“He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall.” Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus.
It might seem to the cynical observer that the best young footballers have made some Faustian pact with the devil himself. Those with the most natural talent for a game they would otherwise play for the fun of it are lavished with riches from their mid-teens. They can enjoy the adulation of an adoring public when donning a shirt for their clubs or, for that matter, merely for a night out on the town.
Of course cynicism and envy take no account of the hard work and determination that have brought success to these young men, or the ephemeral nature of a career that, it is claimed, leaves 60% of former Premier League footballers bankrupt within five years of retirement. But it is clear from the events reported in the Daily Telegraph last week there are those who are prepared to sacrifice the game we love at the altar of their own self-indulgence.
An alleged conspiracy to defraud bookmakers in English football matches has led to two men already appearing in court, facing charges last Friday relating to events between 1 and 26 November this year. Five other people have been arrested in what appears to be a far-reaching investigation by the National Crime Agency.
The two men in the dock, Chann Sankaran and Krishna Sanjey Ganeshan, are originally from Singapore but their alleged crimes were perpetrated in England. The matches at the centre of the investigation took place in the non-league pyramid, a financial world away from the multibillion-pound glamour of the Premier League.
Still, the news has led to a rearguard action from one of the highest-profile figures in the English game, Arsène Wenger, who as the former Monaco manager pitted his team against Bernard Tapie’s Olympique de Marseille, and so has personal experience of the damage match-fixing can wreak.
“I don’t believe people in England fix matches,” he said. “We live internationally: you can’t stop it at borders. But I’m convinced 99% of the English game is still clean. I just hope this is an isolated incident.”
Everyone in the football industry must also hope Wenger is right but there is a degree of complacency among some other commentators. Many have said in the wake of the scandal’s eruption that the Premier League, with its televised matches broadcast across the globe, is too high profile a competition for the fixers to try it on in one of its games.
On the contrary, it is the ubiquity of the Premier League, and the enduring, if perhaps increasingly unwarranted, reputation for English ‘fair play’ that would make it a prime target for the fixers. Indeed in 2009 three Pakistan international cricketers, including the captain, chose the biggest stage of all in their sport to arrange a fix: a Lord’s Test match, televised before millions of viewers worldwide.
It is self-evident that for a match to be fixed the corrupter has to control at least one player or official and many point out that the riches on offer to the Premier League footballer make him impervious to the forked-tongue flatteries of the fixer. Indeed, the recent claims by one of the alleged fixers that it costs £50,000 to buy a match, recorded by the Telegraph’s undercover cameras, would barely cover a week’s wages for many top-flight footballers in England. So they would seem unlikely to take such risks for so little.
But the trial of those cricketers – the captain, Salman Butt, and the bowlers Muhammad Asif and Mohammad Amir – shows that even some of a country’s richest men can be bought for a few dollars more. Indeed, far from being insulated from the phenomenon, fixing a match for gambling purposes might sometimes be more tempting for some of the rich young men of football than it is for Muslim cricketers.
I was once told by the late Peter Kay, an addiction specialist who helped countless footballers tackle their dependencies at the Sporting Chance clinic, that he knew of “at least one player at every Premier League club who’s fucked with gambling.”
Those players have probably not beaten the bookie, the house’s roulette wheel or the croupier’s card table with their reckless betting. In fact, given how under the game’s integrity regulations a footballer may not bet on those competitions he is involved in, many might be tempted to avoid discovery through the Mephistophelean embrace of the illegal layer.
For as Peter Limacher, who for 17 years ran UEFA’s disciplinary-services department, told me: “What do players do when they are not at training? If they go to a casino this is where they can be approached by the shady figures involved in the fixing. That’s the reality.”
If any of them do, then they open a door every bit as dangerous as Faust’s gate to hell, as the fixers often run far deeper criminal activities than merely the fixing: players putting themselves in their hands are opening themselves to threats and menaces from professional villains.
The court heard in the Butt trial from Ravi Sawani, the chief investigator at the governing International Cricket Council. He told how illegal betting is part of an extensive and sophisticated “mafia” operation. “In the 1990s mobile phones came in and the TV pick-up came in more and more, and that’s when betting increased in cricket,” said Sawani. “You have guys on a telephone line and they have a telephone exchange of their own.
“The number is given only to an authorised person and these lines are going on only when a match is live. Bets can be put on up to 10 seconds before an event. They square up the accounts the next day and destroy all the evidence.”
Thus those at the very top of the fixing networks are as adept at covering their tracks as the top defenders are at denying a route to goal. And with good reason, for they have vast incomes to protect.
The Interpol director Ron Noble, speaking in 2010, said illegal gambling added up to a $500 billion global industry. This is what makes it worth the while of the fixers to pay up to £1 million to fix the result of a Test match, £400,000 for a one-day international and £250,000 for a Twenty20. (These are the prices the convicted fixer Mazhar Majeed quoted an undercover reporter whose investigation led to the conviction.) To believe that the highest-profile football matches would not generate similar sums would dangerously mix credulousness with complacency.
It is, however, fair to say that one protection against fixing is how footballers are naturally competitive souls and the betrayal of a dressing room in favour of a fixed result would not sit easily with any of them. But this is why the most disturbing element of the disclosures made by the Daily Telegraph in the course of its investigation into Sankaran and Ganeshan’s alleged activities was that they do not necessarily target the result of games but the number of goals scored. This echoes what was fixed by Butt, Asif and Amir at Lord’s during that 2009 Test match: how a number of no-balls would be bowled in the Pakistan innings at appointed times.
This kind of “spot fixing” might seem to an ingenuous footballer an innocuous thing to do. With a football match already won 3-0, the opportunity to satisfy a man prepared to forgive you the tens of thousands you owe him by letting in the fourth goal he wants to see scored might be very tempting.
But the consequences of complicity to such an event could be perilous, opening the player up to blackmail demands for the same or worse to be delivered again in future. To this end the reports that a former Premier League player turned agent is among those to have been arrested – reports that are sufficiently compelling for the Telegraph to have named the ex-player – are deeply concerning.
Majeed was Butt’s agent and trusted friend. He exploited the relationship to become the captain’s conduit to the match-fixing underworld, and if well connected agents are doing the same in football then it is deeply disturbing.
The agent in question purports to be a consultant to an African football association: might his influence there be malign? Have the fixers infiltrated international football?
The game faces a potentially devastating threat from the villains who care nothing for the industry that sustains them. Regrettably it seems that the football authorities risk also having a similarly devil-may-care attitude.
Under resourced in the area of integrity, sports authorities have in both the cricket match fixing and the more recent alleged football conspiracy cases required the efforts of investigative journalists to uncover what is going on in their own backyards. This is truly dismaying.
As an extension to the Bush administrations’ War on Drugs, the World Anti-Doping Agency was enthusiastically embraced by sport. But sport’s political establishment curiously suppresses any talk of a World Anti-Corruption Agency that would be sufficiently resourced to root out the match fixers.
This does not sit well. In the absence of political will among the authorities it is essential those participants who care about their sport – and the commercial riches underpinned by its integrity – should protect themselves.
For if not, the demons will enthusiastically seize football’s soul.
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.