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The age-old question in football: are referees corrupt? 💰

September 13, 2023

The age-old question in football: are referees corrupt? 💰

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You’ve asked yourself this before, don’t lie! 😅

Officiating in football is always a trending topic; every year there’s a questionable call that makes all the headlines. 🗞️

Are there really corrupt referees in the beautiful game? We take a look at some famous cases as well as some lesser known ones to try and answer the question. 👇

You’ve asked yourself this question at least once in your time as a football fan.

Whether it was the occasional sketchy call that went against the team you support or an outright scandalous performance that ultimately led to your club’s demise, you’ve pondered the question before:

Are referees corrupt?

We know that they have all the power in the world to impact a game and swing the momentum whichever way they want with just a single blow of their whistle. Obviously, they aren’t supposed to, but we’ve probably convinced ourselves on more than one occasion in the past that a certain referee was playing for the opposition team.

Perhaps you've related to Declan Rice in this clip at some point.

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After all, we are naturally inclined as supporters of a team to view a match through the lenses of the players that we’re cheering on. If one of the player’s suddenly falls to the floor following a defensive challenge, we will automatically assume that it was 100% a foul in favor of our club.

But if an opposition player falls after a tackle, it’s a dive, no questions asked.

Regardless of whether or not these challenges were fair or if they got the ball, our natural instinct is to believe that the call should go in our favor. It isn’t until we watch the replay where we see the truth, and at that point, we can say that we may have been wrong.

There is a problem with these hypothetical scenarios, though. This sort of outcome would only be realistic if, and only if, referees never made mistakes.

News flash: they do make mistakes, time and time again, actually. So while as spectators of the beautiful game, we may eventually come to our senses and let go of our bias to say that a certain tackle by an opposition player was a fair one, it becomes a whole other scenario when the referee somehow ends up deciding otherwise.

After one of these sorts of calls, we may not bat an eye. But after an entire 45 minutes or longer of back-to-back seemingly incorrect decisions on the pitch, we begin to question the integrity of the officials.

No sport is insusceptible to these sorts of accusations, but football is arguably the game that sees these criticisms most consistently throughout the season. After all, it makes sense. Football is a game of 11 players versus another 11 players; that’s quite a lot of egos to manage for the match officials. Things can boil over in a blink of an eye, and sometimes all it takes is one blow of the whistle.

Throughout football history, we have seen countless matches that went viral for all the wrong reasons. Officiating in our game is always a trending topic, and it makes sense because with so much football happening throughout the year, there’s bound to be some sort of controversy.

In this newsletter, we’ll be taking a look at some famous examples of alleged referee corruption, and some other less popular cases that you may have previously heard about.

🔵🔴 La Remontada

There are a few big clubs that have made headlines for situations related to alleged poor match officiating in their favor: Barcelona is one of them.

The most recent and obvious case? La Remontada.

We won’t go through every single decision and nondecision by referee Deniz Aytekin on the night, but just know that many of Barcelona’s goals came from calls that are still talked about today.

Of Barcelona’s six goals scored to complete their historic comeback win to advance to the quarterfinals in this 16/17 UCL campaign, there was 1 own goal, 2 penalties and 1 free kick scored. The only two goals scored from open play by Barcelona players were Luis Suarez’s opener and Sergi Roberto’s famous stoppage time winner.

Mentioning any of this isn’t to discredit Barcelona, that isn’t the point of this newsletter. We are bringing this match up not because we believe it was corrupted, but because many football fans believe it to be.

On the night, Barcelona absolutely outplayed PSG, there’s no question about that. Regardless of how good they played though, it was never going to happen if not for those penalty and free kick calls, whether you believe them to be correct or not.

Not to mention there were some other decisions that many believe should have gone PSG’s way at the other end of the pitch, but didn’t.

Following the completion of this match, many called on UEFA to take action against Aytekin, including PSG themselves. While the German referee was never dismissed, he was no longer given any major matches to officiate, only being limited to minor group stage fixtures in the UCL.

In the present day, Aytekin only referees at the national level in Germany, recently putting an end to his international career last year.

We’ll never know if there was any sort of confirmed, genuine bias from Aytekin towards Barcelona, but 3 years on, UEFA came out to say that his decisions did impact the result of the match and that he failed in his duties.

So, just really bad, honest mistakes, we guess?

🇳🇪 The case of Ibrahim Chaibou

“Probably the most corrupt referee the game of football has ever seen.”

A newsletter about corruption wouldn’t be complete without mentioning this particular referee.

It’s been over 13 years since the final incident that led to Ibrahim Chaibou’s demise as a FIFA-licensed official. It was during a friendly match between Argentina and Nigeria, which saw the Super Eagles actually beat the current World Cup champions 4-1.

The Nigerien referee, despite denying any and all allegations towards him, actually accepted a bribe that required exactly five goals to be scored in the fixture. With Nigeria winning 4-0 and time running out in the match, Chaibou needed to make something happen, and he did.

8 minutes into an already excessive stoppage time, he gave a penalty to Argentina for a nonexistent handball in the box. If you watch the replay, you can actually see Nigerian players laughing, completely confused as to why Chaibou made that call. Argentine players could also be seen somewhat shocked as well.

