The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Sylvia Schenk Headshot

Football Needs to Protect Its Integrity

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

The spectacle of a police raid at the Italian national team's training camp days on the eve of the start of the European Football Championship today and the arrest of top players for alleged match-fixing was a sorry indictment of the state of football. If the stars of the game can't play by the rules what message does this send to the billions of fans and millions of players, coaches and referees worldwide?

Football needs to keep its integrity to preserve its popularity. The essence of competitive sport is that you don't know the result at the start. If you lose that, you lose everything that makes a fan's heart beat faster and a player fight hard. But you also lose an important opportunity to show the youth of the world that fair play and 100 per cent effort - plus luck sometimes - win the day. It is one of life's most important lessons.

There are two types of match fixing, one for sporting reasons and one for betting reasons. The first usually occurs at the end of a season when teams face relegation or have nothing to play for. This has, in some countries, become a tradition with people inside and outside football also seeing it as an opportunity to bet on the sport.

Match fixing for betting is usually the domain of organised crime, either on a small scale or transnationally. Online betting has changed the scope of this type of match-fixing. Today billions of dollars are in play every day on thousands of games across Europe, making gambling as well as fixing easier and more lucrative.

Both types of match fixing require people inside football - players, referees, coaches or other officials - to organise a fix. In both situations, the only way to avoid systemic match-fixing is to instil a culture of zero tolerance for bribery and create an environment where vulnerable actors have a place to turn.

For a start, the world of football has to acknowledge the scope of match fixing and its damaging potential and develop a serious strategy to stop it. So far this is not happening.

When match fixing cases come to light it is usually through national law enforcement activities in a specific country, not because football is policing itself. FIFA has teamed up with Interpol recently and said it will make match fixing a priority but little concrete has happened globally at club level since the announcement last year. And just this week the head of anti-corruption at UEFA, which is organising the European Championships, resigned.

Fighting corruption is not easy when huge sums of money are involved and a long tradition of fixing for sporting reasons in some countries brings with it no sense of wrongdoing. At Transparency International we encounter this when we tackle corruption in politics and business where in many parts of the world people believe bribery is simply "business as usual."

But there are best-practice methods to tackle corruption in business that can be transferred to football that would help in the development of an education and prevention strategy combat match-fixing.

First is to educate everyone on what zero tolerance for bribery means. The tone has to come from the top. Football management has to show it is committed to fighting corruption. This includes zero tolerance for match-fixing for sporting reasons, which will be more difficult in some football cultures than others. This can be made explicit in a code of conduct that everyone - from owners to players - signs.

Second, it requires a well-thought out education programme, repeated regularly with all people involved in football, which shows clearly how match-fixing works, its risks and how to say no.

Players and referees are probably the weakest links. Not every player has the salary of a Didier Drogba or Christiano Ronaldo. In fact, in some leagues clubs regularly fail to pay their players at all, according to the 2012 FIFApro Black Book, the professional players' organisation published in January 2012. Situations like that can make a player vulnerable. Players or referees who have run up gambling debts - and this is usually a way that organised crime can manipulate victims - will also find it harder to resist when they are asked to fix a match.

Third, all players and referees should be required to report any attempt at manipulation. To do this they need safe channels, including an ombudsman that everyone trusts and a credible whistle blower protection programme.

One would be naïve to think this will be easy. Criminals often threaten violence and retribution on families and friends and each country's culture has its own obstacles to accepting whistleblowing.

For now the match fixers believe that they can operate in relative security because so few actually get punished and there is still a sense that match-fixing is a victimless crime. But as more scandals erupt, fans will begin to see themselves as the victims because without competition football will lose its appeal. This will eventually result in a boycott, as is already beginning in Italy where gate receipts are suffering. When this happens around the world perhaps football will wake up and take some serious preventative action. Let's hope it's not too late.

Around the Web

From match-fixing to injuries and poor preparation, Italy travels to Poland ...

Buffon issues emotional appeal to Italy'

Match-fixing and earthquakes disrupting Italy

Juve's Pepe, Stellini probed in match-fixing trial