Sports

How a corruption scandal in French rugby could be a dark vision of the global game’s future

The corruption allegations levelled at French club Racing 92 could be a sign of things to come in world rugby, says professional player-turned-journalist John Daniell.

In 2012 I was tipped off about a story at Racing Metro, a French rugby club I used to play for, now renamed Racing 92 and home to half a dozen former All Blacks including Dan Carter. The Parisians, who’ll be playing in the European final this weekend, had bullied and/or bribed three of its Fijian players out of playing for their country at the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Fiji, after igniting the tournament in 2007, were woeful in 2011, handicapped by defections from key players.

The Fijian players at the centre of the French controversy (left to right): Sireli Bobo, Josh Matavesi & Jone Qovu

The Fijian players at the centre of the French controversy (left to right): Sireli Bobo, Josh Matavesi & Jone Qovu (Photos: Getty)

Racing might not have been the only offenders but they were the worst. If the accusations stacked up, consequences for the club could have – should have – been serious: probably relegation but possibly expulsion from the national union. Jacky Lorenzetti, the multi-millionaire property developer who owns Racing, denied the allegations and threatened to sue if they were printed. I was freelancing and, with the threat of litigation not being a great selling point, I struggled to find a home for the piece until I pitched it to the Independent. Happily, they had a bigger dog: their owner is ex-KGB oligarch Alexander Lebedev. The Independent ran the story across a number of pages.

I was reminded of this story last month, when Declan Hill, a Canadian journalist and academic specializing in match-fixing and corruption in sport, came to New Zealand to scare the crap out of us on behalf of Sport New Zealand. Mission accomplished, up to a point – in some reporting the looming threat was so dire (“New Zealand can’t escape a tsunami of match-fixing spreading its tentacles”) it sounded like Sharknado. Just how seriously should we be taking this?

The intertwining of sport and money has bled into global consciousness so pervasively over the last couple of decades that it’s become the new normal. Broadcasting deals and player salaries churned upwards constantly even through the GFC and there’s no sign of the trend stopping. The average wage in UK football’s premier league is up more than one thousand percent from 1995-2015; over the same period, Wimbledon prize money is up 500 percent, Major League Baseball 350 percent. French rugby’s Top 14 took just 15 years to increase salaries tenfold while here in New Zealand the jump in rugby money has been relatively sober – but off a high-ish base – with salaries for Super Rugby and the All Blacks multiplying just two-three times. Meanwhile, a parallel betting industry has mushroomed, now worth somewhere north of $US1 trillion and rising exponentially.

New Zealand’s small population and relative lack of money has insulated us to some extent. We don’t yet have self-selecting gazillionaires picking up a team as an expensive vanity project, stacking it with the best their money can buy, then selling it back to us at exorbitant prices while the media spruik it as an important part of our cultural identity. That said, there was a whiff of sulphur when the NZRU – who aren’t perfect but, to be fair, run a pretty good organisation by any standards – signed a landmark deal with AIG, a corporation whose witlessly piggish behaviour was at the heart of global economic meltdown. Steve Tew had to browbeat former legends into conditional acceptance. Commercial reality and all that.

Chris Cairns leaves his perjury trial, October 2015.

Chris Cairns leaves his perjury trial, October 2015 (Photo: Getty)

Lou Vincent? That was in another country, and besides, Cairns was found not guilty. Which, of course, is a story in itself. By 2010 even I had heard the rumours – and I was in France, not exactly a hotbed of cricketing gossip. The ICC couldn’t investigate because it was somehow out of their jurisdiction, which sounds like a fairly spectacular loophole for inaction. And that’s the key issue – across the board, sports governing bodies have proven consistently poor at policing their own patch, producing a series of alleged cock-ups so broad and deep that it requires wilful credulity not to see them as conspiracies.

There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit here but let’s namecheck a few of the big ones. FIFA, home of the world’s biggest sport, is now a standing joke, the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar for 2022 a ludicrous, deadly farce. The Olympics: it’s hard to know where to start but Michael Johnson reckons the current shambles in Olympic athletics is worse than FIFA, so argue amongst yourselves.

