Andrew Warshaw: The greatest betrayal of all

Next time you go and watch your local team and you see a totally unnecessary foul or an unexplained provocation leading to a red or yellow card, it might not be because of a rush of blood to the head by the player involved.

Likewise next time you see a crazy penalty or some other ridiculous refereeing decision, it might not be because of genuine if irritating human error.

FIFA and UEFA are both rightly criticised at times for failing to address the game’s ills and trying to serve their own interests. But there is ample evidence to back up the constant assertions of Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini that match-fixing is the greatest evil afflicting the game, with the former calling for lifetime bans. Yes, racism is abhorrent in all its forms and yes, corruption in football’s high places needs weeding out. But neither has spread its tentacles with such alarming rapidity as match-fixing.

The only surprise over the latest revelations that have struck at the heart of English football is that anyone was surprised at all despite the country being regarded as the bastion of fair play. English FA general secretary Alex Horne may have remarked that spot-fixing was not a “wide-scale” problem at the moment yet it was only a matter of time before the criminals, rather like computer hackers, got their claws into the English game in the same way that so many football nations around the world have been targeted, including other supposedly “clean” leagues in countries like Germany, Canada and Australia.

Most people woke up to the grim reality when Europol came out with those startling occurrences of match-fixing by revealing 680 games globally deemed suspicious, 380 of which were in Europe. But even then, there was an unspoken attitude of “not us, old boy” swirling around certain federations who were happy to wag the finger at their naughty neighbours in the safe knowledge that their own house was seemingly in order.

Now there is no hiding place – for anyone. If we end up getting to the stage where there is no longer any point in paying good money to watch a game, we may as well all go home. What we need – as match-fixing investigators keep telling us – are solutions: at all levels.

How many clubs, do you think, sit new players down when they first walk through the door and warn them about the dangers of spot betting or match-fixing? They are far more likely to check for bumps and bruises and discuss personal terms and positional play than they are to discourage being sucked in by Asian gambling dens.

The clubs could do more to reduce the temptation to play dirty off the field as well as on it. Last year, I remember, FIFPro, football’s international trade union, conducted a survey of 3,357 professional players in eastern Europe and found 41% had not received their salaries on time, while 12% said they had been asked to manipulate a match. No wonder those paid late or not at all licked their lips at a nice windfall, however illegally acquired.

One other possible solution is to have a safe and reliable mechanism for reporting illegal approaches without fear of retribution. Players and officials are often warned by the fixers that if they snitch on the agreed operation, their lives and the lives of their families will be in mortal danger. Instead, they should be empowered to speak out.

It’s not only clubs, however, who need to take action. The huge Asian betting market, the source of most of the illicit activity, is appallingly regulated so education needs be matched by tougher legislation with sporting authorities, police, governments and bookmakers sharing suspicious information. Some do already but they need to step it up.

Sportradar, widely regarded as the leading global fraud detection agency, revealed to Insideworldfootball back in March – in other words nine months ago – that a vast majority of countries in Europe suffered from match-fixing with up to 300 games per season rigged, statistics that exposed the true extent of the crisis. Out of UEFA’s 53 member countries at the time, at least 45 of them had been affected in varying degrees, the company said.

If such figures didn’t make all stakeholders wince at the time, they certainly should now. The fact that the very soul of the game is endangered has only just started to dawn on some national governing bodies. In China, for instance, attendances have dried up due partly to mistrust over match-fixing.

A couple of months ago the president of Spain’s La Liga cautioned at a conference in London that at least eight matches per season were fixed in his top two divisions. While much collaborative work has been done between the investigatory bodies worldwide, the fact remains that the culprits too often seem to be one step ahead.

This is a fact not lost on Chris Eaton, former head of security at FIFA who some accuse of being a publicity seeker but who has made a lifetime’s work of monitoring match-fixing trends and will continue to speak out until national governments catch on to the crisis.

Eaton believes governments have to stop shirking their responsibilities and police football properly. Only if there is an effective crackdown on the criminal gangs involved, he says, can the cheating and manipulation cease. And to do that, you have to make match-fixing a criminal offence.

Otherwise trust, that essential commodity on which the very bedrock of professional sport is based both for the athlete and the paying customer, sails down the Swanee. Sadly it may have already started to go that way.

Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent at insideworldfootball.com. Contact Andrew at moc.l1713611285labto1713611285ofdlr1713611285owedi1713611285sni@w1713611285ahsra1713611285w.wer1713611285dna1713611285