The integrity of football is under severe threat. What other conclusion can be drawn from news revealed by UEFA that it is investigating 40 separate cases of suspected match fixing in the Champions League and the UEFA Cup, its two elite competitions?
What other conclusion can be drawn from the English Premier League warning all its clubs of illegal betting spies infesting under-18 academy matches on which millions of pounds are being wagered in the Far East?
The greatest threat to any sport is corruption by match fixing. If a team, or some of the players in a team, deliberately lose matches then there is no game at all and sport becomes worthless.
Yes, football is under threat. That much is clear to anyone with open eyes – and now UEFA’s eyes are beginning to open too.
A catalogue of 40 matches under suspicion is a frightening number. These are not isolated instances, but a growing culture of deceit.
“Right now it’s mainly eastern European clubs being investigated,” said Peter Limacher, UEFA’s head of disciplinary services.
“They know they are not going to be involved later in the tournament, so they decide, ‘let’s make a profit’. In the cases we’ve seen, it is the result of the game being fixed.”
Earlier this year a Macedonian club, FK Pobeda, were banned from European club competition for eight years after being found guilty of deliberately losing a match. It does not appear to have been much of a deterrent.
And if UEFA is correct, and the motivation is the greed of small clubs who feel they have no chance of beating big teams, how long will this take to reach the high-profile group stage of the Champions League where there are currently concerns about too many mismatches and the result appearing obvious in advance?
Corrupt gamblers make fortunes by knowing the correct result and correct scoreline, particularly if there is an unusual 4-0 or 5-0, for example.
There is another threat, too. With an increasing number of clubs in the major western European leagues now facing financial problems, how tempting may it become for hard-pressed owners to succumb to losing games because the profit from match fixing will ease their cash worries?
It is only one logical step along from the current situation.
Football betting is now a vast global industry, legal and illegal, with a mountainous growth in the past decade. The more money that is gambled, the more scope there is for corruption – and the more need for scrutiny and caution within the game.
How bad is the problem? The revelation that English under-18 academy matches have been targeted for a while suggests the tentacles of crime are deep and widespread. After months of rumours and whispers the Premier League sent a warning letter to all clubs demanding they be vigilant about spies at their games who were monitoring events for illegal Far East betting concerns.
Fulham’s academy boss Huw Jennings says: “We have seen spies at our games and we have informed the authorities. It’s a really serious state of affairs when we see gambling on events involving youths.”
UEFA and the Premier League, as organisations, are not hiding from the significance of the problem. They are aware of the dangers, aware of its seriousness, and starting to instigate more scrutiny than ever before. Yet how much caution is there truly?
The flip side is that professional football across the globe actively seeks and gains sponsorship cash from betting firms. In promoting gambling on the game there is, at the very least, an ethical dilemma to be considered.
A number of Premier League clubs have gambling firms as shirt sponsors. All the rest, every single one, have minor sponsorship deals with betting companies. Around Europe it’s the same story. An Austrian-based gambling firm, bwin, is a sponsor of Real Madrid, Milan and Bayern Munich.
The dilemma is neatly summarised in UEFA’s own official position, stated thus: “Betting is a source of funding for football, but also a risk for football, especially to the integrity of competitions. It is only right that football obtains its fair share of income from betting, but our primary focus must continue to be a total commitment to protecting our sporting integrity.”
The question is clear: how much of a gamble is it for football to accept betting sponsorship money and thereby help to feed the most significant threat to the integrity of the game?
It would be foolish to say there is a simple answer, but a cautious approach would be the wisest policy – certainly more circumspection than there is today. Greed for cash, and the need for cash, surely has healthy limits.
Given the frightening scale of match fixing and potential corruption that has been revealed in the last month or two, a profound reassessment of football’s relationship with the world of gambling is now required.