Is the game clean or should we fear the dirt?
The well known match fixing scandals of the past in Italy and South America have rocked world football over the years. The allegations made against Bruce Grobbelaar and others a few years ago in England forced the officials and fans in that country to assess their own game.
As fans, we need to know that the outcome of each game is decided by twenty-two players trying their hardest to win the game and four totally neutral and honest officials overseeing the proceedings. Any suggestion that what we are paying to watch is anything other than an above board, fair and corruption free contest is quite simply an anathema to any right minded fan.
Realistic or a naive dream?
Is the desire for football to be whiter than white as described above realistic, or is it the desire of a naÃ¯ve dreamer who doesn’t live in the real world?
There are very few walks of life that haven’t had some sort of corruption scandal or at least the whiff of things not being entirely as they seem. The chances of corruption seeping its poisonous way into the body of something is increased in direct proportion to the amount of money involved.
Football at the top level, particularly at this time with the Abu Dhabi United takeover at Manchester City, is certainly where an awful lot of money is to be found. As I say, in most walks of life, where there is money, there is corruption just around the corner.
I might be really naÃ¯ve but I still believe the game, at least in England, where I have most knowledge, to be almost completely clean. I do not believe that match fixing takes place at all. I have no doubt that there are grey areas around transfer dealings and tax matters, but the actual games are still a fair and honest contest.
With so much money being gambled on football matches, the financial benefits of match fixing would be enormous. Other sports have fallen foul of that fact, particularly horse racing, but I believe English football has so far escaped.
Does the evidence from the past suggest that my view is likely to be a realistic one? Let’s look at some of the evidence;
In England the football authorities have taken a soft line on gambling. The FA only prohibits betting on a match by those directly involved in the game in question. This is despite a betting scandal back in the sixties when several football league players were involved in fixing matches. The most notorious incident involved three Sheffield Wednesday players, including two England international players, who were subsequently banned from football for life and imprisoned after it was discovered they had bet against their team winning in a match against Ipswich Town.
In 1999 a Malaysian based betting syndicate was caught trying to sabotage the floodlights at Charlton Athletic, then in the Premier League. If the match had been abandoned after half-time, then the result and bets would have stood. It was found that this same gang had been responsible for previous floodlight failures at West Ham and Wimbledon.
In possibly the most damning incident in 2005, German football was rocked by the news that Bundesliga referee Robert Hoyzer had bet on and fixed several matches. Hoyzer admitted to the charges and implicated other referees and players. He was imprisoned for two years and banned from football for life. Whether all those involved were caught and dealt with is a matter for conjecture.
Also in 2005 Italian Serie B champions Genoa were placed last in the division, and relegated to Serie C1, after it became known that they had bribed their opponents in the final match of the season, to lose the match. Genoa won the match 3-2.
Later that same year a Brazilian magazine revealed that two of its referees, EdÃlson Pereira de Carvalho (a member of FIFA’s referee staff) and Paulo José Danelon, had accepted bribes to fix matches. Soon afterward the replaying of eleven matches officiated by Edilson was ordered in the country’s top competition, the Campeonato Brasileiro. Both referees have been banned for life from football.
The most infamous of all the incidents took place following the 2006 Serie A season. Italian Police uncovered evidence implicating league champions Juventus, together with AC Milan, Fiorentina, and Lazio, of rigging games by selecting favourable referees, and even superstar goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was charged with betting on football games.
So, working on the theory that very little crime is ever detected, it seems extremely unlikely that these incidents are the only cases of corruption, alleged or otherwise, that have occurred in European football and beyond, over the past few years.
I ask again, is my belief that English football matches are free from suspicion realistic or naÃ¯ve?
We have all seen matches played where both teams need a point to win the league or stay up or get promoted, etc, and surprise, surprise, the game ends in a draw. Is that corrupt?
We have all seen games where top teams have rested players in matches against teams down at the bottom, allowing the lowly placed teams to pick up points that they wouldn’t have gotten against a full strength side. That is hardly fair to the other clubs fighting against relegation and certainly greatly annoyed Neil Warnock when he was at Sheffield United. Is that corrupt?
We have all seen players produce better performances and more energy against better teams. Remember Fergie’s blast at Leeds United? The one that got Kevin Keegan so riled. Is that natural or could it be corrupt?
We have all seen spectacular own goals, easy chances missed and horrific defensive and goalkeeping mistakes. It is what football is all about, but could it sometimes be corrupt?
I truly hope that the answer to all of these questions is an emphatic no. It would destroy everything I love about the game if the answer was any different. I just have this nagging doubt at the back of my mind that with the ludicrous sums of money involved at the top of the game the chances of undesirable people getting involved and people succumbing to the only too natural human failing of greed, is more likely than not.
We all have a go at the football authorities, but if they have managed to keep corruption out of the sport to a large degree then they deserve a great deal of credit. I just fear that it is a very big if.