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It must remain a safe bet that Scottish football is honest, even against the odds

THE prolonged appeal of WWE wrestling remains something of a mystery.

Austin Ejide, the Nigeria goalkeeper whose display against Scotland raised eyebrows.  Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA
Austin Ejide, the Nigeria goalkeeper whose display against Scotland raised eyebrows. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA

After all, if you wanted to watch overweight men in vests grappling with each other and falling over a lot then a pew outside most pubs at chucking-out time would normally suffice.

However, there is at least an honesty about WWE's fabricated brand of entertainment. The audience - or at least most of them, you would hope - know they are not watching a genuinely competitive fight. When one burly brawler leaps into the ring to "surprise" an opponent standing nonchalantly kissing his biceps, it is a move the pair will have rehearsed many times over. It is as much a choreographed dance routine as it is a sporting contest and WWE, for more than 30 years, have openly acknowledged as much. It hasn't stopped 36 million viewers from 150 countries tuning in devoutly to watch the action unfold.

The day has thankfully not come yet when the paying public starts to wonder if the outcome of professional football matches has been similarly preplanned, but revelations of the past week suggest it may not be that far off.

First came the news that Scotland's international friendly against Nigeria in London had been red-flagged by the National Crime Agency as a possible soft target for match-fixing groups.

The game went ahead as planned, but the sight of Austin Ejide, the Nigeria goalkeeper, slapping the ball into his own net at a corner - only for it to be chalked off for a foul - added to the unease around the fixture.

That sensation heightened over the weekend following the publication in the New York Times of an investigation into match-fixing practices ahead of the last World Cup. The report alleged that "at least five matches and possibly more" played immediately before the finals in South Africa were manipulated by match fixers. One referee was even handpicked by a sports management company based in Singapore that was, according to a FIFA report leaked to the newspaper, a front for a match-fixing syndicate. The referee was later tracked to a South African bank where he deposited around $100,000 in $100 bills, while it is claimed the syndicate also made a death threat to another match official who threatened to blow the whistle. FIFA's head of security, Ralf Mutschke, has already admitted the forthcoming World Cup finals in Brazil could also be vulnerable to match fixing. It is a chilling thought with the opening game just 10 days away.

That a Scotland match and World Cup fixtures could be affected by match fixing is another warning to those who naively believe it is a problem only for insignificant games involving developing nations. Despite the best efforts of the authorities - including the Scottish Football Association, who earlier this year launched their Keep It Clean campaign - it is a stain on the game that seems to be growing. The sums of money to be made, the number of participants - be it players, coaches, match officials, or administrators - willing to take a risk for a share of the loot, the growing number of betting markets offered by bookmakers and the volume of matches played make that the case. For every person willing to blow the whistle and uphold sporting integrity, there will be one or more happy to take a backhander to help deliver an arranged outcome.

Scottish football seems to have largely resisted the scourge so far but match-fixing incidents in Norway, Germany and England in recent years mean there is every chance there will have been matches played here at some level where the outcome has been decided by more than simply ability and luck. The hope, therefore, is that the trickle doesn't become a torrent.

Scottish football may not have a huge amount going for it but at least it is perceived as being honest. It is when that reputation starts to slide - and spectators start to question whether there is skulduggery afoot - that the real problems begin.

And another thing . . .

The prospect of match fixing at the World Cup finals would seem to be a major problem for FIFA were they not already up to their necks in bother of their own making.

It is little surprise that crime syndicates are happy to take matters into their own hands when they see the world governing body similarly willing to play dirty to get what they want. The allegations yesterday that payments were made to football administrators to earn their support for Qatar's bid to host the 2022 World Cup will not be a surprise to anyone who has viewed the matter with suspicion all along. Rerunning the vote should be just the first step ahead of a systematic stripping-down of FIFA from top to bottom.

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