Match-fixing’s persistence illustrates need for football to examine relationship with gambling

Football authorities decry influence of illegal betting yet all too eager to cash bookmakers' advertising cheques

Stoke City's Erik Pieters, left, celebrates after scoring against Newcastle United during their Premier League match at the Britannia Stadium in Stoke, England, on April 12, 2014. Jon Super / AP Photo
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It looks like Dwight Eisenhower might have been right after all. Let a malign force linger unchallenged in South East Asia and all of a sudden it starts spreading to areas once considered under control.

Singapore and Malaysia have emerged as hotbeds of illegal betting and match fixing in the world of football, with the likes of Dan Tan and the Kelong Kings among the most well-known perpetrators.

Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation continue to furrow their brows and make grave pronouncements about the need to stamp out illegal betting, but, unlike their good friends at the English Football Association, they appear to be in no danger of taking action that might deal with the problem.

Now, almost a year after three Lebanese referees were dropped from an AFC Cup match and later convicted of accepting sexual favours in exchange for fixing said match, South East Asia and the AFC Cup have been linked to match fixing again.

Vietnamese side Ninh Binh has 13 players under investigation for attempting to fix matches in the domestic V-League and the AFC Cup.

According to a Goal.com report, Ninh Binh players accepted 800 million Vietnamese dong (Dh139,000) to fix an AFC Cup match against Malaysian side Kelantan. Their league results are also under scrutiny.

Owner Vu Manh Truong has suspended all club activities while the investigations take place.

Full credit to the club management for taking swift and decisive action to root out the problem, even if it will cause the rest of their league and AFC Cup opponents no small inconvenience in the short term.

The AFC, in case anyone was wondering, has "expressed concern" and is monitoring the situation.

If the thinking is that incidents such as these only happen in poor countries where players and officials can be bought for a song, think again.

Europe has experienced recent match-fixing scandals in Turkey, Austria, Italy, Croatia and England. Even Australia, a country with a booming economy and a tradition of fair play, is far from immune.

That's right, Australia – that land of sun and colour, where making sure everyone has "a fair go" was once part of the national ethos.

Late last year, two players from Southern Stars, a club in the second-tier Victorian Premier League, and a Malaysian middleman were arrested and charged with fixing matches as part of a multimillion-dollar scheme described as the worst such scandal in Australian sporting history.

The players involved received worldwide, lifetime bans from football, while the Malaysian man could end up in jail.

There was a moment of humour during proceedings in Melbourne last week as the court heard the procedure for fixing matches was so unsophisticated the middleman would shout instructions from the sidelines.

The relationship between the worlds of football and gambling needs to be examined.

It is curious how the sport’s grand poobahs can decry the influence of bookmakers and prohibit people involved in football from gambling, yet eagerly cash the cheques from gambling organisations that plaster their ads all over matches.

Ever since the Gambling Act of 2005 came into force in the United Kingdom – removing restrictions that previously only allowed gambling advertising on TV by football pools, bingo and the National Lottery – gambling ads on British TV have risen 600 per cent, to the point where they comprise 4.1 per cent of all TV ads in Britain.

Turn on a random Premier League game and it is not hard to notice how intertwined football and gambling have become.

Every Premier League club has an official betting partner – Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland have two, one at home and another for Asia – and Stoke City, Aston Villa and Fulham have gaming companies as their shirt sponsors.

In fact, Stoke’s chairman also happens to be deeply involved with Bet365, Stoke’s principal club partner and shirt sponsor.

Football’s open embrace of gambling and the revenue it provides seems incongruous when compared to the problems it presents.

The gap between reality and the rhetoric of the game’s decision-makers is harder to ignore.

The perpetrators are not just poorly paid, low-level players – the likes of Andros Townsend (Tottenham), Cameron Jerome (Stoke), Dan Gosling (Newcastle United) and others have fallen foul of gambling regulations recently.

Football at seemingly every professional level is addicted to, or somehow negatively influenced by, gambling and must acknowledge that fact.

This is not to say that anyone who engages in gambling is a degenerate and a threat to society, and neither is it to suggest that those in the gaming industry are amoral vultures taking advantage of the poor and vulnerable.

Rather, the point is that those charged with overseeing football need to take seriously the threat posed by match-fixing and illegal betting – and sacking your security chief weeks after launching a campaign to stop match-fixing is not the way to convince people you unequivocally support that fight.

Much like the issue of performance-enhancing drugs, match-fixing strikes at the trust that is central to the heart of sports.

If fans and athletes cannot trust what they see on the field of competition, then sports might as well be reduced to the level of professional wrestling.

After all, if the result is predetermined, why get worked up about it?

pfreelend@thenational.ae

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