When children denounce corruption

Children across the globe play football, many dreaming of becoming professionals and following their idols’ successful careers. Yet the sport's notorious and widespread corruption may have its roots at the youth levels. Português Español 

Mark Freeman Malachai Freeman
3 November 2016

Leo La Valle AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Five weeks ago, El País published an unusual investigative report about a suspected fixed match that, one year earlier, interrupted our otherwise pleasant lives in Barcelona, Spain. It is largely thanks to the courage of six children, who agreed to recorded interviews with El País as part of its one-year investigation, that anyone knows the story of this controversial match.

As described in the article, on 30 May 2015, two teams – UE Cornellà and Gimnàstic Manresa – faced each other in the final match of the season in an elite youth category of Catalan football. This is a category in which, every week, the coaches prepare their players for the match with a “do or die” mentality, instructing them to “dejarse la piel” (literally “leave one’s skin behind”) on the field.

As such, this particular match between Cornellà and Manresa was sure to be an epic battle, because whoever won the game would earn first place in the division. There was every reason to expect the two teams to give every ounce of energy and sacrifice. After all, these were 14 and 15-year-old children who play football out of passion and pleasure, and for many at this elite level, out of hope of one day becoming a professional.

However, instead of an epic battle, those in attendance were witnesses to a match in which there were no goals scored, no cards given out, no corner kicks taken, and no shots attempted against the net of the opponent. Video clips of the match, which began circulating within 24 hours of its conclusion, give an idea of the game’s pace and logic.

Although we were not parties to the match, we became aware of it as a father and son affiliated with CE Europa: the team that, as a result of the 0-0 tie, was mathematically eliminated from division ascent for the next season. Once we saw the videos of the match, and began hearing first-hand accounts of Cornellà players regarding club instructions to refrain from seeking a victory, we knew a full investigation was warranted – especially since the case raises potential charges for fraud, but also for the moral corruption of children.

As such, we had assumed that all of the other parents and players at CE Europa would share our concern. We had also assumed that, upon viewing the videos of the match and being called upon to review the case in an official complaint filed by CE Europa (which was supplemented by our own detailed complaint), the Catalan Football Federation would at the very minimum conduct a preliminary investigation.

Instead, the Federation declined to take any action, explaining to us by phone that they would only begin to investigate the matter if the alleged culprits self-incriminated – a rather unusual legal prerequisite for initiating a non-judicial investigation!

Just as surprisingly, most parents at CE Europa, after initially expressing their shared outrage, declined any in-depth involvement, simply commenting in most cases: “las cosas son así” (i.e., that’s how things are).

Fast forward to today. It has been one month since El País published the results of its investigation, including vivid details from the independently recorded confessions of three Cornellà players and three Manresa players. Yet, the Federation has insisted it will only open an investigation if CE Europa, as a club, files an extraordinary motion – a step the club, to its credit, has now taken. Meanwhile, a disappointing public silence has persisted among the parents of Manresa, Cornellà and CE Europa (with the exception of a Manresa father and a Cornellà mother quoted in the original El País report).

In contrast, we have been encouraged by the spontaneous response of prestigious Spanish law firms, several of which have offered their support for any future legal action if the Federation fails to do a genuine, in-depth investigation. Likewise, it has been heartening for us to see how many newspapersTV and radio stations in Spain and around the world have taken notice of the El País investigation, and raised new questions. Articles have appeared everywhere from Belgium to the Netherlands to Brazil, and the story is widely reported in football blogs globally, as we learned through conversations with friends abroad.

Yet, for us, this case has never really been simply about football. Instead, it teaches us about the difficulty and discomfort of confronting abuse by one’s friends and peers; about how corruption thrives, and entrenches, more easily when society fails actively to denounce it; about the importance of institutions as a necessary check against socially tolerated wrongdoing; and about the frequently undervalued word of a child compared to that of an adult. (Amazingly enough, only clubs have rights to appear before the Catalan Football Federation or file a complaint against a club or official for an infraction of the Federation’s regulations – in apparent disregard of the unanimous UEFA resolution on protecting the sport’s integrity.)

Still, we remain confident that the right actions will be taken. After all, Spain is no longer an undemocratic state. If apprised of this matter in detail, we know that the judicial authorities of this country will find more than enough cause for a full investigation and, if warranted, the imposition of full corresponding sanctions. We feel the same confidence in the country’s media, which has shown that this story will not go away unless and until the allegations are fully and independently sought out.

But what happens next is largely up to the Federation. It can do a great service to everyone by simply acting in the same spirit as the six youth players who, through their detailed testimonies to El País’s investigators, provide a valuable moral lesson to everyone involved in this incident. 

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But thus far at least, it looks like the children are the ones trying to raise the village. They should be given every protection and a full hearing by all those who claim to care about corruption.

Malachai Freeman is a 16-year-old high school student. His father, Mark Freeman, directs the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT).

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