Politics, Corruption and the Decline of Lithuanian Football
By Robert O'Connor
“Eversheds Saladžius, in cooperation with the Lithuania Football Federation, applied to the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Lithuania in order to initiate the consideration of the issue of supplement of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Lithuania.”
The short wedge of legalese appeared on the website of the Lithuanian branch of international firm, Eversheds, on January 17th, citing “reasonable doubts” that current legal regulations are “sufficient for combating the practice of match fixing.” It marked the first tentative steps of a process towards clamping down on match-fixing in the Baltic republic; one that has turned the heads of both players and fans alike.
Barely two months earlier, VMFD Žalgiris had ended a 14 year wait for the A Lyga title, squeaking ahead of FK Atlantas by two points and interrupting the domestic dominance of FK Ekranas that had stretched back five seasons. With the monopoly broken, pupils dilated at the sight of a second photo-finish to the title race in as many seasons, and Lithuanian football took a moment to shiver in the afterglow left behind by an instant of raw competition; fickle, erratic, teasingly capricious. Quickly though, too soon if we’re being honest, the lights flickered and dimmed. By morning, football was coming to terms with a more sobering reality, lit up by the unforgiving daylight and a damning verdict delivered by Europe’s leading reformist NGO for corruption in sport.
“One-fifth of football players and one-seventh of basketball players either know or suspect that they have participated in fixed matches in Lithuania” ran the opening remarks of a report commissioned by trans-national pressure group Transparency International and funded by the European Commission in January. While those numbers may be shocking, the reality is that the depth of the problem is scarcely plumbed by that conservative estimate. The report goes on to suggest that as many as 38% of football players surveyed alleged hearing that their colleagues come under pressure at least once to enter into dishonest agreements, with as many as 28% alleging that fellow players took part in match-rigging. Suddenly the celebrations in Vilnius for Žalgiris’ history-defying ascent begin to seem like cause for raised eyebrows.
For those with long memories, charting the ups and downs of teams in the A Lyga warrants perennial suspicion. In late 2004, shortly before beginning their de facto ownership of the league crown, Ekranas were temporarily suspended by the LFF after being found guilty of match-fixing earlier in the season. Though the guilty verdict was never revoked, within 24 hours the suspension was lifted, allowing the club to play out the season-finale and title decider against FBK Kaunas. Ekranas lost that day, handing the title to Kaunas and avoiding what would have been an intense headache for the authorities, but a decade on the problems in Lithuania appear no closer to a resolution.
Transparency International, a Europe-wide project that seeks to identify the root causes of corruption in social and political bodies and cut them off at the source, singled out Lithuania as one of its focal points for tackling corruption in domestic football, and the Lithuanian branch of its Stay Onside initiative has already isolated the issues that make the young republic a soft target for match-fixers. Deborah Unger manages TI’s Rapid Response Unit and says the necessary solutions are direct, if not necessarily simple: “What we have learned from 20 years of working in anti-corruption is that you need show people how to avoid being dragged into a situation that could lead to corruption. You need to do this well before it happens, as well as make them aware of the consequences if they don’t resist.”
Unger’s testimony helps anyone struggling to get to grips with the root cause of the problem in Lithuania to cut through the thicket and look out on the LFF’s craterous ground-zero. “Our approach is to identify the warning signs that might make people vulnerable and help them resist approaches. For example, players who gamble too much, have debts, or addictions can become targets” she adds. And therein lies the rub. Employment regulations in Lithuania, like in most of the former Soviet Union, are still in their formative stages relatively speaking, and the cross-over for athletes for whom their sport equates to labour is especially murky. Put simply, there is little legislative protection for professional athletes in terms of contract law in this corner of Europe, which leaves many pushed to the vulnerable end of the spectrum from which Unger fears likely match-fixers are drawn.
There is another wilt in the frame. Lithuania were the first former satellite to declare independence from the Soviet footballing authorities in the early nineties, but the head-start has never been converted into financial security within the game. The transition from state to private ownership has left clubs at the highest level lacking in sustained investment from both sectors, and with little market value in the media pool, life for Lithuania’s football clubs is a constant struggle.
In 2010 FK Vėtra were expelled from the A Lyga and subsequently disbanded following a financial implosion. 12 months earlier, the very existence of the top division looked in doubt when Kaunas and Atlantas, two of the country’s best supported clubs, withdrew from the league in protest at perceived financial mismanagement by the LFF, just two weeks after Kaunas had been denied a license to compete due to “fiscal irregularities”.
It isn’t just the A Lyga that has suffered. In 2007 Rodiklis Kaunas declined promotion from Lyga 1 after becoming reluctant to take on the financial burdens and associated risks that come with top-flight football in Lithuania. These financial shockwaves cause ripples that inevitably make it down as far as the playing staff. Non-payment of wages is a common occurrence in the A Lyga.
The troubles show no sign of letting up. In December, charges were brought against 11 men in Estonia relating to a match-fixing ring believed to have sought to influence games in the A Lyga over the previous 18 months, and the findings issued in TI’s report suggest the authorities have a long way to go to before the problem can be deemed to be anything like under control. When it comes to match-rigging, the borders between the Baltic states are porous, and with neighbouring Latvia also suffering the burdens loaded by poor football infrastructure and weak labour laws the bid to stem the tide of corruption is doomed to failure without international co-operation. If the Transparency project is to make a difference it is likely that more legislative clout will be required to complement its policy of prevention by education.
This piece was written by Robert O'Connor, who can also be found writing for World Soccer Mag and many other. Follow him on Twitter here. Comments below please.