Getting Your Fix

Match-fixing and the gambling industry’s influence on the game are threatening the integrity of professional football.  The law of Omertà is being applied, but where are football’s Paul Kimmage or David Walsh? Are we all complicit?

A selection of some of the biggest stories in football in the past week: Jack Wilshere was involved in a late-night altercation, Carl Jenkinson went on holiday in Dubai with a tiger, and Gabriel Agbonlahor takes advice from Jack Grealish on how to let off some steam.  Quite understandable therefore how the now-infamous “Panama Papers”, Martin Demichelis’ approaching fine for unsanctioned betting, and serious suspicions of match-fixing at an international friendly failed to fill the headlines.  All the while, the incoming Chelsea manager - a man who today postponed trial proceedings investigating his involvement in the Scommessopoli match-fixing scandals - faces a grilling by the English press over his use of hair implants.  

Save for The Sunday Times and their exposé on drug use in football (a topic we covered just a few short weeks ago), a cursory glance at mainstream media’s coverage of football would suggest that the sport is in rude health.  Reading The Sunday Times tells you exactly how rude.  

There is one significant difference between the latest drug use allegations and the equally alarming suspicions of match-fixing in the recent match between international minnows Gibraltar and Liechtenstein - the level of complicity involved in facilitating the crimes.  While drugs can be administered privately and on an individual basis, match-fixing generally requires more than one party's involvement - or again, complicity - to be successful.  Both attack the integrity of the sport, although while the use of PEDs can influence the outcome of a match, highly-organised criminal gangs can decide the result before a ball has been kicked.  

There will not be an investigation into the circumstances of the match that took place in Gibraltar’s Victoria Stadium, despite over £421,000 being placed on the result on Betfair alone.  By comparison, Wales and Ukraine attracted only £250,000 in bets on the same night.  The combined population of Gibraltar and Liechtenstein is less than 80,000 - Ukraine’s is just south of 50 million.  It is difficult to do that maths, making the UEFA statement “that the match traded normally, meaning that no irregular betting patterns were identified” simply inexplicable.  

Two legitimate goals for Liechtenstein were ruled out on the night, and it is these sort of fixtures that are most vulnerable to match-fixing.  This received pretty scant coverage despite taking place in a full international friendly.  Daniel Taylor of The Guardian, when writing about Antonio Conte’s previous involvement in match-fixing and the ongoing investigations, speculated over the reaction to the appointment of an English national team manager with history in match-fixing or being party to unregulated betting.  As imitation is the best form of flattery, maybe he will excuse the paraphrasing here, but what would the response be to suspicions that the recent England-Germany friendly had been influenced by third parties?

Closer to home, Martin Demichelis has been charged with 12 breaches of FA Rule E8 over a one-week period in January.  The rule in question is, contrary to the legal phraseology, pretty cut and dry.  “A Participant shall not bet, either directly or indirectly, or instruct, permit, cause or enable any person to bet on - (i) the result, progress, conduct or any other aspect of, or occurrence in, a football match or competition; or (ii) any other matter concerning or related to football anywhere in the world, including, for example and without limitation, the transfer of players, employment of managers, team selection or disciplinary matters.”  Nowhere in the rule is there a specification regarding certain competitions - any betting on football or football-related activity (consider the popularity of betting on the next manager to take over a club, and the information any international footballer with a powerful agent could have to hand) is forbidden.  

And yet, Manchester City are hoping that he will escape a ban for the offences as it is believed he placed bets on “foreign fixtures.”  If this is the case, and Demichelis escapes a ban, it will be further evidence of a growing problem in football’s cosy relationship with gambling.  In 2013, Andros Townsend was banned for four months after being found guilty of betting breaches.  More lenient punishments have been handed out since, and it is not inconceivable that Demichelis will be fined a relatively insignificant amount.  

Following the findings of the recent Adam Johnson case, both the FA and PFA spoke about clubs’ responsibilities in educating their players about sexual consent, but clubs taking action towards gambling - publicly at least - remains unlikely.  Although the days of Keith Gillespie acting as a runner for Alex Ferguson - placing his bets and taking a cut of the winnings - are long-gone, the Premier League’s ties with the gambling industry are stronger than ever.  Seven current Premier League club kits are paid for by gambling companies, and Stoke City are owned by Bet365.  

As The Sunday Times report has proven, the integrity of the sport is no longer unimpeachable, but sadly for football fans, drug abuse may be just the tip of the iceberg.  Depressingly, further coverage of Antonio Conte’s quiff looks more likely.