As the Thierry Henry story rumbles on into its fourth day, a story is starting to break which might begin to put it into perspective. It is a story that is breaking from Germany and involves the arrest of seventeen people in connection with what would be the biggest, most systematic match-fixing ring that European football has ever seen. It concerns the fixing of over two hundred matches across nine countries in Europe for betting and the amount of money concerned is said to be over €10m. If true, it is a story that is going to break a lot of hearts and finish a lot of careers across the entire continent.
Europe’s big four – England, Spain, Italy and France – are so far untouched by the scandal, although all have had their own problems with betting in the past. The nine countries concerned are Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, Turkey, Hungary, Bosnia and Austria and the allegations involve a range of matches, including the German second division, the Turkcell Super Lig, the Europa League and even the early stages of the Champions League. The arrests are connected to Ante and Milan Sapina, Croatian brothers that were imprisoned in Germany in 2005 for fixing a referee, Robert Hoyzer. Hoyzer was imprisoned for two years and five months. The very fact that these two are again being investigated for match-fixing asks serious questions of the “early warning system” that UEFA introduced after the 2005 scandal.
It certainly shouldn’t be surprising that the allegations should be centred on the Asian betting circles. It is almost difficult to quantify how big football betting is in the Far East, and modern spread betting allows people to win enormous amounts remarkably quickly. If anything, it is something of a surprise that England, France, Spain and Italy aren’t also implicated. Received wisdom says that it is considerably easier to bet on matches involving smaller clubs – the players earn less, the referees are less well protected and less people are watching. The police have already investigated match-fixing in the Blue Square Premier and the sad truth of the matter is that, considering the breadth of the allegations made in Germany, it would be less than a complete surprise if more unpleasant truths didn’t come out in the futures.
Having said that, however, the FA take the potential of the problem very seriously. There are some that scoff when the FA ban players for betting on themselves to win, but the zero tolerance system employed in this country has, as far as we know, not led to any widespread impropriety in the English game. Yet. There was certainly an attempt to fix matches in the Blue Square Premier in the last year, and it is fairly reasonable to argue that it is more of a concern during the periods when there are no allegations of corruption in English football, because the fact that there aren’t is more likely to be due to a failure to detect incidents of it rather than because nobody is seeking to fix football in this country.
The responsibility for this is, of course, all-encompassing. The football authorities, who, this week, have been widely accused of fixing the final thirty-two at the World Cup, have to do what they can to ensure that matches are played fairly. A more even distribution of prize and sponsorship money may help in this respect, but in the realpolitik of football moves to distribute money more even-handedly are always met with howls of anguish by those that would nominally lose out. Governments worldwide also have a responsibility to do what they can to discourage illegal betting through legislation. Most importantly, though, those that are already lucky enough to make a living from football have a duty of care and responsibility towards supporters and consumers of their sport to play and administrate the game fairly.