Thursday, 3 February 2011

Soccer and Scandal in Squeaky Clean Singapore - Neil Humphreys' 'Match Fixer'

Neil Humphreys' novel Match Fixer – released in the first half of 2010, but reviewed a year later because that's just when I got round to it – is a satisfying enough tale of sex, drugs and football, whose best moments are not generated by the plot or characters, but by the central idea that drives it – but more on that later.

The novel begins with Chris Osborne getting his legs smashed to pieces with a baseball bat outside his Singapore apartment. Chris knows why he is being attacked, he knows who is attacking him, and that there is no point in offering any resistance. It's a surreal moment to say the least.

Osborne, an East End lad who dreams of fulfilling his and his father's dreams by starring in the English Premier League with West Ham, soon finds out that talent and hard work are not enough. Politics sees him jettisoned to the other side of the world, to Geelong of all places, in order play in a nation which culturally favours athletes to artists on the field, and for whom the beautiful game is a summer distraction at best.

More politics means Osborne's Australian stay is brief, eventually finding himself in one of football's most obscure corners, Singapore's S-League. The standard is low, the players poorly paid and the whole competition mired in apathy, as the image conscious Singaporeans of all ethnic stripes show more allegiance to the distant monoliths of the EPL.

But Osborne soon makes himself at home. He's scoring freely, his team is doing well, and his exploits are creating a buzz around an otherwise moribund league. He finds himself a beautiful and educated local girl, Yati, and he's even offered the chance of being capped for Singapore's national team. But the pervasive gambling culture of South East Asia is never far away.

Rather than supporting a team or admiring fine play, every football fan Chris meets seems more interested in how many goals will be scored in the coming week and who to put their money on. The highest rating football program in the region is due to the presence of journeyman player and loudmouth pundit Danny 'The Spear' Spearman and the supposed precision of the tips given by him, even while Danny is the subject of an ongoing corruption investigation.

Humphreys spent 10 years in Singapore, and made his name with several books (and a popular newspaper column) discussing various aspects of the island nation. I haven't read any of these, and I can't pretend to be an expert on Singapore's internal dynamics, but the Singapore that Humphreys presents in Match Fixer is a nation of almost impossible hypocrisy.

It's squeaky clean on the surface, yet corrupt to the core. Multi-religious and multi-ethnic, but full of distrust and prejudice. A first world nation just one generation removed from its colonial third world past, and yet with a class system so fixed and entrenched that it would make even its former imperial masters blush.

While the novel starts off brightly enough, it isn't quite able to pull off its increasingly complicated conspiracy narrative. It also falls victim to its own romantic notions of what football is really about. What holds the entire story together, and makes it work as something more than the sum of its parts, is the seed of doubt that Humphreys plants right at the start of the novel.

This is a work of fiction and the characters portrayed do not exist. It is a story about an aspiring footballer from East London who ends up in Singapore; it is not a book about football.

On the face of it, it's a standard disclaimer to any piece of fiction which could possibly be construed as speaking on real people and situations. And yet that is the novel's genius – it puts forward one of football's most pressing and yet most avoided questions. How do you know if a match is fixed? How can you be sure as a fan or player that every result, or indeed any result, is legitimate?

With gambling becoming intrinsic to all sports – with commentators now giving revised odds during matches, and the odds for the week's favourites even being presented as news - and with gambling revenue vital to governments seeking to provide even basic public services, such speculation should not be scoffed at lightly.

The Internet allows people to bet on even the most obscure and meaningless contests – even highly experimental pre-season Victorian Premier League matches featuring no-name trialists have people dedicated to turning up to rock hard grounds in Melbourne's industrial backblocks to relay details of goals, cards and the general flow of play.

If these people are that keen and so widespread, what could possibly stop the gambling syndicates from infiltrating any layer of football that they may choose? And what happens if (and some may even say when) gambling becomes the core part of the game? Where would that leave the old world romantics, those who support dead end clubs made up of also-rans and other assorted journeyman - whom it could be argued hold one expectation above all else - that even if their side is belted most weeks, it's because they deserved to be belted.

Match Fixer and Humphreys don't provide a definitive answer to what might happen to football in such a scenario – but the example of Singapore and one English footballer's attempt to play the game straight aren't encouraging. By the time the novel ends, and by the time Humphreys has stripped away the excess, much like the protagonist, the reader is left alone to ponder this question. It's an unsettling feeling.

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