Former England international goalkeeper, Ian Walker played for Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers. He is now goalkeeper coach of Shanghai Dongya. InWalks the Walk he talks football and China.
The first time I thought something was up was back in 2012 as we approached the end of the season during my first year coaching at Shanghai Shenhua. We were playing away to a local rival. It was 2-2, and both their goals came from penalties. Both dubious at best. Something just wasn’t right. Either the referee was really bad, or he was corrupt. Because to me, it was blatant.
I was peeved off to be honest. You work hard all week to win the game, and then it gets taken away just like that. You feel powerless – there is absolutely nothing you can do. Why the hell are we bothering when things like this can happen?
After that, there was probably another three or four games that season where you felt things weren’t right. Mainly penalties. We had a lot of penalties against us. Sometimes you think it could have been a penalty, but a lot of the time there was simply no way. Somebody’s just slipped over in the box and the ref has given it. No one has touched the player.
The funny thing is, one year later we returned to this same local rival. We drew 2-2, their goals were both penalties and both were dodgy. No way! Things cannot happen this way. It just felt ridiculous. It just can’t carry on like this. It’s crazy.
It is telling that I first observed it late in my first season. In a team meeting, one of my fellow coaches had warned us it was imperative we avoided being in the relegation dogfight once we approached the run-in: “When the season gets to 10 games to go, there are certain teams at the bottom of the league who will all of a sudden start getting results,” he explained.
Maybe they’ve just got little alliances. Maybe someone owes them a favor – we’ll let you win in the cup for three points in the league. Sure enough, that is exactly what started happening. Teams that had been getting beaten week in, week out suddenly hammering a top four team 4-1. (I could name names…)
It went in our favor at Shenhua once, too. The league was tight: a couple of wins could have put us top four; a couple of defeats and relegation would be a very real prospect. We weren’t playing well and everyone was getting a bit nervous. And then all of a sudden there was a tussle in the box and the referee gave us a penalty.
Even when it goes your way, for your team, you think that is a bit soft. A bit dodgy. So anyway, we score, we end up winning the game, and we’re safe. You’re still not 100 percent sure, but it doesn’t sit well. You certainly don’t want to win that way.
This was when Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka were in the team, and they were both shocked by it. You can see the opposition foreign players’ reactions to it too. They look at you and you’re like, “Yeah, I know.” When it happens against you… you can’t really console those on the receiving end. It can really devastate the players who are not used to it.
It is weird when you come from playing in the English Premier League, where you like to think everything is straight. I can honestly say I never got the feeling that anything was ever fixed in the EPL.
That is not to say it doesn’t happen in Europe. My only personal experience of it back there was when I was with Bolton playing in the group stages of the Europa League. We had leveled 1-1 with Seville, a result that would take us both through, and their coach ran round the back of our dugout to our coach gesticulating (not particularly subtly) that we should both settle for the draw – no more goals.
Our coach would never allow that to happen. That is not the English mindset. Which is why I think people like our league. But it is also worth noting it wasn’t the referee, it wasn’t the players It was just their coach. And it was strange to us.
I’m happy to say the same goes for the club I’m at now, Shanghai Dongya (or Shanghai East Asia as we are also known). The manager is old school, straight up, and he won’t have any of it. Wherever we end up, he does everything honestly. It’s probably the best way.
As for how engrained it is, I can’t say.
You just never know what forces are behind the whole thing. It could be people being bunged envelopes for a quick, corrupt fix of cash. But then you hear about places like Malaysia and their infamous betting syndicates, and stories about some heavy people behind it. I can only speculate at the full story, what pressure is being put on people.
All I can hope is that the CFA continues to do what they can to clamp down on it – they’ve even put people in prison, so they’re certainly addressing it.
Because ultimately, if it isn’t a level playing field, if the game is fixed, why play?