Put: Football not aware how big fixing problem is

GERALD IMRAY AP Sports Writer Published:

NELSPRUIT, South Africa (AP) -- Once banned for match-fixing and threatened by "the mafia," Burkina Faso coach Paul Put hopes his success at the African Cup of Nations and team's run to the semifinals can help him shed the tag of corruption that forced him to work outside of Europe's top leagues for nearly a decade.

The Belgian doesn't see an obvious road to redemption for the world game, however, after the revelation this week that organized crime gangs had fixed or attempted to fix hundreds of recent matches, including some at the very top level.

World Cup and European Championship qualifiers and two Champions League games were implicated among nearly 700 suspicious games in a report on Monday by the European Union's police agency, indicating a deep-set and widespread problem of corruption for the world's most popular sport.

Put said all of Belgian football "was sick" from match-fixing when he coached there.

"There are a lot of big international players who are involved in match-fixing," Put said in South Africa on Tuesday.

Put was banned in Belgium for three years from 2008-11 after the club he coached, Lierse, was implicated in fixing games for money in the 2004-05 Belgian league season in a betting scam allegedly run by a Chinese businessman.

He was not banned by FIFA, he said, and is adamant that he was a scapegoat. Although he didn't deny on Tuesday that the fixing took place at Lierse, he said he wasn't in control of it.

"I am just a coach. I am forced to listen to people above me. This was not the decision of a coach or a player. It was a whole team," Put said on the eve of Burkina Faso's African Cup semifinal match against Ghana.

More crucially, he said football was still in deep trouble from match-fixing, eight years after his case.

"You have to see what's going on in football now," he said. "I think it's worse (than in 2005). What happened at that time has survived."

The problem of fixing was "for sure" bigger and more problematic than football authorities realized, Put said, and might "always exist" in football.

"You have to be honest. If it happens in Champions League level. If you see it at UEFA level," he said. "The problem is not now. The problem is maybe 20, 30, 40 years ago. You know in football, I also played football, I saw a lot of things and I don't think you can change it. It's unfortunate but I think you have to face those things. It's the reality. What can you do about that?"

Put said he was blamed and singled out unfairly for the scandal that rocked Belgian football eight years ago when he was named in the match-fixing case that paid money to Lierse players to throw matches. Put was banned, his career left in tatters and his former team relegated to the third division.

He still maintained on Tuesday others were in charge of the corruption and it was widespread and involved many other teams. An ongoing case in Belgium involving about 40 people should start to reveal the true extent of it, he said.

"It was a decision of the federation (to ban me), but they always have to take an example. They wanted an example for the whole world," Put said. "There was more than 40 people (involved) and I say the whole of Belgium football was sick at that time. It was a crazy story about match-fixing when the other teams did the same. Everybody was involved.

"I have been threatened by the mafia. My child was not safe. They have been threatening me with weapons and things like that. It's not nice to talk about these things but it's the reality."

Now, nearly a decade on, Put has taken Burkina Faso to the last four of the Cup of Nations for just the second time in the country's history and the first on foreign soil since its run to the semis when it hosted in 1998.

And he was being accepted again back home, he said, after having to rebuild his damaged reputation with a successful spell in charge of Gambia and now a historic run at the Cup of Nations with the Burkinabes.

"It (the fixing scandal) was a very hard time for myself and my family and my friends," he said. "If you are (implicated), it's very hard. So I have been fighting, working day and night. And at least now it gives me satisfaction.

"Now everybody in Belgium is turning, everybody is calling me. Radio stations, television programs. I am still the same Paul Put as before."