 matches named above failed to release any guilty verdicts through December 2012.

In 2012, particularly during the beginning of the 2012/13 season, referees took center stage. Spartak Nalchik beat Torpedo Moscow 2-1 at home, thanks to a penalty in the ninth minute of added play. Zenit St Petersburg earned a shady 1-0 win over Kuban Krasnodar in mid-October when the official judged that a Kuban defender had blocked Roman Shirokov’s free kick with his arm in the box. Replays showed the defender had no chance of avoiding the ball.

Spartak Moscow’s loss in Makhachkala to Anzhi the same day as the Zenit-Kuban match caused even more of an uproar. Referee Eduard Maliy handed out six yellows in the first half, four to the visitors, and one minute into the second sent off the visitors’ Kirill Kombarov with his second yellow. Anzhi used their unexpected, many said unearned, advantage to shift the momentum, escaping with a comeback 2-1 win.

The big clubs dominated the headlines, but lesser clubs, in particular Volga Nizhny Novgorod, voiced their frustrations, too. Volga coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev vented often to the press: “I’ve never seen such biased officiating in my experience. In half, if not more, of our games, awful mistakes by the referees affected the outcome.”

Not happy: Volga's Gadzhi Gadzhiev

Not happy: Volga’s Gadzhi Gadzhiev

Following these and other similar matches, discussion centred on both the ability and scruples of Russia’s officiating corps. Italian Roberto Rosetti, head of the RFS Officiating and Inspections Department, fell directly between the crosshairs of many Russian journalists. The media and fans alike wanted to know why the officiating continued to disappoint, despite his highly-acclaimed appointment in 2011. Rozetti officiated at the highest levels of European and world football, before retiring at age 42. Many in Russia hoped that an outside professional would be able to bring order to the often slipshod, if not outright corrupt, standards in Russian officiating.

Luckily for Rosetti, the attention shifted in November from his crews to two scandalous matches involving Russia’s two most scandalous clubs – Zenit and Anzhi. The first, Zenit’s abbreviated visit to Dinamo Moscow on November 17, resulted in a technical defeat for the St. Petersburg club and a ban on spectators in their next two home games (Dinamo lost the right to home fans for one game). The heavy punishments came after a flare exploded near Dinamo goalie Anton Shunin in the first half of the contest, forcing him out of the game, and out of concern for the rest of the players, the game to be abandoned.

Though the flare came from the Zenit supporters’ section, the club protested the RFS Disciplinary Committee’s harsh decision vehemently, going so far as to threaten withdrawing from the Russian Premier League.

Within Russian society, however, the action of the presumed Zenit fan met with universal outrage. Politicians, football officials, and journalists bemoaned the depths to which Russian football had fallen. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for life bans for fans who misbehaved at stadiums. Of course, most people rejoiced when Zenit’s punishment was meted out.

Nine days later, on November 26, Anzhi traveled to Perm for a Week 17 match with local side Amkar. The Makhachkala club left behind injured starters Lassana Diarra and Christopher Samba, as well as star striker Samuel Eto’o, who, with three yellow cards, did not want to risk disqualification for Anzhi’s showdown with league leaders CSKA Moscow the following week.

Anzhi coach Guus Hiddink further left out four regulars in the starting lineup: Rasim Tagirbekov, Mbark Boussoufa, Yuri Zhirkov, and Oleg Shatov. Amkar manager Nikolai Trubachev, meanwhile, kept back leaders Sergei Narubin, Georgi Peev, and Pavel Ignatovic, each with three yellow cards, as well as regular starter, Ivan Cherenchikov. He commented on the weakened lineup following the game, referring to Amkar’s upcoming games against weaker opponents Mordovia and Kryliya Sovetov, “I don’t think anyone will blame us for what we did. I think everyone understands that our two remaining games are much more important than this one.”

Then, prior to kick-off, news spread that the betting line on an Anzhi win had dropped dramatically in the days leading up to the game and that bookmakers in Perm had closed further bets on the game. A Sport-Express journalist contacted Anzor Kavazashvili, head of the RFS Expert Council on Fixed-Matches, who reported that the committee was closely following the match and would investigate any abnormalities.

Tied 1-1 at half-time, Anzhi added offensive firepower by bringing on Boussoufa, Zhirkov, and Shatov in the final 25 minutes. The pressure on the Amkar defence increased in the final 15, building until Shatov slotted a ball past Amkar goalie, Roman Gerus, in the second minute of added time for a 2-1 win. Following the final whistle, the Russian sports world blew up over the alleged fixed nature of the game. Adding fuel to the fire, Anzhi’s winning attack had begun with a pass from one of Amkar’s defenders directly to the feet of an Anzhi player on the home team’s side of the field.

