CHRISTOPH WAGNER remembers his modest playing days in Germany and wonders whether or not ‘incentives’ to referees can help swing decisions one way or the other, even in Sunday league football.

Playing football on a Saturday or Sunday morning is mostly done for the sake of the game and not for sporting ambitions, except of course sweating off the odd pint or two of lager and the accompanying midnight snack. In most cases the teams consist of former hopefuls of bigger clubs and those who came later to play football. The difference in technique is often telling; yet football is a team sport and living off a great technique is no guarantee for success.

The team I played for in my late teens and early 20s was a ‘start-up’ i.e. established out of the willingness of more than 10 people to play football on a regular basis in a league system; the club had no youth department and only had one squad in its first two years. The second outfit came as interest in the club increased and I was happy to be part of this. The first teamers were a sworn bunch of friends who considered us newbies as second best. However, we had some success and enjoyed it while it lasted – which was not too long to be honest.


The duties of officiating those games were taken by experienced referees who had plied their trade in the old GDR (East Germany). This had consequences which we were about to find out. There was no linesman and the referee almost always had the last word and always was right in his decisions. This was particularly true for a referee called Mr Fischer or Fishy, as we called him. He was short, with a well-kept beer belly and was nearing his retirement. For most of the games he turned up looking drunk or at least hung over; yet he never reeked of booze; which leads to the conclusion that he either had exquisite stuff at his disposal or simply his looks suffered from earlier excesses. How he managed to oversee the pitch with his low height and equally low speed is still beyond me. For any dubious decision from our point of view he accepted no back-chatting and we kept reminding ourselves to shut up and play. He was a disciplinarian and before kick-off he ordered the teams to stand in line and greeted us with a resounding ‘Sport Frei!’ to which he expected an equally resounding reply from 22 young men. Shortly after that the game kicked off.

It was on one or two occasions that I remember our team captain – who happened to be the club’s president – speaking about bringing three beers for ‘Fishy’ in order to swing the game in our favour. If this ever actually happened, I don’t know and I have never asked. I recall one game where the talk was again of ‘Three Beers’ and the outcome of the match. Both were diametrically opposed.

For once our lack of experience as a team was telling and soon we were found out and lost the match. Additionally, our technique was not the best either.

Corruption has always been part of the modern game of football. And it is not limited to the top leagues. These are too well monitored now to attempt any large scale match fixing without being spotted almost immediately. However, the little story above highlights that bribery might alive and kicking in lower league football to an unknown extent. No one supervises referees, nor does anyone care about the pre-match talk between match officials and the teams.

What if the Mr Fischer had taken those three beers? Would he have given us the benefit of the doubt with the contested decisions? What if the bribe was indeed a crate of beer and not just three pitiful bottles? Or even a bottle of spirits?

If any such thing had ever happened before one of our matches which we subsequently lost, it was certainly a ruthless decision to accept a bribe beforehand and then give us not a hint of a chance during the game; and to get away with it.


To make one thing clear: I do not intend to accuse any one of bribery in either way; attempt or acceptance. With corruption at least suspected from the top of FIFA, the possibility of corruption at lower league football becomes a very real one. How much would it take to buy a game of football on a Sunday morning; €50, €100 or €200? What about the sponsorship of the opposition’s Christmas party or the purchasing of their new kit? How would we have reacted, had we been approached to throw a game? Again, is Sunday football really a fertile ground for any bribery attempt?

Considering that we played in the lowest league possible, without the fear of relegation, makes any talk of corruption appear futile, yet the story above proves the opposite.

Some years later I recall a game with the same referee; this time we were the victorious team. On this occasion I cannot remember any incident that was dubious for either team. Nor was there any talk of three beers for him before the match.