Both the Professional Footballers' Association of Ireland and Athlone Town have resolved to support the efforts of Igors Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan to overturn the guilty verdicts delivered against them by an FAI Disciplinary Committee on Thursday with both describing the evidence on which the decisions were based as "flimsy".
Both players, one a Latvian goalkeeper, the other a Romanian midfielder, have been banned for football for a year after having been found to have contravened the FAI’s rules on betting/gambling and manipulation of a match result. Inevitably, in the circumstances, the pair were also found guilty of bringing the game into disrepute.
In its decision, the three-man committee, chaired by Barry Collins, said it was “comfortably satisfied,” that the two players had deliberately sought to adversely influence the outcome of the First Division match between Athlone and Longford Town on April 29th. It said it had taken into account the “clear and overwhelming betting evidence,” as well as the pair’s own account of their financial arrangements with Athlone Town “which the committee considered to be unconvincing and insufficient”.
In its statement the club says it takes particular exception to the use of the phrase “clear and overwhelming,” suggesting that the evidence “was anything but”. In relation to Dragos Sfrijan,” it says, “it amounted to nothing more than a missed kick”.
“It is extraordinary,” the club goes on to note, “that the players were convicted on no more than opinion evidence that could never come close to standing up in a court of law or any truly independent investigatory forum.”
This is a reference to the opinions of three experts (former players or managers, Tony McDonnell, Damien Richardson and Don O’Riordan) recruited by the FAI to watch footage of the game and weigh up whether the errors committed by the players were sufficiently suspicious to support a conviction.
In the end, only two of the three, McDonnell and Richardson, actually attended Monday’s hearing to deliver their evidence. But there is, in any case, no mention of them, or the expert witnesses produced by the other side who argued the two players’ actions could not be assumed to have been “deliberately inadequate,” as the disciplinary committee ultimately did conclude that they were.
The players had been facing the possibility of life bans and the club suggests the comparative leniency of the sanctions supports the assertion that the entire process was little more than “a face saving exercise”.
It also points to the fact that there was no evidence presented of any profits having been made from betting on the game although the solicitor for the players' union, Stuart Gilhooly, who was involved in the hearings on behalf of the players, accepts that there were irregular betting patterns – reported at the time to have related to the scoring of late goals in each half – on the game although no suggestion has been or evidence produced that the players themselves bet on the game.
“They talk about ‘overwhelming betting evidence,’” he says, “and there is betting evidence there is no getting away from that.
“They point to the fact that the players made mistakes and there is no getting away from that either – but it is a huge leap from that to concluding that these two players manipulated the result of the game. There is actually no evidence of that at all. To reach the conclusion they have in the circumstances is extraordinary.”
Gilhooly says he is surprised that the case was ever pursued as available figures suggest that in the vast majority of instances where Uefa’s Betting Fraud Detection System (BFDS) highlights suspicious activity, no action is taken.
“What we’ve been told is that out of 3,284 BFDS reports, just 207 have gone to sanction. “What happens to the rest? Presumably there is not enough evidence to sanction a player on.
He added the history of similar cases taken to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne suggests a far higher burden of proof is required in order to uphold a decision of this nature against players.
Both he and Athlone Town, meanwhile, criticised a process in which the FAI had been centrally involved in investigating the case, organising the hearing, choosing the judges then prosecuting the players.
“I would be very concerned about the process,” he said.
The players and their representatives have, it seems, some way to go before they get to a stage where the association is not running things in this way with an appeal to another FAI appointed body apparently its next step but the union is adamant that it will take the case to CAS if necessary.
The union’s general secretary, Stephen McGuinness claims the guilty verdict sets a precedent under which any player could make a mistake in a match on which there just happened to have been some unusual bets placed and then suddenly find himself subject to sanction.
In the meantime, attempts to clarify whether Labuts and Sfrijan, who have both continued to play for Athlone under current manager Roddy Collins, can do so while their appeal is pending were being made. A spokesman for the FAI could not be contacted for a comment.