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

The decision to appoint Felix Zwayer as 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 troubled past.

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

Zwayer always denied that he had influenced the outcome of the match in question and an investigation by the DFB also found no evidence that he had done so. He was given a six-month suspension for not refusing Hoyzer’s approach and then failing to report it. That sentence was reduced in exchange for evidence he had provided that helped convict Hoyzer, who was sentenced to two years and five months in prison.

But after Zwayer served his suspension, he rebuilt his career and became one of the most prominent officials in Germany.

The problem was that the case against Zwayer had been kept secret by the German Football Association (DFB) for ten years.

In September 2014, Zwayer had risen to the rank of German Football Referee of the Year. Just a few months later, in December 2014, the newspaper Die Zeit revealed that Zwayer had accepted money from Hoyzer, that his apartment had been searched, and that he had been suspended — none of which had previously been public knowledge. Zwayer has remained a controversial figure in German football ever since, and it is not hard to find people who believe that his integrity has been seriously compromised by the Hoyzer affair.

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

At 2-2 in the second half, Marco Reus ran onto a through ball and appeared to be thrown to the ground by Lucas Hernandez in the penalty area. In real time, it certainly looked like a penalty. Zwayer said no and, much to Dortmund’s anger, refused to consult the VAR screen to review the incident.

Dortmund were furious. Zwayer was later interviewed by broadcaster Sport1 and said that when he saw the tackle and Hernandez’s barge in the back, he described what he had seen to his VAR, and asked if he had missed anything.

“The question was whether there had been any other contact that I had not noticed. I was told that there had not been any. Therefore it was not a penalty and there was no on-field review.”

That was probably the wrong call from the VAR team. Looking back at the foul, it seems like there was more to it than just a push in the back – Reus also appeared to have tripped – and so Zwayer should have been sent to the screen. It wouldn’t have mattered, Erling Haaland was offside on the run-up – that was later revealed – and there would never have been a penalty. But procedurally, it wasn’t quite right.

Hernandez’s challenge on Reus

That wasn’t the only controversy. Bayern’s winning goal came from the penalty spot after Mats Hummels was penalized for a tricky handball. The decision was correct, but — in a move that further angered Dortmund — Zwayer went to the VAR screen to consult before making the decision.

At the end of an emotional and turbulent match, Dortmund were overcome by a sense of injustice. They defended terribly and were not entirely justified in their grievances, but that was still the context for the quote from Bellingham that everyone would ultimately remember.

After the match, Bellingham was interviewed by Jan Aage Fjortoft, the former Eintracht Frankfurt and Norway striker who now works for ViaPlay, and was asked for his opinion on the two decisions. Bellingham disagreed with either decision.

“What do you expect from a referee who fixed the match for the most important match in Germany?”

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

Grafe was actually one of the whistleblowers in the Hoyzer case and is a persistent critic of Zwayer. Shortly before the Dortmund-Bayern match, he had given an interview in which he said that “someone who once accepted money and said nothing about Hoyzer’s manipulations for half a year should not referee in professional football.”

The complaint lacked ‘legal basis’ and was not addressed, but the response continued for weeks.

Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke defended his player, saying: “Jude did not offend anyone, he was just describing a fact.”

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

(Christian Charisius/Photo Alliance via Getty Images)

Bellingham was fined €40,000 (£34,000; $43,000) for his comments, but avoided a ban. Zwayer received a barrage of criticism, including death threats, and briefly considered quitting refereeing. Instead, he took a short sabbatical, before making a modest return to refereeing in the 2. Bundesliga in February 2022.

When asked about the incident at Sportstudio in April 2022, Zwayer said 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 himself has a particularly close connection to what happened in 2004. That’s why I wanted to talk to him.”

It was a strange episode, but one that provoked a strong reaction from everyone who came into contact with it. Journalist Oliver Fritsch wrote succinctly for Die Zeit the day after the match, on December 5, 2021, why.

“Jude Bellingham spoke about something fundamental that people in Germany would rather 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, that Zwayer manipulated the match on December 4, 2021. He merely questioned the personal suitability of a referee. And reminded us that some footballers or coaches do not want to be whistled by a referee who has ever accepted money.”

It’s a problem that will never go away for Zwayer.

He has been a FIFA referee since 2012 and has been officiating Champions League matches since 2016. He has officiated hundreds of matches, both domestically and in Europe, and on Wednesday night he will officiate his fourth match of this European Championship.

The fact that the match is being played in Dortmund, at the same stadium as the Dortmund-Bayern match, and that Bellingham is there only makes it harder to ignore the past.

Zwayer’s appointment in this game creates a subplot that could actually be missing.

(Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

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