During the rest of the day, evidence swirled for and against a fix. Those defending the honesty of the game emphasized that fixed matches are never left for the last minute; that the Amkar defender who gifted Anzhi the ball was new to the Premier League; and that the Amkar goalie had saved his team several times in the final minutes of the game. As for the omission of top players on both sides, they asserted the managers’ right to give his men a break, particularly in advance of more important games.

Fingers in many pies: Suleiman Kerimov, billionaire owner of Anzhi

Fingers in many pies: Suleiman Kerimov, billionaire owner of Anzhi

The concerns over the game’s honesty came from several more creative angles and would grow in the coming days and weeks. In addition to the strange lineups on the field, it soon became known that Anzhi owner Suleiman Kerimov owned a minority stake in Amkar. With Anzhi facing CSKA and Zenit in the last two weeks of the year, many guessed that Anzhi arranged to buy the game in order to be more confident of resting their top men. Of course, Amkar’s disappearance at the end of the game, combined with odd betting activity in Perm, raised further concern.

Meanwhile, Zenit midfielder Vladimir Bystrov brushed off questions about his club’s 1-1 draw to CSKA later in the day, advising journalists that they’d “be better off watching the last ten minutes of Amkar-Anzhi!”

Anzhi did not shy away from the cynical talk – Konstantin Remchukov, recently appointed head of Anzhi’s board of directors, addressed the accusations that same evening on a Moscow radio station, Ekho Moskvy, “It seems to me that a battle is being fought with non-sporting means. I learned about that when I became more involved in football.”

Still, before the night was out, Kavazashvili, at the request of the Perm bookmakers, reconfirmed that his committee would investigate the game.

Two days later, the Expert Council reported that there was no basis for match-fixing allegations. According to Kavazashvili, the group concluded that “The game was hard-fought and played at a high level.” He admitted, however, that one expert, former referee Vladimir Levitin, still suspected a fix and that the council would hear his concerns in further detail – “If his position is taken, then we’ll look more thoroughly into the case.”

Sixteen days passed, the matter seemingly closed, until Sport-Express published an article from Evgeny Dzichkovsky titled: “Agency for fighting fixed matches: unwilling or unable?” in which he exposed several more explosive details in the Amkar-Anzhi case.

Dzichkovsky found that Denis Khokhklov, who played for Amkar in 2006 and was the nephew of ex-Amkar president Valery Chuprakin’s first wife, triggered the bookmakers’ concerns by betting four million rubles on Anzhi in the game. Khokhklov had also dropped eight hundred thousand rubles on Anzhi in August, when Amkar played in Makhachkala and lost.

Thanks to Khokhlov, the money bet on Amkar-Anzhi in November in Perm exceeded by nearly fifty times the amounts bet in the city on Amkar matches in preceding weeks. More remarkably, Khokhlov bet only on Amkar’s two encounters with Anzhi. The bookmakers had no record of other activity from the young man.

Khokhlov’s uncle, Mr. Chuprakin, Dzichkovsky further disclosed, left the post of Amkar president in 2010, but not before offering the club a twenty-five million ruble loan. Two years later he sued the club for thirty-five million rubles (ten million in interest), which he claimed they still owe him. He also serves on the executive committee of the Russian Football Union (RFS).

Kavazashvili weighed in on the report immediately, phoning Sport-Express the same day to explain that the Expert Council was indeed aware of these findings and had been investigating them quietly. Furthermore, Kavazashvili stated that “We sent info to Tolstykh [RFS president] with a request to forward it to law enforcement.”

Unconfirmed reports, meanwhile, began to circulate that Tolstykh planned to dissolve Kavazashvili’s Expert Council based on their handling of the Amkar-Anzhi matter.

On December 18, Denis Khokhlov surfaced, announcing his intentions to sue Marafon, the bookmaker which had refused to pay his winnings from the November 26 match. He questioned their right to publicly identify him and the value of his bets. He also stated that he had never asked for his money to simply be returned, as reported earlier in the media. Marafon fired back, relisting the questionable circumstances surrounding Khokhlov’s bets and predicting that he would have a difficult time winning in court.

Swinging the axe: Russian Football Union president, Nikolai Tolstykh

Swinging the axe: Russian Football Union president, Nikolai Tolstykh

Matters finally came to a head on December 19. Kavazashvili’s council, publicly rebuked in the nation’s leading sports daily for their failure to act more decisively, got the axe from Nikolai Tolstykh during a meeting of the RFS executive committee. In disbanding the council, Tolstykh thanked the group for their work, but expressed a desire for the fight against fixed matches, and negative developments in Russian football at large, to be waged with the help of the Russian Premier League and Football National League, as well as law enforcement. Tolstykh added, “The documents that the RFS has at the moment are insufficient for involving law enforcement. We’ll continue to study the circumstances surrounding this game, as well as those of other games.”

