If it ain’t fixed, don’t break it

IN THE grand scheme of things, back-to-back draws aren’t much of a reality check. But on the way to their latest stalemate, Austria Salzburg’s supporters took in the village of Fuschl am See, where lies the corporate nerve centre of a company which, in 1984, adapted a Thai stimulant of which they now sell more than 3 billion cans a year worldwide. In 2005, the same firm bought their ailing football club and placed it in the ranks of other heavily-branded non-entities bearing their drink’s name and colours.

fuschlThose who chose to support 11 of Red Bull GmbH’s 4,000 employees have discovered that habitually topping Austria’s Bundesliga is scant consolation for routinely failing to secure salient European exposure for their brand. Those who didn’t have found the path from the country’s basement league, unlike the winding road to Fuschl am See, to be straight and true.

This season, however, the real Austria Salzburg are experiencing some resistance to their progress, with recent draws at Grünau and Strobl and an uncharacteristic away defeat at Bürmoos. Nevertheless, with just Saturday’s home date with as-yet winless St Georgen to go before the winter break, they’re tucked neatly behind Kuchl in second place and alle ist gut.

Since the Austrian fizz magnates unfurled their template in New York with the fanfare ‘We’ve changed the name, now we’re changing the game’, they’ve learned that, just as in Salzburg, old habits die hard and the team formerly known as MetroStars are still the league’s longest-running joke.

When two of their players were recently suspended for doping, one of the deputising soft drink adverts, rookie goalkeeper Danny Cepero, scored an 80-yard free kick on Giants Stadium’s hallucinogenic pitch and football entered new realms of synthesis.

But how ‘real’ is football anyway? If a recent spate of accounts are anything to go by, Eastern ingenuity distorts the game in more than just Salzburg and New York.

In his book, ‘The Fix’, Canadian journalist Declan Hill tells of meetings with Chinese-Malaysian fixers at the 2006 World Cup, focusing on Ghana’s 3-0 loss to Brazil and, hilariously, the failure to fix England’s game with Ecuador because Sven Goran Eriksson’s side weren’t considered good enough to score twice.

zenithMore recently, a Spanish judge’s taped Russian boasts that Zenit St Petersburg’s UEFA Cup semi final second leg defeat of Bayern Munich was bought, as well as suggestions that the final – in Manchester, against Rangers – was also compromised, preceded suspicious half time Asian betting patterns on a Championship match at Carrow Road in which Derby goalkeeper Roy Carroll was dismissed and subsequently dropped.

The rise of in-running betting has not only lead to the presence of ‘spotters’ in UK grounds exploiting the momentary gap in TV transmission to China by informing syndicates of what’s unfolding by mobile phone, but also the violent Newcastle murder of a Chinese couple known to be recruiting others to beat the Asian bookies.

The object of such obvious market appeal would have to be pretty robust to withstand the temptations money can bring, and we know how flaky the Premier League can be. If it didn’t come over all light-headed around the folding stuff, ‘Grand Slam Sunday’ would be a once in a lifetime event instead of occurring twice a season, West Ham would’ve been relegated for Carlos Tevez’s illegal registration and the likes of Thaksin Shinawatra and Arcadi Gaydamak wouldn’t be allowed to hold stakes in its precious member clubs.

newcastleunitedSeeing Garry Cook’s ‘Virgin of Asia’ became the latest side to benefit from Rob Styles’ over-assertive manner in the box, made me wonder what effect the boom in the Premier League’s overseas finance, aided by lax application of the fabled ‘Fit & Proper Persons Test’ and other excuses for governance from Richard Scudamore, has on its integrity.

Was the Professional Match Game Officials Board unprecedented last-minute wholesale changes to so-called ‘Select Group’ appointments recently an indication that whatever familiarity breeds, it ain’t good? And what’s happened to Mark Clattenburg, suspended days before the season fresh from having an expensive-looking hair weave?

Is it really appropriate that in Sky, the Premier League has paymaster, broadcaster and bookkeeper? How can they talk about the global appeal of the Premier League when there’s empty seats when its teams go on tour? Is the real reason that Game 39’s still on the agenda to tap into massive overseas gambling markets, extending Scudamore’s working relationship with those he really ought to be protecting the game from?

Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.

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