Argentina converted the penalty to make it 4-1, hence fulfilling the five-goal scoreline that Chaibou needed.

This was the match that brought widespread attention to Chaibou’s antics as a scandalous referee, but it actually wasn’t the first time for him.

In May 2010, South Africa beat Guatemala 5-0 in a warmup friendly for the World Cup they would eventually host. Chaibou awarded three penalties for alleged handballs. Before the match, betting agencies actually noticed a sharp increase in wagers for at least 3 goals to be scored.

A few months later in September, Chaibou officiated a match between Bahrain and Togo. The final score of this friendly was 3-0 in favor of Bahrain, which seems pretty normal at first. The scandal of this match actually has to do with the Togo team, which was actually a squad of imposters. Bahrain thought they were playing the official Togo national team, but they were actually facing off against a bunch of randomly recruited footballers.

Allegedly, Chaibou knew about this and was tasked with the duty of keeping the score low, probably to make things seem as normal as possible. Unfortunately for the imposters, they were found out. The funny part of the story is that the genuine Togolese national team had no idea that this match took place until after the news came out; they had just come back from playing in Botswana.

Following these scandals, FIFA eventually launched an investigation into his performances, but would never succeed in tracking him down. 8 years on from the Nigeria/Argentina fixture, FIFA found Chaibou guilty of corruption and banned him for life from any football-linked activities.

It is reported that Chaibou has been back in his home country of Niger, and has never left since his refereeing incidents. He is currently a military officer.

🟡 The “Golden Whistle”

Formally a high-profile match official, this particular referee actually avoided any sort of investigation for much of his career.

This was because he didn’t do anything wrong to deserve it. Lu Jun was actually a celebrated referee, and his integrity and work ethic supervising matches earned him the ‘Golden Whistle’ nickname.

Jun’s highlight fixtures in his career are the supervisions of two matches in the 2002 World Cup. Prior to those, he also officiated games in the 1991 Women’s World Cup, the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2000 Olympics.

The controversy didn’t actually come from any of these tournaments, though. His demise came in the form of match fixing on the national level. In 2010, the Chinese referee was arrested along with two other referees for accepting payments in order to fix a total of seven league games. The combined bribes were worth more than $128,000, which he eventually admitted.

Despite there being the possibility of Jun receiving a punishment as severe as the death penalty, he avoided it and was instead handed 5 ½ years being bars in February 2012.

🔎 Other notable cases

Back in early June 2018, a World Cup-bound referee that was meant to supervise some matches in Russia was filmed receiving a $600 gift by an undercover reporter posing to be a member of a top Ghanaian football club.

Kenya’s Adel Range Marwa quickly resigned from his imminent duties as an assistant referee at the upcoming World Cup. Despite this, he actually denied any wrongdoing.

This scandal and others were recorded in a documentary put together by controversial journalist Anas Aremayawaw Anas, who went about exposing various Confederation of African Football (CAF) officials by organizing meetings with them and presenting them with these cash gifts.

Anas managed to fool dozens of football officials, putting on display the murky world of bribery and secret meetings in many African countries.

Another unique case is that of Janny Sikazwe, a referee from Zambia. You may recognize him if you watched the Group F encounter between Belgium vs. Canada from the 2022 World Cup.

Although Belgium ended up seeing out a 1-0 win thanks to a late first half finish by Michy Batshuayi, Canada actually dominated much of proceedings in the first 45 minutes. They earned a deserved penalty that Davies couldn’t put away, but much of the controversy from this match came when Sikazwe failed to entertain two other possible penalties in favor of Canada.

Further controversy actually stemmed from the Zambian's recent officiating history. During a group stage matchup between Tunisia and Mali, Sikazwe actually blew his whistle to end proceedings before the full 90 minutes on two separate occasions. The first blunder came in the 85th minute, which both teams were visibly confused about.

He would make the same mistake just 4 minutes after the restart, when he blew to end the match 15 seconds before the 90 minute mark.

Whether you want to call this one an act of corruption is up to you, but we’ll give Sikazwe the benefit of the doubt and say it was an honest double mistake. Maybe he just didn’t have his watch set correctly. 😅

💭 Final thoughts

With these notable examples, we hope we made one thing clear: corruption does exist in football, and it always has existed.

In the long history of the beautiful game, it’s truly a shame that acts like bribery and match fixing still exist today. Of course, the problem extends beyond just refereeing, which was the focus of this particular newsletter.

Corruption can be found at every level of the football pyramid, and it’s crucial that, as fans of the sport that is meant to bring us all together, we speak out and fight for integrity.

No player, coach, trainer or fan ever wants to be cheated, so we mustn't keep quiet when controversy comes around. After all, that’s what the people responsible for corruption want; for their acts to remain under wraps, far away from the public eye.

An important reminder: we are billions of football fans, and as one large family, we can control what happens within our beautiful game, and speak out against anyone who tries to betray it.

That’s it for the 19th edition of our newsletter! 😅
How did you like it? Let me know by messaging me via email at or by sending us a text. 📲
We want to make sure we’re providing the right content to you all, so if you have any interesting football business topics that you’d like us to write about, don’t hesitate to send in your requests! 📩
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Julian Febres

Content Manager

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