By BARBARA SURK
2013-03-29 07:59 AM
The discovery last month that 24 players _ including six involved in World Cup qualifying matches _ had been implicated in cheating has shocked Lebanon, an Arab country of 4 million where football has helped unite the deeply divided population still recovering from 15 years of sectarian war that left the place in ruins when it ended in 1990.
"It was match-fixing at its highest level," said Asaad Saeed Saeed, a Lebanese lawyer who helped investigate the scandal that stretches well beyond the Middle East.
The players' roles were exposed by a three-member investigation committee of the Lebanon Football Association.
The investigators were led by Jordanian Fadi Zreiqat, general secretary of the West Asian Football Federation. The committee interviewed 65 people, including 44 players, 18 club officials and three referees.
"Player after player came in front of us, and told us when and how he was approached, for which game he was asked to act, how much money they offered and who gave him the money," Saeed, who served on Zreiqat's panel, told The Associated Press in an interview in Beirut.
More than 170 hours of interviews have been recorded and transcribed as part of a report handed over to Lebanese FA officials, along with recommended sanctions.
"The players said the money paid for fixing international matches, including Asian games, was from $8,000 to $12,000 for one game, depending on the importance of the match, the position of the player and his ability to manipulate the result," Saeed said.
The players told the investigators of the detailed instructions they received on how to achieve the fixed results.
"Sometimes they told the players how to play, and said they should do a specific move or that they should move around in a certain way during the game," Saeed said, adding that all the people questioned were required to take an oath, either on the Koran or the Bible, promising to tell the truth.
"Some said they were told to play in a way to get a yellow card or a red card to be sent off and some even said they were instructed to make sure they stay off the field by pretending they were sick or injured."
Saeed said three names repeatedly came up in the testimony of those players who admitted to being part of the match-fixing plot: Lebanon internationals Ramez Dayoub and Mahmoud al-Ali and club official Fadi Fneish.
Midfielder Dayoub has played for Selangor in Malaysia, and striker al-Ali has played for Persiba Balikpapan in Indonesia. Fneish is an official with Beirut-based Al Ahed club who also served as a translator for Lebanon's national team.
"The players said one of those three persons either talked to them (about fixing) or gave them the money after the deal," Saeed said.
Some players said they were approached in the dressing room before matches at different stadiums, although most plots were developed and payments made in one of three hotels in Beirut, Saeed said.
When investigators interviewed Dayoub, al-Ali and Fneish, all three denied the allegations.
"They were the only ones who said they know nothing, absolutely nothing about such things as buying and selling matches and said they were not involved in any conspiracy in football," Saeed said. "By saying they have never even heard of match-fixing, we believed they were like (criminals) denying the crime even though all data and evidence we collected showed they were involved."
Subsequently, the three men received the harshest punishments from Lebanon's FA: Dayoub, al-Ali and Fneish were banned for life and each fined $15,000. FIFA, football's international governing body, was asked to extend the ban worldwide.
Dayoub and al-Ali also publicly denied any involvement in match-fixing and are appealing their bans. Neither of the two players responded to attempts by the AP to seek comment, nor did a lawyer representing them.
The Asian Football Confederation said it reviewed a summary of the report from the investigation in Lebanon, but found no evidence that Dayoub played a role in helping Qatar beat Lebanon in a 2014 World Cup qualifying match.
The Lebanon investigation focused on finding the match-fixing ring leaders and active participants, not trying to discover which and how many matches were rigged.
"The committee hopes the results of this investigation will close the file of match-fixing permanently and turn the page in Lebanon's football," said Zreiqat, the chief investigator.
Saeed said he wished the committee could probe further, saying investigators should have been given the authority to look into the players' bank accounts and video records of the hotels to find material evidence. Under Lebanese laws, they were not allowed to look at either, leaving the panel to recommend sanctions based on testimony of players, officials and referees.
"We are fully aware that we did not extinguish the problem, but at least we stopped it from spreading," Saeed said. "I wish we had the powers to go further and investigate deeper to find out who is the big boss here. We've established that the three are involved, but there is someone above them and we don't know who that is."
Lebanon has never qualified for the World Cup. And the only time the country qualified for a continental tournament was in 2000 when Lebanon hosted the Asian Cup in Beirut.
There is no professional football competition in Lebanon and domestic clubs tend to be tied to political parties that are deeply rooted in the country's various Muslim and Christian sects.
While the quality of the domestic league is poor, Lebanese fans have rallied behind the national team which has, under German coach Theo Buecker, beaten stronger teams including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in the past year and even Asian heavyweights like South Korea and Iran.
With the national team finally translating some of the passion for football into quality on the pitch, the match-fixing scandal came as a huge blow.
"Personally, I am very disappointed with a couple of guys I really trusted," Buecker was quoted as saying by Gulf daily Sport360. "I was putting a lot of effort, a lot of time a lot of work into making a path in this country, and some really stupid idiots have destroyed everything."
The scandal also hit the team's morale ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Uzbekistan this week (March 26), contributing to a 1-0 loss in Tashkent. Lebanon did beat Thailand 5-2 in Beirut on March 22 in qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup.
The win over Thailand was a boost for the players and disappointed fans, although revelations of cheating and corruption were still too raw for many to forgive.
Some are convinced the loss in Qatar reached far beyond football and almost amounted to treason.
"It was horrible, just horrible for the fans," said Charbel Krayem, a football writer for Al Akhbar newspaper in Beirut.
The fans "felt bad because the players had no problems getting paid for selling a match, selling the game and selling their country."
Also striking was the fact that among the sanctioned players, six were players on Lebanon's Under-21 team.
"The revelation that Lebanon is raising a bunch of gamblers, who would one day wear the national jersey is the most sickening for me," Krayem told the AP.
Dayoub's and al-Ali's families were shocked by the punishment and said in recent interviews with Al Arabiya satellite TV channel the allegations were unproven.
Both players come from modest backgrounds. Al-Ali's mother said her son does not even own a house. She said the player, his wife and their five children live with them in northern Lebanon where clashes between Lebanese factions on the opposing sides in Syria's civil war frequently erupt, putting civilians in crossfire.
"If Mahmoud has properties and I don't know what else, we'll leave," said al-Ali's father, a coffee vendor. "What would be the problem if there is all this money? Why would we sit in danger?"
Dayoub's mother said the ban was unjust and ruined her son's future.
"Ramez does not have (bad) morals at all," she said. "I am his mother, one of the closest people to him, I would have felt something. If my son had in fact done what they say, I will be the first one to call for him to be punished."