Home and Away

Hunt down the snakes who seek to corrupt the game we worship

It is naive for EPL fans to believe only emerging leagues are susceptible to corruption

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 3:51am

The oldest football governing body in the world, the English Football Association, turned 150 years old this week. Better known as the FA, the organisation is credited with writing down the first universally accepted rules of football and establishing the game for the world.

So hats off in honour of Ebenezer Cobb Morley, a man of no-nonsense Victorian pedigree and widely seen as the founding father of football. It was Morley, the captain of Mortlake football club, who wrote to the long defunct Bell's Life newspaper proposing a governing body for the fledgling sport.

On October 26, 1863, representatives of 11 London football clubs and schools met in a London pub. The proceedings were chaired by Morley, a solicitor, justice of the peace, amateur league player and devoted fan of sport and fair play.

As ideas flowed, inky nibs scratched them feverishly on to parchment. By last orders, these upright, incorruptible men agreed upon how best to play and organise the sport we worship, watch and play today. Football's first rules book was drafted and a governing body, the FA, enshrined to safeguard healthy competition and sportsmanship - the very spirit of the game. History was made and a way of life for millions launched.

They don't make them like Ebenezer and his peers any more, do they? These principled sportsmen broke the mould and it often seems the game they created has been sliding down the side of the spittoon ever since. This week the rate of corrosion of their idealism reached warp speed.

Overshadowing what should have been a joyous 150th birthday occasion for the FA, which included a rare England win over Brazil, was the mother of all party spoilers, the release of the Europol report identifying 680 games around the world that are "subject of corrupt activity", aka match fixing.

We knew match fixing existed. But the extent of the report's findings had many of us watching the game at Wembley wondering why Neymar missed a couple of sitters and failed to punish England.

That's the devastating impact of the match-fixing scourge. The cancer and the miserable purveyors of it inflict psychological damage. Trust is eroded. You question if what you are witnessing is true sport or merely a rigged façade hiding a tightly scripted act of malfeasance.

You curse criminal gangs and the gutter kingpins who have wrecked the game for Chinese and other national fan bases. But you cling onto hope, believing they will never import their immoral ways to Britain.

Yet the ringleaders, who are of "Asian origin", are now "working closely together with European facilitators … Russian-speaking and other criminal syndicates".

The once far-flung syndicates are creeping out of their seedy holes like snakes and targeting the prized European leagues.

"Fixers working inside the Asian gambling market have destroyed much of the sport on that continent, so now they are turning their attention to other countries," Declan Hill, author of The Fix: Soccer and Organised crime told the UK media.

Eastern European and the lower leagues of Scandinavia had already been violated, he said. Thankfully, and despite the report identifying the Champions League game between Liverpool and Hungarian side Debrecen as among those games under investigation, there is no proof the EPL or the other UK leagues are affected.

According to Singapore-based football writer Neil Humphreys, author of the best-selling novel Match Fixer, what prevents EPL players from being corrupted is they already have enough money. Who would have thought the greedy corporate takeover of the EPL and the flood of TV cash and ridiculously high wages and transfer fees over the past two decades might prove to be its saviour?

"The only surprising aspect of the Europol report is the contrasting reactions between East and West," Humphreys told this column.

In the Western media there has been "indignation, anger, shock and demands for immediate action, investigations and so forth", he said. "In the Asia, there is a collective shrug of the shoulders. The overriding feeling in Asia is indifference. That's the tragedy.

"Sport reflects its society. A nation's behaviour, attitudes and sensibilities manifest themselves in sport. Until a sports culture replaces a betting culture, match-fixing will never go away."

It is easy for us EPL fans to adopt a smug position and believe it is only remote, emerging leagues that are susceptible to corruption. But as Hill noted, this way of thinking not only smacks of arrogance but is dangerously naive.

"A non-corrupt league is like the myth of the 'unsinkable ship'. It does not exist. There will always be, as the ancient Greeks knew, some risk of corruption in sport," he said.

He noted "gambling is part of the culture for many young British players and some of them risk, and lose, a staggering amount of their wages in gambling".

As it celebrates 150 years of existence, the FA most pressing task might be the establishment of problem-gambling counselling and a clause in players' contracts that allows them to seek help for addictive behaviour without it damaging their professional success.

"They need to back this up with a full-time integrity officer and a well-designed hotline for sports people to be able to anonymously report corrupt approaches," Hill said.

Sport trades on honesty between player and fan. When that arrangement is polluted by greed, sport ceases to exist, as many in China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia and now Australia have found out.

Today when we take our seats for kick-off, we must not only put our faith in the FA but more now than ever we must rely on Fifa and Uefa. We call on them to make like Ebenezer that night in the pub a century and half ago and be upstanding, enforce the rules and hunt down the snakes who seek to corrupt our game and kick them into the long grass.