While the world and its blogger were getting hot under the collar this week about satirical articles on French football websites, men in Qatar with ties who don’t know anything and a man who probably only lives in Sheffield, a statement on the FA’s website points to the story which ought really to be ringing alarm bells for English football.
It’s easy to focus on the big money story, the primal fears of wealthy Arab oil men buying “our” game, but the likelihood is that the prerogative of short-term politics will win the day. There is no Dream league, the major European clubs appear to have dialled back on the breakaway rhetoric which they were employing after the FIFA corruption scandal first burst into life, and the likelihood of Qatar fomenting a revolution against football’s authorities is small. After all, why would they need a revolution when they can just buy themselves a World Cup?
In English football, there is a preoccupation with breakaway European leagues, clubs having their way with the fans and money ruling all. We have previous of course, with the Premier League itself. But the truth is this wasn’t a breakaway in the same sense – in that, the clubs didn’t have to work very hard to achieve their liberation. The FA were happy to comply, unable or unwilling to see that they were effectively decapitating their own power.
A European super league may come about, but this will more likely be within the auspices of UEFA than in defiance of it. A middle-eastern takeover is more likely to happen on European shores with individual “brands” than it is en-masse.
The real threat to football’s future and its sporting integrity is more insidious. It comes from outside the game, and compromises individual cells on a piecemeal basis – slowly, over time.
Match fixing in the Conference South?
Which brings us back to the FA statement mentioned at the outset. Here’s an excerpt:
The FA and the Gambling Commission have become aware of suspicious betting activity on a number of matches played in the Football Conference South.
Following recent communications with the Gambling Commission, The FA, in conjunction with the Football Conference, is contacting all clubs playing in the Football Conference South to advise them immediately of our concern
No further detail is given, and the FA state that no additional comment will be made for the foreseeable future. To speculate which teams and matches are involved would be irresponsible at this point and of course, it may be that the patterns are in fact entirely innocent. At this point we do not know.
What we can be sure of is that match fixing and illegal betting are real and they need to be tackled now. Here’s a sample of the stories which have hit the papers in March so far:
- Juventus coach Antonio Conte questioned on match-fixing again
- Trailing Singapore’s ‘football match-fixing boss’
- Match-fixing to ensure a player is sold? It happens
- Lebanon head coach reveals anger over match fixing
- Thai FA investigates match-fixing in the country’s FA Cup final
Then of course there was the story that Champions League games, including a tie featuring Liverpool and Debrecen, were under suspicion.
Match fixing, particularly spot fixing – influencing events within a match rather than a result – are difficult to tackle because it is the individual who is targeted. The fixers will target those who are more susceptible or vulnerable, and they will bide their time. Often it is match officials who are the prime candidates.
Football has, not surprisingly, been slow to recognise the threat. It is nearly 15 years since the perils of fixing were thrust upon cricket with the Hansie Cronje scandal, and there have been others since – notably during the Pakistan tour of England in 2010. The fallout from the uncovering of Mazhar Majeed’s infiltration of the Pakistani tour party included the demise of the non-League club he owned – Croydon Athletic – which he had been using to launder money.
Money of course is the primary enticement available to someone wishing to fix a match. The lower leagues and lesser footballing powers are far easier to gain access to, with low wages and even less scrutiny.
So we return to the events of this week. The FA, in conjunction with the Gambling Commission, will now investigate the matches under suspicion in the Conference South. We await the results with interest and hope, despite our natural cynicism after years of FA bungling, that they get it right.
We complain that the money within the game has stripped the game of any equality, but money from outside of the game in the form of match fixing will rob it of any remaining shred of integrity. Even FIFA cannot ignore this type of corruption.