SALT LAKE CITY -- Imagine for a second that you're Belize soccer player Ian Gaynair. You don't make much money in your tiny Central American country, and now a man is in front of you offering you cash to lose a game by maybe a little more than you're already expected to. Who would notice? You're Belize. You're supposed to get blown out by the United States. Who cares if it's by four goals or by six?
That was the temptation facing Gaynair and teammates Woodrow West and Andres Makin last Sunday, two days before their Gold Cup opener against the U.S. in Portland. But instead of taking the money, Gaynair refused and reported the incident to his coach, Ian Mork, who reported it to CONCACAF.
"I told him, 'We can't take that money,' because at the end of the day our entire country is behind us," Gaynair told 7 News Belize. "We can't just sell out our country for a little bit of money ... We might not be making a lot of money in Belize, but still we have to look at our career and our future."
The Belizeans may well be the worst team at the Gold Cup, and they may have lost 6-1 to the U.S., but Gaynair, West and Makin are so far the stars of the tournament in my book. By refusing to become part of global soccer's rampant match-fixing problem, Gaynair, a defender, even scored Belize's lone goal against the U.S., briefly narrowing the score to 2-1 in the first half.
How common is match-fixing in soccer? Earlier this year, Europol announced the results of a two-year investigation, saying that nearly 700 matches around the world were under suspicion. In 2011, former FIFA director of security Chris Eaton told me he had information that suggested games in that year's Gold Cup had been manipulated. And in 1997, U.S. players John Harkes and Roy Wegerle refused an approach to throw a World Cup qualifier against El Salvador that was meaningless to the American team.
The match-fixer who tried to sway Belize first introduced himself to the players at a recent friendly against Guatemala. "This particular person was in Guatemala City at our hotel, which was what everyone found so strange, because a lot of people had seen him," Mork said here on Thursday. "He was wanting to become friends and come visit Belize, and then all of a sudden he also showed up in Portland ... It was obviously part of a plan to target our players."
Mork contacted CONCACAF, which began an investigation. "They showed us a picture [of a suspected match-fixer], and everyone that had seen him confirmed that he was in fact the same person that CONCACAF already had a lead on for other incidents in other countries," said Mork. "So this isn't just about our country or this one-time thing. This is something much bigger."
"We already handed over everything to CONCACAF, and they're dealing with it," Gaynair said on Thursday.
For those wondering why Belize would "throw" a match that it was already supposed to lose, match-fixing is often more sophisticated than simply "losing on purpose." Sometimes it's about giving up more goals than expected or allowing them at a certain time of the game. Sometimes it's about "spot-fixing," which includes prop bets on certain things happening in a game.
Suspicious games are often connected to in-game betting, which is popular in the Asian gambling market and involves betting on what will happen after that point in a match. Dead-ball (pre-game) betting didn't show any clear irregularities in Tuesday's U.S.-Belize game, according to Jeff Sherman, assistant manager of the LVH Superbook in Las Vegas.
"In what we've seen so far in the Gold Cup, people are betting against Belize and over total goals," said Sherman, who is the book's soccer expert. "For USA-Belize, we opened the spread minus-2.5 goals and ended up closing minus-3 goals. We saw support on the U.S. side, but nothing overwhelming."
Sherman did say something that surprised me: He compared LVH's handle (the total amount of money wagered) for U.S.-Belize to what they would see for a nationally televised Sunday NBA game on ABC like Heat-Celtics. "It was a pretty good handle," he said.
In this case, it appears that the system to combat match-fixing worked. In the months before the Gold Cup, CONCACAF, FIFA and Interpol conducted three separate seminars with the region's federations that focused on educating, identifying and preventing match manipulation.
"We wanted to tackle this problem straight up," said CONCACAF general secretary Enrique Sanz. "What is match-fixing? It's not just about fixing the result of a match. It goes beyond that ... We were in a way fortunate that the message got from the seminar to the clubs to the teams and players in order for them to react in the way that we expected them to react: Saying no and we'll report you."
"These guys were strong enough to say what happened, because this game is about more than the result. It's about the honor and integrity that are in play. And that can't be bought by anyone."
So take a bow, Ian Gaynair, Woodrow West and Andres Makin. You may not win any games at the Gold Cup. But you won something else: Total respect.