Matt Scott: Football’s good fortune is that fans only see fixtures, not fixes

Search Google News for “Manchester City United” after the Premier League champions’ 4-1 defeat to their local rivals and you will return 12.2 million results. Search the same channel for “Singapore match fixing arrests” and you get back 14,300 articles.

Naturally there is a tremendous amount of tribal braggadocio at stake in any derby between title chasers, and Sunday’s 4-1 win for City was certainly action packed. But in the grand scheme of things it amounts only to 1⁄38 of a single Premier League season for each club.

What has been going on in Singapore, which culminated in 14 people being detained there last week, could have a far profounder effect on the game as a whole. Yet comparatively few seem to be paying attention.

People might perhaps overlook it because Singapore is ranked 159th in the world by FIFA. But the fact is this has very little to do with football in the Asian city state. The alleged activity the people in Singapore have been arrested for threatens the integrity of the game all over the world.

A couple of years back I sat through every day of a trial in a British Crown Court involving the captain of the Pakistan national cricket team and two of his team-mates. The methods uncovered by the so-called ‘spot-fixing trial’ reflected the staggering sophistication and penetration of the criminal networks involved.

At the time Ronald Noble, the secretary-general of Interpol, described an underworld business worth, in Asia alone, $500 billion every year. Even for a sport accustomed to big numbers that one is truly colossal.

According to Deloitte, the total combined revenues of Europe’s 20 richest football clubs in the 2010-11 season was €4.4 billion, or $3.3 billion.
Sure, the top international cricketers earn substantially less than even journeymen top-flight footballers and honesty derives in part from the risk-reward ratio of breaking the law.

But there are risks intrinsic to football that other sports do not run.
Last week this column discussed the potential influence of unseen, offshore owners in the market for players[ player-trades-boost-third-party-balance-sheets]. Given third-party owners’ secrecy-jurisdiction anonymity and presence outside the football- governance structure, the model leaves players vulnerable to influences from the unregulated.

Third-party owners must weigh only their own scruples against their profit motives when considering the temptation of low-risk, high-potential-reward extremes of behaviour.
Then there are the extremes of behaviour of the players themselves. Stories about the ‘card schools’ in the England team under Kevin Keegan at the turn of this century were not isolated. In 2007 the former England internationals John Terry and Jonathan Woodgate were both alleged to be regular gamblers, frequently placing four-figure cash bets.

The latter, a Real Madrid player at the time, reportedly wagered £1.8 million, winning back £1.65m, during a two-year injury lay-off.
There is absolutely no suggestion either player has ever been involved in match-fixing but their situations illustrate a general point: footballers who run up unaffordable debts to bookmakers place themselves in invidious positions.

Noble has spoken about the recent Singapore arrests, in an operation Interpol was apparently involved in. Speaking in Singapore at a topping-out ceremony for Interpol’s Global Complex for Innovation, Noble said Singapore’s arrests mean critics “should open their eyes and look at the facts.”

This smacked of self-congratulation from a man whose organisation has taken €8 million from FIFA over the past two years to fund its match-fixing efforts. Given the half-trillion-dollar scale of the problem they are supposedly tackling, the lack of resources available to the anti-corruption cadre is indeed eye opening. Perhaps it is as well for football’s reputation that the fans are looking elsewhere.

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