By George Psyllides
Late in December 2014, a young international referee went public with allegations that match fixing was rife in Cypriot football.
Marios Panayi even named a few names and later provided the authorities with what he thought was enough evidence to at least start a serious investigation into his claims.
This space is usually reserved for writing about a story or event that caused an impression in the past year. I chose this subject not because there was a story as such, but because there wasn’t one.
Apart from the fact that Panayi appears to have blown his last whistle, in Cyprus at least.
And I am not saying there was no story because Panayi lied. I am saying there was no story because everything was quickly swept under the carpet and forgotten.
Fans went back to supporting their teams, believing that even if there was match fixing it did not concern their side. “It’s the others who do it.”
Fact is, however, there is match fixing, it has been around forever, and it has probably become worse due to the financial crisis.
Players who are not paid are more likely to accept money to throw a game, and cash-strapped teams could easily place a hefty bet against themselves just to make money.
Cypriot authorities have received numerous so-called yellow and red files from European football authorities concerning suspicious betting activity in certain games. So far nothing has checked out.
Back in December 2014, European match-fixing watchdog Federbet general secretary Francesco Baranca told the Cyprus Mail that they had been keeping an eye on Cyprus for some time.
“We are closely monitoring the situation on the island because of the many irregularities when it came to betting. It is clear to us that there is a deep problem. From the data we gathered, we can safely assume that something is wrong.”
Panayi claimed that he had in his possession recorded conversations, documents and other evidence, exposing people within the Cyprus Football Association (CFA) as the ones “running the show” when it comes to local football.
He handed the evidence over to the authorities but nothing has happened, ostensibly because it cannot be used in court.
The referee claimed that the CFA appoints referees who are willing to shape the game’s outcome and that they are the ones who decide which teams are relegated.
Panayi named CFA’s deputy chairman Giorgos Koumas as the man pulling the strings, that he is the one who decides on referee appointments and that he has close ties to football clubs and political parties.
Ruling DISY chief Averof Neophytou’s name also came up.
Panayi claimed Neophytou was actively involved in football fixtures “and if he does not accept it then I can prove it to him.”
In an interview with Greek-language news portal Cyprus Times in March, Panayi said Neophytou had been present at a meeting on September 25, 2010, at Koumas’ office.
“I don’t know the importance of this meeting but referees and (game) observers were invited at the office of Mr Giorgos Koumas,” Panayi said, and Averof was the official guest. “I wonder why other politicians do not have such meetings and it is the exclusive privilege of Mr Neophytou,” Panayi said.
Neophytou has denied the allegations and asked the authorities to carry out an immediate and thorough investigation.
The DISY chief also published a statement of his assets in February amid persistent rumours that he had business dealings with Koumas.
In the list of assets, Neophytou said he has an interest in a piece of land – bought in 2004 – in Lysos worth €300,000, which is owned by NEOKOUM Ltd – in which Neophytou and Koumas have 50 per cent of the shares each.
There is also a second piece of land – bought in 2003 – worth €200,000, in the same area, owned by G. Koumas Investments Ltd. Neophytou said he holds 50 per cent of the shares in this company also.
Among other things, Panayi said that in April 2012 he was asked to referee a top league match, that would decide which team would be relegated, but refused to go, fearing that he would be asked to fix the match.
While Panayi didn’t specify which teams he was referring to, it is understood that he was talking about the April 22, 2012 game between Aris Limassol and Enosis Paralimni. Aris lost and was relegated to the second division. Former club head Kyriakos Hadjikyriakos had told the press then that his team “was up against 13 players”.
The match in question was later flagged by UEFA in a yellow file.
“There are about 300 referees in Cyprus,” Panayi said in an interview with the New York Times. “In my opinion, about 10 per cent of them are clean. Ten per cent, maximum.”
In the same piece, the NYT spoke of one player who recalled a bus ride to a game last year. During the trip, the chairman of his team boarded the bus and informed the players that they would be losing the first half that day and then winning the second half. Several of the players texted their friends to let them know they should bet accordingly, the NYT said.
But when the players’ association asked him to give an official statement, the player refused.
In a survey of about 400 professionals conducted by the players’ association, nearly a quarter said they expected to be approached about fixing a match from someone connected to their own club.
In December 1996, several Cypriot players even fixed a national team game against Bulgaria, which was played in Limassol. The players bet against their team and Cyprus lost the match 3-1. Coach Andreas Michaelides, currently an MP with ruling DISY, resigned in disgust.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence out there but authorities have never managed – I say never really tried seriously – to substantiate a case and bring it before justice.
It comes as no surprise when it is well known that politics, the underworld and football are closely related in Cyprus.
In 2012, César Perez, a Venezuelan professional footballer, was assaulted and threatened with a gun to make him terminate his contract with the Cypriot club Olympiakos Nicosia and give up his claim for unpaid salary.
There is also the well-documented involvement of AKEL in the administration of one of the island’s biggest clubs, Omonia Nicosia.
Rumour has it that, in the past at least, AKEL used to ask teams affiliated with the party, such as Alki and Nea Salamina, to throw games when they played against Omonia or vice versa.
One such game is the 1989-1990 cup final, in which Salamina beat Omonia 3-2.
Match-fixing is not just a Cypriot phenomenon. Problem is, and this is a Cypriot phenomenon, as far as I can remember, no one has ever been prosecuted in Cyprus.