Two players who falsely claimed to be on Togo's national team face off against a Bahrain player on Sept. 7. AP
By DAVID GAUTHIER-VILLARS
Bahrain's national soccer team needed to prepare for an important game. So it jumped at a chance to invite Togo, a small West African country with a highly regarded soccer team, to play an exhibition match.
At least $60,000 was spent on flights, hotels and other expenses, and in early September, the Bahrain team lined up against 11 players in Togo jerseys. The Togo players weren't as good as the Bahrainians expected, and the Persian Gulf team won 3-0.
In Togo's capital, Lomé, the Togo Football Federation was surprised not so much by the team's poor showing as by the game itself: On Sept. 7 the Togo team wasn't actually in Bahrain—but on a bus returning from an official game in Botswana.
TFF officials say the team in Bahrain was a fake one, which they suspect was organized by someone wishing to pocket some of the money spent on the event.
"It's quite annoying," says Togo Sports Minister Christophe Tchao. "We need to make this sport healthier."
The game in Bahrain struck yet another blow for soccer in Togo. In 2006, Togolese players threatened to boycott a World Cup game in Germany because of a dispute over pay. Last November, Togolese soccer clubs issued a vote of no confidence against the federation's board for poor management.
Things took a darker turn this January, when a bus transporting the national squad to a tournament in Angola was ambushed by rebels in the separatist Angolan province of Cabinda. Two team members were killed. Even the September trip to Botswana had its share of drama, when the team lost its official jerseys during a layover in South Africa.
Several top Togo players, such as Sheyi Emmanuel Adebayor, who plays for England's Manchester City soccer club, have stepped down from the team in recent years. In a press conference, Mr. Adebayor cited recurring nightmares after the January ambush.
Says Frenchman Thierry Froger, Togo's national coach: "Sometimes, I feel like I'm in a boxing ring."
False credentials have long been a headache for sports authorities. In the 1960s, several sports governing bodies introduced gender-identification tests after complaints that men were taking part in women's competitions. Regarded as invasive and unreliable, the tests were abandoned by most sports federations in the 1990s.
Individual impostors pop up from time to time. Last year, Cemal Nalga, a Turkish player for the local Galatasaray SK basketball team, posed as one of his teammates during several games in an attempt to dodge a five-match suspension, according to press reports at the time. Mr. Nalga, who was later suspended for two years, said in a local TV interview that he acted under pressure from some team managers who themselves were subsequently pushed out.
But fielding an entire fake team, say experts, is at the cutting edge. "With the Internet, video and all modern technologies, it's incredible that it could happen today," says Jean-Michel Blaizeau, author of several books on the history of sport.
In August, the Bahrain Football Association says it received a letter signed with the name of Kodzo Samlan, a Togo Football Federation official, confirming the Sept. 7 game. "Everything was done through official channels, and we had no reason to suspect any problem," says a BFA spokesman.
But doubts emerged during the second half of the 90-minute game, when the Togo players began to look nothing like the top-class athletes who normally play for the team. "The players weren't fit," the spokesman says. "But we thought it might be because of the heat or Ramadan," the month-long Muslim festival when believers fast from dawn to dusk.
In Togo, officials had no doubts. "There is no way we could have been in Bahrain on that day," says Mr. Froger, the coach.
Mr. Samlan says he didn't sign the confirmation letter bearing his name. "The letterhead is an old one," he said by telephone from Lomé, Togo's capital. "Someone used my name and forged my signature to make money."
Mr. Tchao, the Togo sports minister, ordered a probe, notably to determine who collected match fees. When teams from poorer countries, such as Togo, travel, the fees are normally paid by the host country.
A BFA spokesman said Bahrain didn't pay anything directly. Instead, he said, expenses were paid by a Singaporean match agent named Wilson Perumal. Mr. Perumal said via email that, under a common arrangement, he footed all bills associated with the game in exchange for a percentage of the television rights and advertising revenue.
For the Sept. 7 game, each Togolese player was paid some $300, while each squad staff member received $1,000, he said.
Mr. Perumal, whose name has been cited in several match-fixing scandals, said he had no idea that the Togolese players who came to Bahrain weren't from the national team. Asked about his past, he said he had been charged with match-fixing in one case in Singapore, but was acquitted in another case.
The Togolese soon identified a suspect for the coach who led the fake team: Banna Tchanilé, a coach who trained the Togo national team several times between 2000 and 2009. In August, the Togo Sports Ministry discovered he had enrolled a fake Togo team in a soccer tournament in Egypt in July. The ministry suspended him from any coaching role for two years.
Last month, the federation banned Mr. Tchanilé from any soccer-related activity for three years. Officials said further investigation was needed to identify possible accomplices, and to find out where all the money went.
Two days later, Mr. Tchanilé acknowledged having been behind the Bahrain game during a press briefing in Lomé. He said he wished to apologize to all Togolese, to Bahrain authorities and also to Mr. Perumal."Even if it's tough for me, I must accept [this ruling] in a sportsmanlike manner," he said.
Reached subsequently by telephone, Mr. Tchanilé declined to comment on his role, citing the ongoing probe. Still, he said, the Bahrain game had been a good deed.
"Togo's a mess, we have no proper soccer fields, most talented players drop the sport to work as taxi drivers," he said. "If some kids had a chance to play a game in Bahrain, where's the harm?"
Watch part of the match on Youtube