Richie Sadlier: Athlone Town bans set a dangerous precedent

Given suspicious betting patterns, players could be deemed guilty for playing badly

Athlone’s Igor Labuts has been banned by the FAI for one year from all football-related activity for offences relating to match-fixing. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

Athlone’s Igor Labuts has been banned by the FAI for one year from all football-related activity for offences relating to match-fixing. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

 

I once missed an open goal in a Championship game.

The ball bounced at my feet with nobody in front of me and embarrassingly I sliced it wide. I did it on international duty too, while playing for the Republic of Ireland under-19’s against Denmark at Dalymount Park. On neither occasion was I accused of trying to deliberately manipulate the result for financial gain. I guess I was lucky there was no suspicious betting patterns associated with either game.

Dragos Sfrijan and Igors Labuts were not so fortunate. They have both been banned by the FAI for one year from all football-related activity for offences relating to match-fixing.

I was involved in the hearing of their case earlier this week, which I’ll return to in a moment, but first, consider what evidence you’d assume was uncovered. Given the severity of the charges against them, what burden of proof would you apply to the prosecution?

You’d imagine incriminating phone or bank records would be required. Maybe suspicious gambling records or proven links to gambling syndicates would do the job. A paper trail would be ideal, obviously, but even strong circumstantial evidence might do.

Either way, you’d expect the case to involve evidence of some kind, particularly given the seriousness of the offence. Not in Ireland, it seems. Under the FAI’s watchful eye, if there are betting irregularities associated with a game, just making a mistake on the pitch is proof of a player’s involvement.

To explain the background, this case was triggered by a report the FAI received in May from the Uefa Betting Fraud Detection System (BFDS). The report highlighted irregular betting patterns associated with Athlone Town’s defeat to Longford Town on April 29th.

The investigation that followed led to charges being brought against Sfrijan and Labuts, due to mistakes they each made in the build-up to two of Longford’s goals. This was based solely on the opinions of three men the FAI had asked to review the footage.

To go back a little further, in late 2015 the FAI sold the international online viewing rights of the League of Ireland to a company called TrackChamp. The deal was structured in such a way, that to view the live footage, subscribers needed to have an active gambling account. Betting was no longer peripheral to the viewing experience, it was a requirement of entry. There were questions raised at the time about the wisdom of such a deal but the FAI said it was confident it was for the good of the game.

Guilty verdict

I was asked by the PFAI for my take on the footage of the two goals. I was originally hesitant, not wanting to compromise my ability to comment publicly on the case. I also warned Stephen McGuinness, PFAI general secretary, he shouldn’t presume my opinions would match his. Obviously I was aware of the wider context, but I approached it in the way I would any other game.

As I expected, both players were guilty of poor defensive play. So too were several of their team-mates. I outlined this in my report, wondering why no other players were similarly cited.

I concluded that I did not see anything in the footage I believed to be evidence of match-fixing. It was in keeping with the standard of play you’d expect from a team bottom of the First Division. In fact, it wasn’t far off what can be regularly seen in the division above.

A guilty verdict was returned on Thursday. In addition to what the committee considered to be “deliberately inadequate” performances by the players, their financial arrangements were described as “insufficient and unconvincing”.

I think the point is the players earn so little from playing football it aroused further suspicion. I found this puzzling, given that any contract agreements between clubs and players must be signed off by the FAI’s integrity officer, Fran Gavin, before they’re officially accepted by the FAI. If the terms were acceptable when they first joined the club, why is the FAI citing them now as grounds for concern?

The PFAI say they will take their case to CAS if necessary and they might have to. First, though, they must go before an appeals panel put together by the FAI. They’ve already faced a three-man disciplinary committee, selected by the FAI.

The case for the prosecution originally hinged on the testimony of a three-man panel of experts who viewed the match footage, all of whom were also selected by the FAI. The FAI, remember, are the ones taking the case against both players. The independence offered by CAS may offer some hope.

Serious issues

Some serious issues arise as a result of this case.

Firstly, given the seriousness of the offences for which the FAI have found the players guilty, would it not be more appropriate to give lengthier bans? It’s not the greatest deterrent to would-be match-fixers to stay away from the league. If the League of Ireland wasn’t on the map for crooked footballers prior to this case, it certainly is now.

Secondly, if this verdict is upheld and the precedent is established here, every footballer in the league should worry. The burden of proof is outlined as “comfortable satisfaction” in cases of match manipulation. So even when there is no evidence at all to link the two, the FAI will be comfortably satisfied of your guilt if you play badly in a game where there’s suspicious betting patterns. Regular observers know there’s often poor play, so it will be betting patterns that determine the vulnerability of the players involved.

I don’t have the figures from before the signing of the TrackChamp deal, but the average market for First Division games is approximately €650,000 according to Uefa’s BFDS. That’s for each game. On average. In the First Division. I wonder whether the FAI believes there’s a link between the two. I suppose we could just go and ask their integrity officer.

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