Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Poland Widens Soccer Match-Fixing Probe; More Charges Possible

By Marta Waldoch and Rodney Jefferson

Feb. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Poland is widening its two-year probe into soccer match-fixing, a scandal that has led to almost 70 people being charged and angered the sport's ruling body FIFA.

The government last month suspended the board of the national soccer federation, including President Michal Listkiewicz, and appointed its own commissioner to run the game. FIFA said the move violated its statutes guaranteeing the autonomy of its associations and threatened to ban Polish clubs, including the national team, from competitions.

``The investigation continues and we may expect even more charges,'' Sports Minister Tomasz Lipiec said in a telephone interview yesterday. ``We will try to avoid the suspension of our team, but not at the price of resigning from our reforms.''

Polish soccer has been in decline since the 1970s and early 1980s when the national team twice finished third in the World Cup and stars such as Zbigniew Boniek were household names in Europe. It failed to advance beyond the first round last year, while the scandal may jeopardize the country's bid for Euro 2012, the continent's top international competition.

The host will be picked in April. Poland's joint bid with Ukraine is up against a combined tender by Hungary and Croatia, and against Italy, itself recovering from a match-rigging probe and now reeling from an upsurge in fan violence.

Size Factor

The Warsaw-based soccer association, known as the PZPN, says the combined size of Poland and Ukraine makes the countries an attractive market for sponsors. The population of 90 million compares with 15 million for Hungary and Croatia, and 55 million for Italy, which has staged the contest twice.

Eastern Europe has never held a World Cup or European Championship, and the Poland-Ukraine bid upset the odds last year to make it to the final three. The Web site for the joint effort says their ``chances have been enhanced'' by the match-fixing probe in Italy and riots in Hungary in September and October.

The Ukraine soccer federation's president, Hrihory Surkis, now accuses Poland's Lipiec of hurting their chances, he told Russian sports newspaper Sport-Express yesterday.

Poland's latest upheaval ``doesn't help,'' Rob Faulkner, spokesman for European soccer's UEFA said by telephone. ``If Poland is suspended by FIFA, it's suspended from all competitions. It's a difficult situation.''

That would rule Poland, facing Slovakia in an exhibition match tomorrow, out of qualifying for Euro 2008.

`Dire Consequences'

Incidents of match-fixing have plagued several of the sport's established powers -- including Brazil, Germany and Italy.

The scandal in Italy, at its height as the national team was winning its fourth World Cup last year, led to Juventus being relegated and stripped of its past two titles, and another four teams having points deducted.

FIFA and UEFA, both based in Switzerland, say it's up to them to continue the fight against corruption, not national governments. They refuse to recognize the new set-up, and last week FIFA said Poland could face ``dire consequences'' if Lipiec didn't reverse his ruling.

``We need the help of politicians on some things, but we can't have overt political interference into sports administration even though there's a problem there,'' Faulkner said.

Lipiec countered that the government wasn't interfering and was just trying to ensure a new group of directors is elected for the soccer association.

Listkiewicz asked the Sports Ministry to withdraw the administrator appointed after the government suspended the board on Jan. 19. The management offered to organize new elections earlier than planned and said it would not take any decisions.

``We are looking for the right formula, so that the outcome of the general meeting of the association is acceptable by all parties, including FIFA and UEFA,'' Lipiec said.

Tomaszewski Warning

On Jan. 30, Polish prosecutors charged a referee and a former coach of top-flight team Arka Gdynia with corruption, raising the number of people who face charges of fixing matches to 70, Polish news agency PAP said. Three have been arrested.

Prosecutors declined to reveal which matches are under scrutiny.

Jan Tomaszewski, the former international goalkeeper who now heads the PZPN's ethics committee, said as many as 70 to 80 percent of Polish matches might have been fixed.

``Even if we are excluded for one year, which may happen, we may be able to clean the football organization,'' said Tomaszewski, who pulled off a series of saves to stop England qualifying for the 1974 World Cup. ``If UEFA sees formal documents proving there was tampering, forging of licenses and match-fixing, they won't be able to tolerate that.''