Blowing the whistle on match-fixing

Sylvia Schenk, a former German Olympic athlete and lawyer, is a senior advisor to Transparency International, the anti-corruption NGO and chair of TI Deutschland, TI’s German chapter.

What a surprise: there is match-fixing in football and the authorities appear to be taken aback. This was not supposed to happen. Four years ago when German referee Robert Hoyzer was indicted for match-fixing and subsequently sentenced to 2 years in prison, the football authorities promised to clean up the sport. Clearly they did not succeed.

Declan Hill in his 2008 book “The Fix” was far more prescient: he described how betting rings had infiltrated and were corrupting European football. Last week’s arrests and announcements have proven him right. For the football authorities meeting this week in Europe and next week in South Africa, this has to be a wake-up call to action.

Football suffers from a structural dearth of transparency, a surplus of cash and a desperate lack of support for the most vulnerable in the game – the players, referees and officials who are not in the top leagues but play week after week for far less glamorous salaries, across the continent. The current state of affairs is unacceptable.

First, football needs a comprehensive compliance system. Each club, at least in the professional leagues, must adopt globally recognised standards of transparency and good governance. These are becoming increasingly common in business, but are rare in professional sport.

Football as a high-risk business, due to the huge public interest and large amounts of money coming from sponsors and the media, has for the most part a rather unsophisticated business culture and structure. Many clubs are not organised like a company with clear responsibilities and reporting and disclosure obligations. In effect, clubs lack what is most important to establish good governance: effective control mechanisms.

Second, football requires a universally accepted code of ethics and guidelines to educate players, referees and officials from all levels on how to face difficult scenarios and conflict of interests. How do they deal with, for example, gifts and invitations?

There needs to be an effective protection system for those who blow the whistle both on and off the pitch. Vulnerable players, referees and officials need to know there is a mechanism to help them say no to inappropriate approaches and to report on suspicious incidents. The early-warning system regarding unusual betting patterns needs to be complemented by early warnings from within the structure of football itself.

Third, a code of ethics has to be combined with clear signals of zero-tolerance of all forms of corruption from the top down. There should be no hidden cash payments and dubious transfers of young players. The headline-grabbing case of Gael Kakuta’s controversial move from Lyon to Chelsea is a case in point.

In the short-term there has to be systematic, high-level prosecution of corruption of all kinds and sufficient punishments to act as deterrents in this cash-rich sport. Countries should be compelled to adopt universally accepted measures so that wrong doing in all countries is punished equally and no country can protect its national sport. The message needs to be loud and clear: corruption does not pay.

The European football association UEFA and its president Michel Platini have started to address the problem. UEFA is cooperating with international law enforcement and the betting industry to establish an early-warning system at least for the top leagues and competitions. The German Football Association introduced two important provisions after the Hoyzer scandal: the names of referees are now published closer to game time, and betting by football players on games in their league is prohibited.

But the roots of corruption cannot be excised simply by the coordinated monitoring of betting websites and an informal ban on betting. Football’s governing bodies have to help national federations and clubs build up professional management structures. The current scandal should help the sport’s governing bodies to analyse systematically the structural deficiencies that open the door for corruption, and find new ways to spot “red flags” and institute the changes required to shut out corrupt behaviour.

If football wants to stay – or in some countries where it is just taking hold become – a premium sport with serious sponsors and public support over the long-term, it has to learn its lesson quickly.

Above all each member of the football family – be it at the international level down to local clubs – has to recognise its responsibility for the future of football.

Sports seen to be corrupt, lose their appeal. The governing bodies of football need to help the beautiful game regain its reputation as an exciting sport where no one – and it should really be no one – knows the result in advance.

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