The Tour de France isn’t something we tend to worry about but it does claim to rival the Rugby World Cup for the world’s third biggest sporting event, so to recap: In 1998 French customs officers – not cycling’s own watchdogs – arrested a trainer at the Belgian border carrying all sorts of drug paraphernalia. The story was uncontainable and we got the Festina affair, a watershed moment after which, the world was told everything will be different, never again, and so on. The following year Lance Armstrong began a remarkable seven-year string of victories. When he was eventually busted – again, no thanks to the Tour de France authorities – the powers that be couldn’t nominate a replacement winner because anyone who was anywhere near the podium had either been found guilty of doping or was under serious suspicion. Still, the strength of fans’ suspension of disbelief – or capacity for forgetfulness and forgiveness, or collective thirst for Kool-Aid – is such that the Tour still pulls in the punters.

Lance Armstrong wins stage 17 of the Tour de France, 2004 (Photo: Getty)

Lance Armstrong wins stage 17 of the Tour de France, 2004 (Photo: Getty)

The role of the media in all this is crucial. Dylan Cleaver, writing in the Herald, described Declan Hill as “[making] a living connecting the dots between organised crime and sport. These are not little dots, but big flashing lights that most sports administrators and journalists choose to ignore. There’s a reason for that: it’s hard work, it can get messy … and it’s dangerous.”

But the media doesn’t tell us all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans – what filters out is just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps more like the tip of the tip of the iceberg.

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Racing Metro’s Jacky Lorenzetti didn’t sue.

Still, the club blustered away, denying everything and even forcing ex-coach, and former All Black, Simon Mannix into a garbled climbdown about his statements on an IRB radio show (yes, the delicious irony was that the accusations were first made public via the governing body itself). The IRB – now World Rugby – tried very hard to put the genie back in the bottle, releasing statements that sounded hard line but whose net result was to throw up a smokescreen behind which they could avoid having to investigate the claims.

Racing 92 owner Jacky Lorenzetti celebrates after the Rugby Champions Cup semi final between Leicester Tigers and Racing 92, April 24, 2016  (Photo: Getty)

Racing 92 owner Jacky Lorenzetti celebrates after the Rugby Champions Cup semi final between Leicester Tigers and Racing 92, April 24, 2016 (Photo: Getty)

Let’s face it, it would have been a terrible look. The Fijians had had a disastrous World Cup campaign in 2011. Wales, a team with whom they drew 16-16 in Cardiff just nine months earlier, spanked them 66-0 after the withdrawal of a number of top flight players who chose to make themselves available to their rich clubs rather than their poor country. While the Fijians were being slaughtered in New Zealand, their countrymen were helping Racing – and others – pick up vital points in the French championship. Not exactly match-fixing, but not a hell of a long walk from it either.

If the allegations were true (they are) an example might have to be set and the punishment could have had Racing relegated from the top flight, putting a fairly serious dent in their plans to build Europe’s largest covered stadium in the financial district of Paris. Arena 92 is a gargantuan property development on prime real estate that, thanks to a sweetheart deal with the local council presumably based on public interest (link in French), is likely to make the already very rich Lorenzetti – equally Chief Executive of the stadium development and primary investor – even richer. (The All Blacks were invited to open it. Mercifully, they can’t make it (link in French).)

Given the weight of Lorenzetti and his political backers in Paris, an inquiry might have been uncomfortable for Bernard Lapasset, the French head of World Rugby and the chair of the Paris bid for the 2024 Olympics. The IRB/World Rugby raised the evidential bar to the point where the Fijian rugby authorities – previously unwilling to put their own players in a difficult situation with their employers – had to make a complaint to their French counterparts, without which there could be no official action from the IRB.

A miserable-looking Frank Bainimirama (centre) with Jacky Lorenzetti (right) during Racing 2012/13 season (source: youtube.com/watch?v=5dO2HFleXBY)

A miserable-looking Frank Bainimirama (centre) with Jacky Lorenzetti (right) during Racing’s 2012/13 season (source: youtube.com/watch?v=5dO2HFleXBY)

The Fijians, after initial reluctance, did exactly that. The French stonewalled for months. Media interest dwindled. Then, in February 2013, Fijian Prime Minister/military dictator Frank Bainimirama took in a game at Racing – the details of which appear to have been mysteriously wiped from the internet – sitting next to Lorenzetti. There’s been no more talk of an inquiry.

