Athlone Town players Igors Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan have both been suspended from football for a year after an FAI disciplinary committee found the pair guilty of breaking rules relating to gambling and the fixing of games.
The players, who are represented by the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland (PFAI), and their club continue to vehemently contest the charges, arguing that there is little or no hard evidence of wrongdoing and both are expected to appeal the decision with the union, it is believed, intent on taking the case to the Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS), if necessary.
For the moment, though, the players have been found guilty of the charges in relation to the case primarily on the basis of the betting patterns linked to the club’s game against Longford Town earlier in the season and an assessment by a panel of three former players and/or managers (Tony McDonnell, Damien Richardson and Don O’Riordan) of the players’ contributions to some of the goals in that game.
The committee, which was chaired by Barry Collins, met on Monday and heard evidence from both sides over the course of 10 hours. The statement issued on Thursday provided little by way of detailed explanation for its decision, simply making it clear the pair had been found to have contravened the association’s rules relating to Bringing the Game into Disrepute, Manipulating Matches, Betting/Gambling.
The PFAI issued a strongly worded statement criticising the decision, suggesting the ban imposed might as well be for life as the “stain of this allegation is career ending.” It criticised the guilty verdicts given, saying the evidence was “flimsy,” or “half-baked innuendo”.
The association is deeply critical of the process in which the FAI acts as both organiser and prosecutor. It points out both the panel of the three that heard the case and the three experts (former players/managers) asked to review passages of play - in which mistakes by the two players contributed to goals against their club and decide whether there was deliberate wrongdoing - were all appointed by the game’s Irish governing body.
It says it provided witnesses with matching expertise, all of whom suggested there was not enough evidence to convict on. It said despite this and the fact the vast majority of cases in which irregular betting patterns are highlighted do not result in disciplinary actions being taken, the players have still been “scapegoated”.
“No evidence exists that these players were guilty,” it says. “They co-operated fully with the investigation and provided all phone records and any bank accounts that they had to the FAI. None of these records were used at the hearing and no suggestion has been made that they indicated any untoward behaviour.
“The damage already done to these players is irreversible but they will fight to reclaim what is left of their good names. We will appeal this decision,” the statement concludes, “and will take this as far as the Court of Arbitration for Sport if necessary.”