MELBOURNE Victory has been chosen as the stop-gap footballing location of Chris Osborne – a character in Match Fixer - a new book by an Australian-based author out next week.
Victoria-based writer Neil Humphreys has crafted a footballing journey for Osborne from the tough reality of making the grade in the EPL, temporarily onto the A-League with Melbourne, before finding himself dragged into the corrupt world of Asian football in Singapore's S-League.
The book paints a painfully accurate picture of the corruption and match fixing that is destroying the Asian football scene. Feeding off the insatiable gambling habits of the local population, illegal football betting has made a select few bookies very rich and far too powerful.
We caught up with Humphreys to discuss the new book, the inclusion of the A-League and his background knowledge of the book's main theme - corruption in Asian football.
What was the inspiration behind the book?
I was a football writer in Singapore/Asia for a decade and was annoyed with the match-fixing scandals and the football betting addiction that permeates every level of society. There's nothing wrong with the odd bet or flutter, but it's all-encompassing in Asia.
What I found really frustrating is if you look at the likes of the English Premier League, FIFA, and even the UEFA Champions League, they are increasingly pandering to the advertisers and TV broadcasters of Asia. They are chasing those corporate Asian dollars, which is fine, except that I wonder who they are pandering to. The honest question that no-one seems to have the balls to ask is: Is Asia a continent of football-mad fans or a continent of football betting-mad fans? As a sports writer, I often felt like I was writing for the latter.
The main character Chris finds himself in the A-League briefly. How is the league portrayed in the book?
Overall, the league is portrayed as a sudden success. In fairness, it couldn't be portrayed in any other way. In football history terms, it's gone from nought to 60 in a matter of seconds (which is why the other footy codes are so terrified). It gave me a chance to take a few gentle potshots at AFL, some might say cheap shots, but football fans in Australia need to take their kicks where they can get them! Every football fan should get my security guard character outside Docklands Stadium in the book. He's a Collingwood, AFL-loving guy determined to oppress "soccer" - the game for moms - for as long as possible.
I've met the "Anti-Soccer Guy" all over Australia and he fascinates me. He usually has this wickedly unintentionally funny combination of fear and ignorance concerning the world game. There are many sports I'm not particularly fond of - such as baseball - but I'm not anti-baseball. I don't constantly feel the need to prove football is a superior sport compared to baseball, how it's much more free-flowing, much more entertaining, with more goals, much more physical, much more masculine, much more "indigenous" etc. Sound familiar? I find the insecurities of the other footy codes in Australia almost quaint. You only have to the look at the shockingly petulant behaviour of the mainstream print media in Melbourne over the World Cup hosting bids to see how fearful they are. But then the AFL has 150 years on its side, the A-League has less than 10 and its interest is rising all the time. Football is the number one sport at a school level. So maybe on a national level, the other codes have reason to be concerned. It certainly tickles me.
Why did you pick Melbourne as his destination? Seeing as you're Victoria-based are you a Victory fan?
I picked Melbourne because I know Melbourne. I know the area, the stadium and the basic set-up of Melbourne Victory. The central character, Chris Osborne, is a footballer from London who turns up in Melbourne for a trial with the Victory which is a good move, because there are many cultural similarities between Melbourne and London. The trouble is he ends up staying in Geelong, where the talk is all about the Cats and some guy called Ablett (again, a bit of a cheap shot on my part, but Australian football fans will enjoy it).
I wanted to show that this footballer really does try to get a contract all over the world before he ends up in Singapore (which is a few notches down from the A-League) and the leagues I am most familiar with are the English Premier League, the S-League in Singapore and the A-League. As a football writer, I have covered them all so as Ricky Gervais always says: write what you know.
But I also picked Melbourne because I genuinely believe that the Victory are one of Australia's greatest sporting success stories of the last 10 years and rarely get the credit they deserve. Being a new franchise in a new league, they are now the best squad in the A-League (Grand Final defeat aside where they were clearly exhausted), they play the most attractive football, Ernie Merrick is keen on a productive youth policy which is wonderful.
Most of all, the Victory has a fan base which is starting to rival some of the lesser AFL teams in Victoria which is nothing short of extraordinary. We've had Melbourne-Sydney games getting 40,000, sometimes 50,000 and what does the Melbourne media go on about? Four drunks having a go in Spencer Street! But seriously, if there were half a dozen Melbourne Victories in the A-League, then forget about the other codes in Australia, the A-League would be among the best leagues in Asia.
What will most interest Australian readers about this book?
At the risk of stating the obvious, that football really is a truly world game. You couldn't really write a book of this nature about rugby or cricket, because there just aren't enough countries playing the game for the character to go to and make a career. Match Fixer also gives an insight, hopefully, into how the game really operates on a broader level across Asia: who is involved and what's really at stake. The footballers, the fans, the gangsters, the WAGs, the politicians, the CEOs, they all have an angle, they all have something at stake. It's also a juicy look at the sex, drugs and corruption that can be involved in the game.
I was told by a match fixer - and this is absolutely true - that at any given time, there will be at least a couple of Asians on a plane somewhere with a suitcase full of money trying to fix a game in Asia, the Middle East or the lower leagues of Europe. And the World Cup is coming... I better not say any more.
But no, I have to say this before anyone panics, I have no evidence from any source to suggest that the A-League has ever been fixed. Or that anyone has even tried to fix an A-League game. And do you know why? (And this is a reason to both be proud and buy the book) Most of the match fixers that I know, or know of, do not really see any point in targeting the A-League. It's not in the Australian psyche to throw a match, to lay down, to lose deliberately. It's just not really part of the Australian DNA. I've watched schoolboy football matches in Australia and they are busting a gut to do well for their team. That spirit of mateship doesn't sit well with the notion of match-fixing. That's why Australians will enjoy Match Fixer. It will open up a whole new world and make them feel good about themselves!
Is the book just for football fans or do you expect to get a wider audience?
I must say I've been very lucky. Match Fixer has now gone to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Thailand and across the UK (we had the London book launch at the bookshop opposite West Ham's Upton Park, possibly one of the proudest moments of my life) and the response has been positive, and has gone beyond football fans.
Match Fixer is a book about a footballer rather than merely a book about football, in the way that Raging Bull is a film about a boxer rather than the sport itself. That's not to say football fans won't get plenty out of it, but more than that it is about a white man lost in Asia, a fish out of a water and a clash of cultures. It's a mixture of a good football romp, Graham Greene's The Quiet American and Paul Theroux's Saint Jack. It really is a book about a Westerner caught up in an Asian world he doesn't understand. A world of football, gambling addiction, crime syndicates, exotic women, loan sharks and the underground party scene. It's sex, drugs and football in an exotic city. What's not to like?
Match Fixer is released in Australia on 3 May. It is distributed by Penguin Australia and is available at all good bookstores.