Sunday, April 13, 2008

Polish soccer wrestles with problems from match-fixing scandal

Recent revelations from an investigation into match-fixing in Polish soccer have rattled investors in the sport and turned up pressure on the country's soccer federation to combat the problem or step down.

In recent weeks, the scandal has triggered public outcry and forced the federation to call an extraordinary meeting for Sunday to address the issue and respond to government calls for its board to resign.

But the federation insists that three years after Wroclaw prosecutors launched an investigation and charged 117 people - including members of the Polish Soccer Federation, coaches, referees, players and club officials - with rigging matches in the top domestic leagues, progress is being made.

"We feel that the fight is going in the right direction, the prosecutors are working very intensively and effectively, and there have been results," said federation spokesman Zbigniew Kozminski. "There is a big problem, but soccer in Poland is so strong that it can get through this and move forward."

Not everyone agrees. Two weeks after match-fixing charges were brought against former Korona Kielce coach Dariusz Wdowczyk, sponsors have begun to reconsider their investments.

Kielce owner Krzysztof Klicki said last week he would end his investment in the team in June. Klicki's announcement came days after Wdowczyk, a former national team player, and his staff were implicated in handing out bribes to officials in 2003-04.

Klicki - who has spent some 40 million zlotys (C$18.8 million) on the club since 2002 - said his name had been tarnished as a result of the scandal. He added that he didn't foresee steps being taken to improve the situation in the near future.

Meanwhile, PTK Centertel, a key investor in the top league, is considering dropping its 60 million zloty (C$28.1 million) sponsorship, said Wojciech Jabczynski, spokesman for PTK's parent company, Telekomunikacja Polska S.A.

The scandal "definitely doesn't benefit the image of the league or its sponsor," Jabczynski said.

According to Justice Minister Zbigniew Cwiakalski, 29 clubs from various divisions have been implicated in the scandal, and that number could still rise.

For its part, the federation has relegated six clubs to lower divisions for fixing matches, but critics say the sport's authorities have dragged their feet on combatting the problem.

The affair has also cast a shadow on the country's first ever European Championship appearance this summer in Austria and Switzerland, as well as its stuttering preparations to co-host the tournament with Ukraine in 2012.

Then again, Italy won the 2006 World Cup while a match-fixing scandal in its domestic league simmered at home - a fact that could give Poles hope ahead of this summer's tournament.