After playing for two of the biggest football clubs in Zambia, Mweetwa moved to Europe to play for Finnish side Rovaniemen Palloseura (RoPS).
While in Finland, he was approached by some people who turned out to be match-fixers, and who would ask him to manipulate the outcome of games in exchange for money.
Having turned his life around following his eventual arrest, Mweetwa is now an IOC ambassador and actively supports the fight against competition manipulation.
I grew up watching my older brothers play football in my home country of Zambia. We would use a makeshift ball, tying plastic bags together and kicking it around. But it was at school that I really developed my love and passion for the game. I played a lot of football from primary school through to high school, and after that I went on to play professionally for two of the biggest clubs in Zambia, Kitwe United and ZESCO United – where my performances earned me a dream move to Europe.
I joined RoPS, a Finnish side, and hit the ground running. I was soon called up to Zambia’s national team, scoring in World Cup and African Cup qualifying games. But my goal-scoring form caught the eye of match-fixers – and I want to share my journey with you to help you avoid the same dark path I walked.
Building a relationship
I had been in Finland for almost two years when I was approached by some people. They were friendly and charming and would give me thousands of euros just to buy a cup of coffee. They liked the way I was playing and wanted to express their admiration. What I didn’t know was that I was being groomed by professional manipulators.
After a year-and-a-half of building a relationship with one match-fixer, I was offered money in exchange for not scoring in a game – and that’s how it started. More and more match-fixers from around the world then started to reach out to me. Sometimes I was asked not to score, other times I was asked to score two or three goals, or to get booked or sent off in a certain minute. They would bet on anything within the 90 minutes – and it was my job to fulfil their requests and ensure they secured their winnings.
If I was to tell you that it felt wrong at the time, I would be lying. I was only interested in the money. Coming from Africa, I wanted to return home, flaunt the cash and buy things I had always dreamed of buying. It was a long time before I saw what I was doing as bad. I trusted the match-fixers – I had built a relationship with them – and I was enjoying the lifestyle.
Looking over my shoulder
Things really changed when a match-fixer was arrested at the airport in Helsinki. When that happened, our club president called me to ask if I knew anything about the person who had been arrested. I denied knowing anything, but I knew I had done something wrong. I was suddenly looking over my shoulder, wondering if the police were coming for me next. I became a prisoner even before my arrest.
Two weeks had passed since the match-fixer had been arrested when the police arrived at the gates of our training ground. I was training on the pitch with my team-mates, and they started calling out the names of those they believed to be involved in match-fixing. My name was among them.
I wanted to go home, to see my wife and son. But they took me straight to the police station. I tried to resist the arrest, and later to refuse to answer any questions, but I knew they had something on me. And I didn’t take long to break. I’d never seen a prison cell. I was scared. I was shaking. Once the doors closed behind me, I thought: ‘What have I done?’
I want to tell you that, in life, there is no shortcut to success.
The only key to safeguarding the integrity of sport is to educate. We must raise awareness.
Lowest point in my life
I spent nine days in a prison cell. After a five-month wait for the trial to commence, I was sentenced to one year and four months, which was later reduced to eight months. I was then banned globally by football’s world governing body, FIFA. All that I had known was taken away from me, and I couldn’t do anything.
It was the saddest period of my life; I was destroyed. I tried to be strong, but I failed. I even attempted suicide. And my family were hurt too. My parents’ neighbours in Zambia would bring newspapers to their home, showing them that their son was in the paper again for the wrong reasons. Before, I used to be in the papers for the right reasons – scoring a goal or being selected for the national team. Everything had changed. I had reached my lowest point.
Walking a new path
Today, I feel fortunate that I was caught. I’m sure if I had carried on match-fixing, I wouldn’t be here. I was working with criminals, and I was told that if I wasn’t going to help them win the bet, they would do something to my family. You start shivering when you hear things like that.
I want to tell you that, in life, there is no shortcut to success. If you’re approached to fix a match and you receive something, such as money, that can temporarily fix your problems, the relief it could bring you will only last a short period of time. And you will suffer the consequences of your actions for the rest of your life.
As an ambassador for the IOC, and through my foundation and the Southern African Regional Safe Sport task team– which is supported by the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports (NIF), and educates athletes and officials in Zambia on competition manipulation – I’m doing everything in my power to advocate for clean sport and help you avoid making the same bad decisions I made.
The only key to safeguarding the integrity of sport is to educate. We must raise awareness. We must do everything in our power to ensure that you, and everyone involved in sport, know the dangers you could be confronted with in your career.
Looking back, I wish I had people to explain the dos and don’ts of sport. No one told me how sport can ruin you if you are on the wrong side – that’s why I’m sharing my story with you.