How much is a coin toss worth? Can foolishly faking a frivolous flip and flick of a thin metallic disc prove financially tempting? You bet. Five years ago, the going rate was 100,000 yuan (HK$124,000).
This was the amount Chinese referee Huang Junjie accepted from fellow referee Zhou Weixin to rig the coin toss between Manchester United and FC Shenzhen in 2007. Huang fixed the flip to ensure Shenzhen kicked off the match in Macau.
Huang and Zhou admitted this in court when they became the first referees to face trial in December 2011, following a two-year crackdown on soccer corruption in China. Soon after, Lu Jun, a former World Cup referee, stood trial. Lu was previously considered China's most respected referee, nicknamed the "golden whistle" for his impartiality.
Lu was found guilty of accepting 350,000 yuan for fixing a match in 2003 and subsequently received a five-and-a-half year jail sentence. In an instant, China's golden match official joined the ranks of corrupt referees on the mainland, who are dubbed "black whistles". These infamous black whistles also received life bans.
In recent weeks, major organisations have declared match-fixing to be widespread. A report by Europol revealed about 700 matches worldwide, including Champions League ties and World Cup qualifiers, were suspected of having been fixed.
And last week, Interpol met with Fifa officials at a conference in Kuala Lumpur jointly hosted by the Asian Football Confederation to set tougher laws in the battle against criminal syndicates suspected of match-fixing.
The AFC announced it had established a task force that would collaborate with all stakeholders and educate member associations on ways to tackle match-fixing in Asia.
Rational Ref is keen to see what kind of role, and support, match officials will be given in this initiative to combat suspect practices. Take, for example, the rigging of the seemingly straightforward coin toss.
The tradition of the coin toss is based on Western culture. Observe most Western referees and they will place the coin on top of their thumb and forefinger to flick the coin up in the air. The coin will twist and twirl in a blur and then be caught in the same hand that flipped it. Without looking at the coin and in one smooth movement, the coin is slapped onto the back of the other hand and then revealed.
This is the standard protocol of the coin toss, providing you are British, Australian, Canadian or American. Last Tuesday night, Australian referee Chris Beath performed the standard coin toss as expected during the AFC Cup match between Kitchee and Churchill Brothers from India.
But watch referees from continental Europe, Asia or South America, and the coin toss action varies considerably. Some cannot flip the coin using their thumbs, some catch the coin with both hands, some catch and reveal using only one hand, some let the coin land on an open palm, and others will let the coin fall to the ground after throwing the coin up without imparting any spin. Some referees are just clumsy and fumble the coin toss.
Furthermore, the rulebook assumes all referees know how to flip a coin. It states: "a coin is tossed and the team that wins the toss decides which goal it will attack and the other team takes the kick-off".
Since there is no accepted coin toss protocol, criminal syndicates have benefited. For instance, what's to prevent referees from catching the coin in an open palm, seeing the result and then deciding whether or not to slap it over on the other hand, depending on the desired outcome? There have been occasions where Chinese referees catch the coin in the open palm, with the wrist slap being optional.
Details are unknown about the infamous coin toss at the Manchester United versus FC Shenzhen match. If the referee did not rig the actual toss, he could have easily used another suspect method.
Hypothetically, the referee, having gone through the motions of the coin toss, could quickly look at the result and declare Manchester United would choose ends, thus leaving FC Shenzhen to kick off, which was the prearranged outcome.
Any visiting player to China, such as 33-year-old Ryan Giggs five seasons ago, could easily dismiss this as a cultural peculiarity and in any case would just want to get the match started without fuss. In hindsight, we know it was an easy 100,000 yuan for a black whistle to make.
Hence, this simple example of a corrupt coin toss is just the tip of the iceberg for AFC's new task force.
Rational Ref reckons referees on the right side of the law can assist the task force in its fight against match-fixing. After all, referees are whistleblowers.