It's a funny old game when it comes to corruption

Thu, Dec 15, 2011, 00:00

A COUPLE of years ago, an Italian sports journalist was asked why he thought there had never been a problem with corruption in English football. “Perhaps because the English have never looked for it,” was his reply.

Strictly speaking, the question was based on a false premise. There have always been corrupt practices in the English game.

Every so often a football club is found to have made illegal payments to an agent, or to have been depositing small fortunes in an offshore bank account, to allow its employees avoid paying tax on a portion of their earnings.

It’s an open secret that some managers demand a cut of the transfer fee when they agree to the sale or purchase of a player.

What the questioner meant – and the journalist understood – was, considering the Italian experience, why has the English game never had a problem with match fixing. Why indeed? Particularly as all the evidence suggests that a degree of malpractice is not beyond many of the sport’s leading lights.

That the English Premier League is a multibillion pound industry acts, somewhat paradoxically, as both insulation against, and an enticement to, match fixing.

Such are the rewards for club success, and so astronomical the wages on offer to top footballers (and managers), it is virtually impossible to imagine what would tempt a player to concede deliberately a penalty or a goal, or purposely get himself sent off. I suppose a serious drug or gambling habit, or similar dark secret, might leave someone open to blackmail. Thankfully however, despite the occasional tabloid headline, such vulnerabilities are thin on the ground.

As for managers, if one could be tempted to throw a game, he would have to convince members of his team to act in collusion with him. He might gamble on fielding a seriously weakened side, but could hardly hope that no one would notice.

Yet the financial rewards that make it almost impossible to bribe players and managers also leave the game wide open to match fixing: for not everyone has benefited to the same extent.

Bizarrely, the people best placed to influence the result of a match – and able to do so without being suspected of anything more serious than incompetence or bias – are virtually the only ones still working for a relative pittance: match officials.

On average, a Premier League player earns in the region of €5,000 per week, with some earning three, four and even five times that amount. In stark contrast, top match officials get a basic yearly salary of €39,000, plus €1,200 for every Premier League game they oversee. In a good year, a referee might gross €71,000, which is decent money, but less than a half-decent player’s weekly wage. Officials would not be human if they weren’t a little resentful.

Great efforts have been made to bring refereeing up to the standard supposedly required in the Premier League : professional status, minimum levels of fitness, better relationships with the clubs, endless seminars on rule interpretation, and so on.

Yet anyone who regularly watches the Premier League cannot help but have noticed that the standard of refereeing has plummeted dramatically over recent seasons. Even allowing for human error and popular excuses (speed of the modern game, gamesmanship of players, a multitude of television cameras covering every angle and incident, etc), some of the match-changing decisions being made by referees and their assistants, even when in close proximity to an incident and with an unobstructed view, are well-nigh inexplicable.

Nowadays, there is seldom consistency of decision-making within games, never mind across them.

It is not uncommon for a player to be sent off for an innocuous tackle and a member of the opposing team to be allowed remain on the pitch despite nearly breaking someone’s leg. Free-kicks and penalties seem to be awarded or denied, and yellow cards handed out, virtually on a whim.

An additional problem is that officials are not accountable to anyone other than their own association, with no public explanations required for controversial decisions, which has bred an air of arrogance and invincibility.

If referees are something of a law onto themselves, the Football Association is almost entirely so. Suffice to say that the FA is a model of probity, transparency and best practice, but only in comparison to its ultimate parent body Fifa, one of the most outrageously corrupt sports organisations in the world.

The riches on offer to almost everyone associated with Premier League football make it in no one’s interests to uncover match-fixing, except that of the fans, and they matter only as cash cows.

The FA, media outlets of all types, advertisers, clubs, players, players’ agents, managers, and goodness knows how many others gorging at the Premier League trough all have a vested interest in the Premier League remaining scandal free.

So, barring accidental exposure, we can rest assured that is how it will remain. Amazed that match-fixing has never been uncovered in the Premier League?

I’m not even surprised that a match official has never come forward to say that he (or she) has been approached to influence the outcome of a game.

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