There’s a happy ending of sorts to this particular story. The IRB/World Rugby, who studiously ignored the direct contravention of the spirit and the letter of their laws until it was repeatedly pointed out that this was happening right under their nose, had a quiet word in the ears of rich European clubs. The second tier unions were able to assemble decent squads for RWC 2015.

*

I had a moan about the IRB cover-up – dubbed Fijigate by the press – to some grizzled sports journos who laughed and said it was nothing they hadn’t seen before. I met with some officials from high profile world sports organizations who were dumb/brave enough to talk to me, after they’d made it clear that this was all off the record. They admitted their sports were rotten – or at least had rotten elements. Well before the revelations earlier this year, they knew match-fixing in tennis was a serious issue; the cycling bloke had a terrifying story involving cover-ups and payoffs that led all the way to the Russian mafia and kickbacks at the Sochi winter Olympics.

Yes, they agreed it would be good if something could be done to clean this up, but they weren’t going to be blowing any whistles and they were pretty sure no-one else would. I must have looked a little crestfallen. One of them tried to cheer me up. “You’re from New Zealand” one of them told me. “Your views on this are…” He searched for the right phrase, until, eventually: “a little fresher than ours.”

In some circles, naivety is considered charming. But I hadn’t thought they were that fresh. Having started my own rugby career in New Zealand, I spent 10 years in France playing rugby professionally – three years at Racing, among others – and I adapted to the culture well enough to take to eye-gouging with a moronically self-justifying when-in-Rome attitude. In hindsight, it was indefensible. At the time, my team was fighting to avoid relegation, we had to win a game and, as far as I was concerned, everyone was doing it.

 The author in action for Perpignan, December 2002. (Photo: Getty).

The author in action for Perpignan, December 2002. (Photo: Getty).

One of the great things about sport is how it makes us lose perspective. It’s a wonderful feeling to lose yourself in a game, convinced that your whole being revolves around the outcome. In the pursuit of victory, sometimes we do things we shouldn’t – when that happens, if we can get away with it we might think we’re clever, but deep down we know instinctively it isn’t right.

Unless, of course, every time someone gets away with it, the breach is overlooked and the practice of cheating becomes standard practice. The whole point of having some kind of authority watching the game is that they enforce the rules. When it comes to sport, integrity, fairness and discipline aren’t just useful talking points for marketing campaigns, they’re the bedrock of the whole culture. Without them, there’s not much more than a hollowed-out husk whose values have been eroded from the inside.

The guy calling our views “fresh” had a point. Environments normalise behaviour. France rugby had something of the Wild West about it but I would never have dreamed of eye-gouging in New Zealand. Declan Hill describes New Zealand as a “low corruption environment”. Sport plays a pretty big role in our national identity: kids love it and we’re good at it. It would be a shame to get to the point where rich arseholes hijacking it is par for the course, and it would be nice if we could avoid the match-fixing apocalypse.

International sports corruption expert and author Declan Hill

International sports corruption expert and author Declan Hill

Just keeping sport clean within our own borders is unlikely to be enough; success has become synonymous with prioritising money and power at the top level of too many sports around the world. Turning a blind eye to self-serving cheats at official level is bound to leach through into the attitudes of players and athletes here at home. The front line against graft has to be held by the authorities themselves.

Organised greed has an annoying habit of being effective – particularly when watchdogs are asleep. Sport New Zealand was trying to do the right thing by having Declan Hill alert us, but in the end talk is cheap. Action is the only thing that can make a difference – it’s no use bleating about lost innocence if you haven’t had the courage to clean up the mess in front of you. FIFA and the IOC are such big beasts that we’re unlikely to turn them around but we do have a legitimate claim to leadership in one sport: Sport New Zealand persuading the NZRU and World Rugby to have another look at an inconvenient truth in Paris would be a start. Fingers crossed it isn’t outside their jurisdiction.

 

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