To a football fan the words “match fixing” usually evoke memories of the Calciopoli scandal in Italy or the Máfia do Apito in Brazil. However, match fixers are most successful when the chance arises to gamble on one of the world’s fringe leagues away from the spotlight. Enter the Canadian Soccer League (CSL), which is about as far away from mainstream attention as possible.

Although there is no direct correlation between the CSL and other leagues involving Canadian teams, it is generally considered to be a third division behind Major League Soccer (MLS) and the North American Soccer League (NASL). The Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps compete at the highest level in North America in MLS, while FC Edmonton is the only Canadian team in the second strongest league, the NASL. Although both include teams from the United States as well, so the CSL represents the highest quality league containing only Canadian teams.

No one following Canadian football would ever call the CSL a ‘national’ league, considering it only has teams from two of Canada’s ten provinces (fourteen teams in Ontario and one team in Québec). However, it is the closest thing Canada has, so according to FIFA the CSL is indeed Canada’s domestic league despite not containing any of Canada’s four professional teams. Major European betting companies have followed suit, allowing customers to bet on CSL games.

The CSL is semi-pro and is made up of many ethnically defined teams (e.g. Toronto Croatia) and players with experience levels ranging from university football to failed trials with one of Canada’s professional sides. The highest paid players in the league only make $5000/cdn a year and a team in the league only costs potential owners a $150,000/cdn buy-in fee. Average attendances in the CSL usually hover in and around two or three hundred. Despite the league’s relative anonymity in Canada, gamblers are allowed to bet up to 150,000 euros ($180,000/cdn) on a single game through online European betting websites.

For match fixers looking to bet on games in any country, there are two ideal conditions. The first is obviously a low chance of getting caught. In a league where results are not even reported on in Canadian local papers the chance of a result coming under heavy scrutiny is next to none. The second is a low cost for a potential high pay-off. When there are hundreds of thousands of dollars to be made in a single match by betting on players who make only $5000/cdn there is a lot to be gained.

Within Canadian football circles there had long been discussions about irregular results and betting patterns from Europe, but nothing more than that. This all changed on September 12 when Canada’s publically funded national news station CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) released a shocking documentary about the level of match fixing occurring in the CSL.

The investigation revealed hard evidence gained by way of phone taps coming from Europe showed that Antonijo Zupan, a former CSL All-Star, accepted a 15,000 Euro ($18,000/cdn) bribe to fix the result of a 2009 match. The match in question was between the now defunct Trois-Rivières Attak and Zupan’s team Toronto Croatia. The 15,000 Euros was to be split between several members of the team in order to assure that the favoured Toronto Croatia lost by at least two goals. With Trois-Rivières leading 2-1, Toronto Croatia were awarded a penalty. Zupan missed the penalty and Trois-Rivières went on to win 4-1. Trois-Rivières forward Reda Aggouram recalled his goal from the match, “I remember my goal, it was the free kick for us. One of our players took the free kick, and then the goalie, he didn’t punch it away, he punched it in front of the net, and then I took the rebound. I know that it was an easy goal for us. Normally, that kind of goal shouldn’t happen.”

Zivko Budimir, the man whose role in the fix was to deliver the money to Zupan, texted another fixer, Marijo Cvrtak, “At least something is right in this crappy life … Friend, if we don’t become rich here, then I don’t know where we could become rich,” mere hours after the end of the match.

Zupan denies receiving the money, although the evidence presented in the CBC investigation seems to be pretty damning. Even more startling was that these same match-fixers looked into the possibility of buying a team, but when the buy-in cost of purchasing a team is less than the money that can be made betting on a single match this can only be the natural progression.

Since the CBC investigation was released more and more articles are being published as the match fixing appears to go much further than just the one game in 2009. The implications of this scandal could be very damaging to the future of football in Canada.

Both the Montréal Impact and Toronto FC academy teams compete in the CSL as it is one of the better development paths for these younger players. The lack of semi-pro avenues in the country is seen as one of the biggest problems facing the game in Canada. In an attempt to emulate the model of the mainly-Ontario CSL, Québec started up it’s own semi-pro league just this year. Another province, British Columbia, has been looking at the viability of a semi-pro league for years.

The development of semi-professional soccer is absolutely essential for Canada to build up a football culture across the country outside the major city centres. However, if the leagues are as susceptible to match fixing as the CSL has been, these communities will never chose to embrace the sport. Football already faces many struggles in Canada, if the integrity of the sport comes into question then the choice becomes very easy for any sports fan deciding whether or not to follow a new league. Canadian football faces an absolutely crucial time in the coming months with the CSL finally under a national spotlight, and one can only hope the league comes out cleaner and free of its match fixing shroud.

By Sam Gregory

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona