The theatre of nightmares

Entrapment might not always be the most admirable, let alone efficient, way to snare villains — dirty tricks have a habit of leaving all hands unclean — but there was something entirely apposite about this week’s Daily Telegraph sting operation which exposed alleged match-fixing in English football.

For here, after all, was a meeting with an alleged fixer which was rigged from start to finish, the final outcome — front page headlines, breast-beating, finger-pointing and general moral convulsion — pretty much a forgone conclusion from the moment the parties sat down in a Manchester hotel with hidden cameras and tapes a-rollin’.

Of course, the very fact the fixer was attempting to impress his opposite number suggests we should be wary of taking his every word as gospel. “I do Australia, Scotland, Ireland, Europe, World Cup, World Cup qualifier,” he declared at one point, sounding, as any good salesman should, almost too eager to please.

Still, the alacrity with which a number of people have been arrested and two already charged with conspiracy to defraud bookmakers confirms how seriously the latest revelations are being taken, although there has also been criticism of the authorities in England for failing to act before now on a problem which is widespread in world football.

As recently as 2012 a Europol investigation, covering the years from 2008 to 2011, identified 680 games it deemed suspect, 380 of which took place in Europe. Against that kind of global backdrop, and in the face of instantaneous modern technology allied to the reach of international betting syndicates, the idea that ye olde island fortress of England could remain impregnable is clearly fanciful.

For all the talk of World Cup and Champions League games coming under attack, it’s no surprise either that non-league football has been at the centre of the latest allegations. It has been reported that, earlier this year, more than £1 million was staked in Asian betting markets on a game between Welling and Billericay Town despite the match itself only drawing a crowd of 408 spectators. Said the Billericay Town chairman Steve Kent: “It was a phenomenal amount of money. There was more money bet on our game than on the Barcelona game [in the Champions League the same night].”

The appeal of lower and non-league football to the fixers is obvious: comparatively poorly paid players would be deemed more vulnerable to enticement to throw a game. Also at risk of coming under criminal pressure, one presumes, would be the player who has himself run into serious financial problems as a result of gambling debts. The betting firms, ever protective of their own bottom line, might be the first to flag concern about those infamous “irregular betting patterns” which suggest the fix might be in, but in their eagerness to encourage punts on everything from the first throw-in to the final score they are hardly paragons of virtue in this whole dark saga.

Ironically, it’s the huge amounts of money sloshing around the upper reaches of the game in England which should make it less susceptible to malign influence: a player trousering around 150 grand a week is hardly likely to be too easily tempted by even a 50,000 pound top up.

Our own domestic game is, of course, literally and metaphorically, in a different league. In light of the revelations of the last few days, the FAI have been quick to play down any suggestion of a major problem in this country but, if that is indeed the case, then they can take some credit themselves for acting decisively when the problem has reared its head in the past.

Earlier this year, the Longford Town midfielder Colm James incurred an 18-month suspension, unprecedented in length, for breaching FAI rules in relation to “bringing the game into disrepute”, “corruption” and “betting/gambling”.

And while a lengthy investigation didn’t uncover evidence of any match actually being fixed, League of Ireland director Fran Gavin made clear in its aftermath that he believed the domestic game, as a whole, had dodged a bullet.

“We strongly believe there was a group involved in approaching the player from outside our jurisdiction,” he said. “We have no evidence that any matches were fixed but we think there was an attempt to set up a network to try and get games fixed. So, from our point of view, it was definitely an attack on the integrity of the league.

“We’ve seen what can happen in other leagues around the world when you get a situation with match fixing. Everybody needs to be very vigilant regarding anything similar to this case happening in the future. The good thing about the League of Ireland is that it’s a very close-knit family. Very little happens around the league that people don’t hear on the grapevine somewhere. We feel that this investigation has nipped it in the bud before it went anywhere.”

It might be stating the bleeding obvious but the reason match-fixing matters is because it goes right to the heart of competitive sport — and unceremoniously rips it out. The great beauty of sport, the very essence of its compelling appeal, is that the unfolding drama is unscripted. From the first tee or the first whistle, there is no absolute guarantee that the final outcome will go according to form, logic or expert opinion. And luck will always have its say.

Take away that unpredictability, as match-fixing endeavours to do, and all you’re left with is theatre — the theatre of nightmares.

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Saturday, June 19, 2021

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