“He twigged it,” a bench-bound Gary Birtles told Brian Clough.
It was April 1984, and two-time European champions Nottingham Forest were struggling in the second leg of a UEFA Cup semi-final against Anderlecht. Struggling, that is, thanks to an £18,000 bribe arranged by the Belgian club’s president, Constant Vanden Stock, to be paid to Spanish referee Emilio Guruceta Muro.
Forest were 2-0 up from the first leg, but after Enzo Scifo scored Anderlecht’s opener, a very dubious penalty was awarded to the Belgians. The resulting goal from the spot levelled the tie.
A third was to follow, and Forest were out of the competition. Though not before Clough’s side had a late goal chalked off by Muro.
Gary Birtles did make it onto the pitch with Forest chasing the game, winning a corner in stoppage time. With the ball sent into the box, Paul Hart rose highest and headed into the net: but the goal didn’t stand, the referee gave a free-kick to the Belgians.
Forest were eliminated, and Anderlecht went on to lose to Tottenham Hotspur on penalties in the final.
Over a decade later – in 1997 – the truth came out, Muro was bribed and the game was fixed. Twigged. But it wasn’t just the game that was twigged. The evidence came to light 13 years after the event, and UEFA claimed that no punishment could be handed down to Anderlecht as the incident had happened more than 10 years previously. Later, they imposed a one-year European ban on the Belgians. And that was the extent of their punishment.
Yet it emerged this week that the BBC’s Inside Out programme found evidence that the Belgian FA had passed on details of the corruption to UEFA in 1992. It was only years later that European football’s governing body decided to act.
So what are we to make of a revelation like this? This is, after all, a huge bombshell, but one that has been overtaken by a bigger story of corruption and sleaze in the upper reaches of football’s elite this week.
The landscape is becoming ever more saturated with allegations of wrongdoing by those in charge. From criminal investigations at the top of FIFA’s executive committee, to the bungs and backhanders uncovered by the Daily Telegraph’s investigative team: an investigation that took down the England manager and threatens to expose others.
Football has questions to answer around doping, around financial corruption and around match fixing. And it’s possible that truthful answers to those questions could change our perceptions of the near-entirety of the game’s history. What was bought and what was paid for? What was genuine sporting victory, and what was the result of a fix one way or another?
But when Nottingham Forest walked off the pitch at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium in Brussels, they knew they’d been had. How could they not? It was brazen.
In 1994 – at a time when UEFA were supposed to have a full knowledge of the bribery surrounding the 1984 UEFA Cup semi-final – Simon Kuper first published his book ‘Football Against the Enemy’: a footballing epic of a book in which Kuper documented his travels around the world learning about derby days on every continent. In a section on Russian football, Kuper spoke to Tass journalist Vsevolod Kukushkin, a veteran sports writer who covered the USSR’s Ice Hockey team around the world, too.
Kukushkin told Kuper about bribery in Russian domestic football, about clubs who would pay referees not to gain an advantage but simply to be treated fairly: if the other team is paying the referee, then you have to stump up too, just to level the playing field.
“When I was a young man,” Kukushkin told Kuper, “an older journalist told me ‘bad referees give penalty kicks or offsides, but good referees know how to stop an attack while it is still in midfield’. That is the only difference.”
There is something odd about the general reaction to Anderlecht’s route to victory in that semi-final. The excessively lenient punishment; the veiled and rather muted distaste; the feeling of ‘oh well, it was years ago’; none of that seems to take the matter seriously enough. There is no sense of shame from Anderlecht either – their stadium is still named after their former president, whose son, Roger, is the current president.
Is that because the cheating was so brazen? Is it because we look back on a past event like that and see corruption as a given, that we’re just thankful that it’s so obvious and that means we know we can spot it?
But what if it were less obvious? More covered up? What if there were more smoke and mirrors, more misinformation and more of a cover-up? What if some referees were less like Muro and more like the fabled Russians Kukushkin was talking about, the ones who stopped attacks in midfield without anyone ever finding out? Would that make a difference to our reaction, our outrage and our sense of shame?
Or is football so entrenched in our lives and our culture that we’d just rather not know? Would football, the multi-billion pound industry, even suffer if we ever twigged on?