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The dark side of world sports revealed in 'Dirty Games'

Interview: Jochen Kürten / cmkJune 2, 2016

With his new film, director Benjamin Best looks into the dark abyss of the world of sports, focusing on the global games of soccer, basketball and boxing. Best tells DW about how it all comes down to money.

A boxer in the dark Copyright: W-film/Benjamin Best Productions
Image: W-film/Benjamin Best Productions

Hundreds of Nepalese construction workers, feverishly building the venues for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, have died. Whole neighborhoods, home to Rio de Janeiro's poorest citizens, have been cleared to make way for the Olympics. And then there's the widespread machinations in boxing and basketball…

"Dirty Games," the new film from journalist and documentarian Benjamin Best, hits theaters in Germany June 2 - not coincidentally just before two major global sporting events, the European Football Championship and the Summer Olympics in Brazil.

The documentary, which covers the dark side of the global sports business in six chapters, focuses primarily on soccer, or football, the world's most popular game. But Best also tackles basketball and boxing, examining the manipulation and corruption that go along with the games and the undeniable links between sports, politics and business.

The film, which has already won seven prizes at festivals around the world, premiered in Cologne on Monday.

Benjamin Best next to the FIFA logo Copyright: W-film/Benjamin Best Productions
Benjamin Best: his film looks into allegations of corruption at FIFAImage: W-film/Benjamin Best Productions

DW: Why did you choose to focus on these three sports?

Benjamin Best: I wanted to find strong protagonists, who could speak well, and tell the most interesting stories. That's how I ended up with these sports: boxing, basketball and soccer.

With the latter, it's the world's most-played sport, the one that interests the most people and the one that has a number of controversial events coming up in the next few years.

"Dirty Games" describes the dark side of sports. What attracted you to this subject?

The links between sports and politics, between sports and corruption, between sports and organized crime - these are issues that fascinate me. If you look at the major sporting events, the many links to political interest are incredible - I found this particularly interesting. Human rights violations, for example: it seems to me as if these major sporting events must take place, no matter the cost - even deaths are acceptable! I wanted to chronicle these injustices in "Dirty Games."

What motives lie behind the corruption?

From my perspective, there are two. First, power - politicians, governments, public officials. But of course, money - that much is clear. Those involved want to make money by fixing matches and manipulation. This is a very important motivating force.

Is it also about the politicians and dictators who want to show off their power at major events?

It is far more multifaceted. It's not just about presenting an image of power. It's also partly about using the opportunity to push through certain hard-to-enforce laws - for example, slum clearance. When it comes to major events, a certain type of power may be exercised that can't be done under normal circumstances, or only difficultly. Politicians just exploit these large sporting events - or rather, politicians exploit the power of these events - to enforce their own interests.

This precise case has happened in Brazil in the runup to the Olympics, and it happened ahead of the 2014 World Cup as well. And it's always paired with corruption - for example in the construction industry, with the construction of stadiums and infrastructure. This, too, is a dirty game which takes place in the context of large sporting events.

So it comes down to money?

It's frightening. For almost 10 years now, I've been researching in the field of betting fraud, which is also addressed in the film, for instance through the case of the boxing manager in the US, as well as with the NBA referee. It's ultimately all about money, personal enrichment.

Is this happening at all levels, with officials, athletes, promoters?

Absolutely, yes! Coaches are involved, athletes are involved - it's not just external forces acting on the sport. Collusion is also taking place on the inside, with match fixing, with doping. It's not right to say that sport is simply a victim. In my view, the world of sport contributes just as much to the current situation.

Top athletes too, or just the lower levels?

If we're talking about match fixing, then when it comes to the first and second divisions in German soccer, we're not, shall we say, aware of any instances. These divisions, especially the first, are of course in the glare of the spotlight. No player can allow himself to have a bad performance, even in the second division.

But when it comes to the lesser leagues there are always abnormalities, even in Germany. Here, with fewer TV cameras, public interest is not so great. Players are also earning much less in these leagues. And therein lies the danger. If we take betting, for example, that's possible all the way down to the youth leagues. The risk there is clear.

But in your film, we see such things happening at even the highest levels in the US, with boxing and basketball…

Right, the NBA referee. He clearly said that the league has an influence on the games, dictating, for example, which fouls certain superstar players can get away with. These superstars are really the driving force behind the NBA, idols not only in the US but also worldwide. In the playoffs, the finals, for example, the league can get referees to draw out the series, to build up the audience, bring in more advertising money.

The Velodrome for track cycling under construction at the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 11, 2015. (Copyright:YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
Slums in Rio de Janeiro were cleared to make way for Olympic infrastructureImage: Y. Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Is this issue of corruption just a problem with major sporting events?

It's mainly the authorities who are behind the corruption. If you look at classic sporting countries like Germany, Switzerland, Norway, when they held referendums over hosting major sporting events, they all failed. Democratic countries, fortunately, still have that chance.

I wonder why the world of sports hasn't come out and said that it's time to change something. Of course, the IOC [International Olympic Committee] and its president, Thomas Bach, are now trying to bring about change. It's all very well and good on paper, but we have to see how it's implemented. I think they understood that things couldn't go on the way they were. It's not good for the sport when major events consistently take place in countries like South Korea or in China.

You also include a more hopeful, thought-provoking episode at the end of your film, when you describe how some Manchester United fans have begun turning away from the club, where it's all about money. They no longer go to watch the pros in the stadium. Instead, they've founded their own soccer club, and do their own thing. Is this a model for the future?

Of course, I deliberately placed that episode at the end. To set an example, and to show that there are certain fans who are rebelling against the system and the new developments in soccer football. In my view, this needs to happen much more. Ultimately, it's the spectators, the fans who have the power. They don't need to go to the stadium; they don't need to turn on their TVs.

In my view, many people still only see sport as a form of entertainment. It is, of course, that - but now, with all these excesses, fans can no longer look the other way. For me, the fans have a responsibility - and Manchester is a prime example of where things could go.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.