Not one to keep quiet, Kavazashvili stoutly defended the work of his council in the press and the many frustrations they encountered. According to him, though the committee had investigated the 2011 matches between Torpedo Vladimir-Mordovia and Dinamo Bryansk-SKA-Energiya, they had been unable to assess any penalties because their council was not empowered by the RFS to do so. They sent their materials on to the previous RFS presidents, Fursenko and Simonyan, who forwarded them to the Disciplinary Committee. The Disciplinary Committee, however, took no action, even returning the materials to Tolstykh when he became president in September 2012. Kavazashvili further explained that Tolstykh promised to give the council disciplinary power, but never did.

The very next day, Kavazashvili claimed in an interview that “there is no basis for suspecting [Amkar-Anzhi] was fixed. That’s just stupid.”

Tolstykh, asked to clarify the reasons for letting Kavazashvili go, explained that he “didn’t see very active efforts on the part of the committee in investigating the circumstances of the game [Anzhi-Amkar].”

Tolstykh, however, came under attack in the media for waging an unnecessary cold war against the team assembled by his predecessor Sergey Fursenko. In addition to Kavazashvili, Tolstykh had already removed the head of the Committee on Agent Activity, Sergey Cheban, and Vladimir Katkov, head of the Disciplinary Committee, hold-overs from the Fursenko administration.

Tolstykh and Fursenko, indeed, had bad blood, dating back to late 2010, when the RFS, under Fursenko’s leadership, effectively squashed the Professional Football League (PFL), responsible for overseeing Russia’s lower divisions at the time. Tolstykh served as president of the PFL then and reportedly fell out with Fursenko because of resistance to the RFS’s proposed autumn-spring football schedule, which took effect the following year. The new schedule met no opposition from the newly-formed Football National League (Russia’s new first division).

The final complicating factor in Tolstykh’s role as RFS president and action in the Amkar-Anzhi case lies in his contested election several months earlier. According to insiders, Tolstykh’s candidacy was opposed most fervently by a trio of Premier League owners – Zenit’s Aleksey Miller, CSKA’s Evgeny Giner, and Anzhi’s Suleiman Kerimov – each of whom left the RFS executive committee just prior to his election.

Several months later Zenit had their run-in with the RFS Disciplinary Committee, headed up by Tolstykh’s newly-appointed chief Artur Grigoryants, following the November 17 Dinamo-Zenit match. Prior to the decision to give Zenit a technical defeat, Evgeny Giner and Anzhi general director Aivaz Kaziakhmedov proposed the game instead be replayed.

Then, at the end of November, backing up Zenit’s threats of leaving the Russian Premier League altogether if assessed a technical defeat, Zenit, CSKA, and Anzhi emerged as the leading supporters of an international league, which would combine the top clubs in Ukraine and in Russia, and possibly in other countries as well.

On December 21, following the RFS executive committee meeting, Tolstykh responded to the inferences in the media that Russian football had split into hostile camps: “It’s clear that there are some who are playing aggressive politics with me; people who don’t like me. All the same, I wouldn’t talk about clan war in Russian football. I don’t see clans.”

Model behaviour: Amkar president, Gennady Shilov, refutes any match-fixing claims

Model behaviour: Amkar president, Gennady Shilov, refutes any match-fixing claims

As for the immediate matter of Amkar-Anzhi, in the days following, both clubs continued to assert their innocence. Remchukov, head of Anzhi’s board of directors, vehemently denied again any Dagestani links to match-fixing in Perm: “We want law enforcement agencies to investigate and expose everyone involved. We won’t let the matter be swept under the rug. In my view, this was a reputation attack on Anzhi.” Amkar president Gennady Shilov, on December 25, refuted reports that Nikolai Trubachev would be sacked for his role in the November 26 match, declaring “Amkar has the solid reputation of a team, which always played honestly on the football pitch and got results commensurate with their abilities.”

That something fishy took place in Perm on November 26, few neutral observers would deny. That Russian officiating leaves much to be desired will also find little debate. The Russian game has plenty rotten hidden within its vast expanse and those are the issues facing Mr. Tolstykh today; issues which no one, to be fair, has managed to resolve yet.

Given the vast array of concerns about the transparency of Russian football, the primary question is whether these efforts to investigate, discipline and correct are intended to purge corruption from its roots or whether they are simply weapons in a battle for control of the Russian game?

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