KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY: Once upon a time sport was all about the survival of the fittest; that was in the days of the gladiators of Ancient Rome. Later sport was all about money; those were the days of the original classic horse races among the upper classes and fairground prize-fighting among the rest.
Then, in the Victorian 19th century, through a progressive mixture of greater access to education and the ethos of ‘muscular Christinity’ sport raised its status. The true sportsman was the gentleman amateur.
Trouble was, sport outgrew in popularity the confines of public school and high falutin’ university ‘quad’. Money crept back in.
The rot had well and truly set in when Preston North End, in the dying decade of that century, began paying their footballers. Counties began paying cricketers, too. The amateurs walked down to bat or field from one pavilion; the professionals walked down from another.
The ethos of sport as a calling above the daily joke lasted for a remarkably long time. Not only in Britain. South American football was still squabbling between amateurs and professionals in the 1920s and 1930s and it was not until the 1970s that even Britain could no longer justify the anachronism.
Avery Brundage presided with a stubborn hypocrisy over the Olympic movement between 1952 and 1972: Games competitors had to be amateurs. But it was perfectly acceptable for them to compete against the so-called ‘state amateurs’ of the Warsaw Pact nations commanded by the Soviet Union.
Those were the days when corruption in sport was almost ‘pure.’ Mostly it was about the result.
Tales were legion in Italian football in the 1950s and 1960s about the remarkable results on the last day of the season when the new league champions-elect might lose at home, against all the odds, to a club fighting relegation.
But it was not always about the result. In 1964 three Sheffield Wednesday players – including England men Peter Swan and Tony Kay – were banned sine die for throwing a match to suit a betting scam. The London Sunday newspaper The People uncovered the evidence and Swan and Kay and team-mate David ‘Bronco’ Layne all went to prison.
That was nearly 50 years ago. Despite all the policing efforts, all the awareness, all the concern that sport must be kept clean to maintain its credibility for the public, sponsors and broadcasters, the situation now is immeasurably worse.
The insidious cancer of corruption is not restricted to any one sport. Nor is restricted to the players and match officials alone.
The reputations of both FIFA and the IOC have been tarnished by internal money-grabbing.
The crux of the issue is that governing bodies seen to be potentially corruptible lack the moral authority to lay down laws and breathe fiery words about corruption further down the sporting chain. At a coaching and competitive level that means doping and matchfixing.
In 1999 the International Olympic Committee was galvanised into action by a fear that the Games were losing credibility (and thus sponsor revenues) through widespread doping. Hence the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency which, with a pitifully small staff, has been remarkably successful.
Most important of all has been its persuasion of governments – as evidenced by the rush to adherence via UNESCO – that sports doping falls within the ambit of drugs criminality.
To be fair most governments needed little persuading because drugs and drugs trafficking were already illegal in the vast majority of jurisdictions and already subject to judicial, security, customs and tax pursuit.
Then, along came the internet, and exponential explosion of criminal opportunities via instantaneous worldwide communication and the lever of spot-fixing.
Persuading governments that matchfixing is a criminal offence has been much more difficult than n the case of doping: the wider social context of the latter was easily demonstrable. Not so with matchfixing: most countries do not even have specific legislation in place.
Reasons for the equivocation are clear: A professional athlete is paid to compete with what his or her federation or club or event promoter assumes will be optimum effort. This is what the paying public expects.
However, that logic can be twisted to persuade the competitor to rein in that effort.
Yet the paying public still witnesses sporting competition. Fans and sports employers and television companies and sponsors still see the ‘show’. After all, what is televised professional sport but merely another branch of live entertainment? Some of the world’s most richly-rewarded singers commonly indulge in what is euphemistically described as ‘lip-sync-ing’ [Beyonce even mimed when she ‘sang’ the United States national anthem at the inauguration of President Obama last January].
This is the greatest challenge facing sport today. If it is to maintain the competitive credibility it must both educate its own ‘family’ and impose rules and regulations to try to ensure ‘clean’ competition.
Only if sport can be seen to be cleaning up its own nest can it hope to persuade governments to act against the international criminality which capitalises on human avarice and the simplicity of results fixing for the purposes of both multi-billion-dollar profits and international money-laundering for a wide range of other illicit operations.
Michel Platini, French president of the European football federation UEFA and a vice-president of FIFA, has no doubt that matchfixing is a far greater threat to sporting credibility than doping.
His words and sentiments have been echoed by the president of the Spanish league, Javier Tebas. He came into office early this year leading on a pledge to root out match-fixing in the Spanish game which has been plagued down the years with rumours of iliicit payments in the last rounds of matches.
Tebas says: “The most important issue to address is the subject of match-fixing. If it is possible for results to be corrupted – for whatever reason – it means the credibility of the entire competition is undermined. Both the league and the media have not been giving this issue the attention it deserves.”
But Tebas, as a lawyer, also appreciates the need for sport to become far more pro-active in calling on judicial and legislative support.
He says: “The problem we have had is the gap between what is true and what can be shown to be true to meet the demands of the law. I do not believe such incidents are commonplace. But there are isolated incidents and even those are too many.
“More than one player has told me about fixed games. I have spoken with the players union and with club directors. There is a type of corporate defence, a misunderstanding of what solidarity should represent. We must get rid of all of this.”
Football matchfixing generates the largest volume of criminal revenues through the internet-driven betting rings. The assumption remains that players at the highest level of the game earn so much money they are beyond bribery.
But Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the English players’ union (Professional Footballers’ Association), is among those who have warned of the risk of the cancer spreading up through the game from the ‘soft underbelly’ represented by players badly or only infrequently paid at more modest levels.
He says: “Players at a lower level are more vulnerable, simply because they don’t earn the same amounts as the top players. There will always be temptation in life, but it’s our job to educate our members and make sure they understand and appreciate their responsibilities to the game.”
That was months before the English game was shown up latterly to be ‘sleep-walking’ – as experts Chris Eaton and Declan Hill have both put it – into a matchfixing spider’s web.
Friedrich Stickler, head of European Lotteries and ex-president of the Austrian football federation, believes it is not only the sports family which needs to appreciate its responsibility to society at large. So do governments.
He says: “This is really frightening. This is not second division and leagues in countries no-one has heard of, this is big business and even qualifying matches for the Europa League and Champions League so it’s something we cannot underestimate.
“For example, in China the population has lost trust and confidence in our sport completely and the stadia are almost empty. Nobody there is interested in football any more so you can see the huge danger and the threat and that’s why we call for real action and not only discussions.”
Football is not alone and exposed. Every sport is at risk. But football, as by far the world’s biggest sport, is under greatest attack and thus at greatest risk.
As Platini once told this writer: “If the public starts to think that the match is fixed, that the result has already been negotiated in advance then he or she will not cross the road to pay for the ticket or even turn on the television. Then our sport will lose its credibility and you cannot get it back. Also you cannot get the sponsors back either.”
Platini might have been talking for all sports.
In the meantime, while efforts to bring governments into the action continue, sport has to fight its own fight for its own sake.
As the Italian football ‘whistleblower’ Simone Farina says: “Clubs and federation must not let players feel isolated and afraid to speak out when confronted by the wrong individuals. Players need to feel empowered and supported so they can report what they need to when approached by organised syndicates.”
It says everything about wrong-headedly endemic attitudes to matchfixing with sport that, after Farina exposed matchfixing activities of team-mates in the lower divisions in Italy, no-one else there would give him a job. The same fate befell Jacques Glassmann who blew the whistle on the Marseille scandal in France.
The gentleman amateur has long since been killed off.
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** An extended version of this article has appeared in the ICSS Journal.
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