Here are some facts I can say for certain:
- The top level of English football has had players convicted for throwing games before.
- The top level of Italian football has suffered from no less than four major match fixing scandals.
- UEFA investigated reports of match-fixing in Champions League matches in 2009.
- Four FIFA games where the referees awarded 7 penalties were fixed in 2011.
- Europol announced that it is investigating match-fixing from UEFA Champions League matches from 2009 along with some 680 other matches in the biggest match-fixing scandal to ever hit any sport.
- And I could go on…
There have also been convictions in other sports, such as the NBA, baseball, hockey, rugby, boxing, and cricket. All of which is to say that corruption exists in sports. And it has been that way since the first athlete took a dive in the first Olympic games.
The problem is these scandals are becoming more common place every year, the investigations more superficial, and the money at stake exponentially larger such that it threatens to undermine the very belief in football. To turn it into what professional wrestling refers to as “kayfabe” or just a show, a suspension in disbelief.
It’s already so bad that we have started wondering out loud whether certain things that happen on the pitch and in the halls of the FA, UEFA, and FIFA are the actions of corrupt officials. To be clear, I am not accusing anyone of corruption but who among you has not heard from numerous sources various questions about the governing bodies?
For example, how many people believe that Qatar bribed their way to host the World Cup? Few will say it in print, because they are afraid of repercussions, but I’ve had plenty of conversations with plenty of people who will say it outright in person and who may even say it here in the comments on this blog. I’m not saying that Qatar bribed FIFA to host the World Cup. What I’m saying is that the belief that they did matters, because it means that a significant number of people don’t have faith in the authorities who are charged with policing our game.
Baseball suffered a series of match-fixing scandals from the later part of the 19th century up until the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919. Corruption in baseball was widespread in that period and it took some harsh rules, harsh punishments, and an iron-fisted commissioner to stamp it out.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis was elected commissioner of baseball in 1920 and immediately enacted a rule whereby no player is allowed to gamble on baseball, ever. Moreover, any player or official who is even approached must report immediately to the authorities or suffer a lifetime ban from the sport. If a man like Kenesaw Mountain Landis was head of FIFA would Antonio Conte be a manager right now? I don’t know, but I do know that he is tipped to be the next manager of Chelsea. In so doing, he would bring a scandal-ridden career to the English Premier League. Exactly the kind of thing that should never be allowed to happen.
And for the average fan, there’s always the suspicion that a referee has it out for your team. For example, Mike Dean’s record refereeing Arsenal games is, bar none, the strangest record I have seen in professional sport. In the last 20 times Mike Dean has refereed an Arsenal match, the Gunners have only won twice and have never been awarded a penalty despite many clear-cut fouls in the area. Surely this is just coincidence but even still, the League’s refusal to introduce technology such as Instant Replay officiating, or change the Laws exacerbates a public perception that officials are influencing games. And whether that’s through corruption or bias is irrelevant.
In addition to the weak ways that FIFA and UEFA deal with allegations of corruption among coaches like Conte and the way that they refuse to bring the game into the 21st century, there’s too much room for error in the way the laws are written: the offside laws are bizarre, these ideas of “intent” and “aggression” are antiquated, the way that advantage is handled is one of the easiest ways that an official could cheat, and officials are afforded far too much protection post match. FIFA, UEFA, and the FA need to re-write or at least re-jigger the Laws of the Game.
I’d start by banning gambling, the nexus from which all of this corruption spews. Any player, coach or official who gambles on any football match is banned for a year; anyone who gambles on their own team is banned for life; anyone who is approached by anyone to throw a match and refuses to report it is also banned for life.
Then I’d fix the offside rule. Simplify it so that even Tony Pulis can understand it. This active/inactive stuff just confuses everyone and while I understand the intent of the rule, the implementation is just disastrous. Why are we arguing over whether a player is inactive? Why is a player allowed to be offside at all? To increase scoring? Well, then why have an offside rule?
So too with whether a player “meant to do” something. Who cares if Taylor meant to break Eduardo’s leg? He lunged, studs up, over the ball, and did break Eduardo’s leg. Surely that’s a red card. Why is this not codified somewhere? And I don’t mean in the mealy-mouthed way that it’s written now.
Similarly, the advantage rule is the one rule that I feel gives referees too much leeway in terms of effecting games. Arsenal, for example, are often gifted “advantage” when the opposition fouls an Arsenal player in the middle of the park or even in their own defensive third. That “advantage” almost never turns into a goal because it’s not an actual advantage. Conversely, the same official will almost always stop play for the same infraction when Arsenal commit a foul against a long ball team, regardless of where the infraction occurs because stoppage of play actually does gift that team an advantage. Advantage should only be given when the attacking team has a clear chance at goal.
An finally, Major League Soccer introduced post-match refereeing of games last season and it has been a success. If you refuse instant replay because it will slow the game down then at the very least you have to do what MLS has done and look at the tapes of all games and punish players retroactively for red-card offenses.Officials get things wrong, it’s OK to admit that they are not Gods.
With the unveiling of Europol’s incredible allegations, World football is suffering from it’s very own Black Sox scandal and it is teetering on the edge of being about as believable as Professional Wrestling. What football needs is a time machine to get itself out of the 19th century in regards to the Laws of the game, technology, corruption, and gambling. It needs a Kenesaw Mountain of a man to lead the game into the new era. Sadly, it has Platini and Blatter.