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Felix Zwayer, Jude Bellingham and the match-fixing scandal that overshadows England vs Netherlands


Felix Zwayer, Jude Bellingham and the match-fixing scandal that overshadows England vs Netherlands

The decision to appoint Felix Zwayer as the referee for England’s European Championship semi-final against the Netherlands will reunite the German official with Jude Bellingham. It has also alerted the world to Zwayer’s difficult past.

It is UEFA’s most controversial appointment of the tournament. Zwayer is now 43 and has been considered one of Germany’s top officials for some time. But back in 2004, when he was an assistant referee, an investigation revealed that he had accepted a €300 payment from Robert Hoyzer, a referee later banned for life for match-fixing, to ensure the outcome of a game between Wuppertal and Werder Bremen II.

Zwayer always denied affecting the outcome of the game in question and a DFB investigation found no evidence that he did, either. He served a six-month ban for failing to refuse Hoyzer’s approach, and then for failing to report it. That punishment was mitigated in return for evidence he gave that helped to convict Hoyzer, who was sentenced to two years and five months in prison.

But after Zwayer served his suspension, he rebuilt his career, becoming one of the highest-profile officials in Germany.

The trouble was that the case against Zwayer had been concealed by the German FA (DFB) for a decade.

By September 2014, Zwayer had risen to become German football’s referee of the year. It was only a few months later, in December 2014, that the newspaper Die Zeit revealed that Zwayer had accepted money from Hoyzer, had had his apartment searched and had been suspended — none of which had previously been public knowledge. Zwayer has remained a contentious figure in German football ever since and it is not difficult to find people who believe his integrity to have been severely compromised by the Hoyzer affair.

That stain on his reputation has never washed out. Famously, Zwayer’s history — and the whole Hoyzer episode — was given a new airing in December 2021, when Jude Bellingham’s then-club Borussia Dortmund faced Bayern Munich at the Westfalenstadion.

At 2-2 all in the second half, Marco Reus ran onto a through-ball and appeared to be bundled to the floor in the penalty box by Lucas Hernandez. In real-time, it certainly looked like a penalty. Zwayer said no and, much to Dortmund’s anger, declined to consult the VAR screen to give the incident a second look.

Dortmund were incensed. Zwayer was later interviewed by broadcaster Sport1 and said that on seeing the tackle and noting Hernandez’s barge in the back, he had then described what he had seen to his VAR, asking whether there was anything he had missed.

“The question was if there had been another contact that I hadn’t noticed. I was told there wasn’t. That’s why it wasn’t a penalty and there was no on-field review.”

That was probably the wrong call by the VAR team. Looking at the challenge again, there does appear to be more than just a shove in the back — Reus appeared to have been tripped, too — and so Zwayer should really have been directed to the screen. It would not have mattered, Erling Haaland was offside during the build-up — that was revealed later — and a penalty would never have been given. But procedurally, it was not quite right.

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Hernandez’s challenge on Reus

That was not the sole controversy. Bayern’s winning goal came from the penalty spot after Mats Hummels had been penalised for a pernickety handball. The decision was correct, but — in a move that further antagonised Dortmund — Zwayer went to the VAR screen to deliberate before making the decision.

At the end of an emotional and fractious game, Dortmund were overwhelmed by a sense of injustice. They defended dreadfully and were not wholly entitled to their grievances, but that was still the context for the quote from Bellingham that, ultimately, everyone would remember.

After the game, Bellingham was being interviewed by Jan Aage Fjortoft, the former Eintracht Frankfurt and Norway forward who now works for ViaPlay, and was asked for his verdict on the two decisions. Bellingham did not agree with either.

“You give a referee that’s match-fixed before the biggest game in Germany… what do you expect?”

It was a startling remark and the fallout was dramatic — unique, even. The referee’s assessor that night, Marco Haase, filed a criminal complaint for slander and defamation against Bellingham and the former referee-turned-pundit Manuel Grafe.

Grafe had actually been one of the whistleblowers in the Hoyzer case and has been a persistent critic of Zwayer. Shortly before the Dortmund-Bayern game, he had given an interview saying that “somebody who’s taken money once and kept silent about Hoyzer’s manipulations for half a year shouldn’t referee in professional football.”

The complaint lacked “legal merit” and did not proceed, but the reaction lasted for weeks.

Hans-Joachim Watzke, the Dortmund CEO, defended his player, saying: “Jude didn’t insult anyone, he just described a fact.”

The following day, the then-Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn told Sky Deutschland that Bellingham’s comments were “obviously a huge step too far.”

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(Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Bellingham was fined €40,000 (£34,000; $43,000) for his comments but avoided suspension. Zwayer received a hail of criticism, even death threats. He briefly considered walking away from refereeing. Instead, he took a brief sabbatical, before making a low-key return to officiating in the 2.Bundesliga in February 2022.

Asked about the incident on Sportstudio in April 2022, Zwayer said that he wanted to discuss the matter with Bellingham.

“I wanted to know why he said what he did and where it came from. I don’t think he has a particularly close connection of his own to what happened in 2004. That’s why I wanted to talk to him.”

It was a strange episode, but one which drew a strong response from everybody it touched. Writing for Die Zeit the day after the game, on December 5th 2021, journalist Oliver Fritsch succinctly articulated why.

“Jude Bellingham addressed something fundamental that people in Germany prefer to keep quiet about: because of his history in the Hoyzer case, many players, managers and coaches no longer respect or trust Felix Zwayer. They interpret mistakes he makes personally. Anyone who has committed the original sin as a referee is no longer believed.

“Bellingham has now said what many in the Bundesliga think and know. He did not claim, as some have accused him of, that Zwayer manipulated the game on December 4, 2021. He simply questioned the personal suitability of a referee. And reminded us that some footballers or coaches do not want to be officiated by a referee who once accepted money.”

It is an issue that will never go away for Zwayer.

He has been a FIFA referee since 2012 and has officiated Champions League games since 2016. He has taken charge of hundreds of games, domestically and in Europe, and on Wednesday night he will oversee his fourth game of this European Championship.

That the match will be played in Dortmund, in the same ground as that Dortmund-Bayern game, and that it will feature Bellingham, just makes the past harder to ignore.

Zwayer’s appointment to this game creates a sub-plot that it could do without.

(Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

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