A Sport That Ignores What It Doesn’t Like


I love football, but there’s something about the game that’s pretty hard to deny.

Football, above and beyond any other sport, is incredibly good at ignoring problems.

Its leaders are incredibly good at wishing they’d go away.

I’m writing a lengthy piece for this site on the continuing trials Scottish football is enduring as the supporters look for answers, and leadership, on the issues that continue to swirl around Ibrox, and in the introduction to that piece I praised the role of the English FA in getting to the bottom of serious problems that faced the game south of the border, like match fixing.

But the English FA is as good at ignoring hard questions as the one at Hampden.

On some issues, they do show their resolve.

On others, they are oddly silent.

I’m not blaming the FA for that, by the way. It’s a football thing, a cross culture, transnational problem.

So many people love the Global Game that any criticism of it seems like sacrilege.

There are even officials, and journalists, who flatly refuse to dig for evidence of widespread malfeasance because they don’t want to find any.

When allegations are made it’s often easier to ignore them and hope they go away, than to accept that what we’re watching every week isn’t straight.

Up here in Scotland, one of the most serious allegations made in the last couple of years relates to players betting on games.

When several players went in front of an SFA tribunal in 2013 voices in the media alternated between outrage and disbelief … but all of it was directed at the governing bodies for being so brutal in their treatment of the players.

In point of fact, the sentences at the end of the hearings were so lenient as to have been virtually non-existent.

Then Rangers player Ian Black was given a ten match ban with seven of them suspended, for betting on over 160 matches, including three where he bet against his own team.

Most observers outside the media bubble regarded that as a slap on the wrist.

His former team-mate Kevin Kyle appeared in the press shortly afterwards to say gambling in the game was “rife”.

Within a day a former footballer alleged that there was an epidemic of it, and that players he knew frequently bet against their own clubs.

The most serious intervention, by far, came from then Rangers manager Ally McCoist, who waved a sheaf of papers in front of the media at a press conference later that week on which he claimed were hundreds of names including, he said, managers, players and even officials, who he knew were gambling on games week in week out.

Hearing this claim, you couldn’t help wonder what the governing bodies would make of it.

I anticipated a serious investigation; it is, after all, an explosive allegation.

What happened instead still appals me.

No media outlet asked him to clarify his claims.

No SFA official called him to a hearing.

His remarks stand on the record to this day, un-contradicted but also unexplained.

This is a failure at every level, allowing a potential scandal to grow under the surface, with those involved knowing there’s no appetite to go digging.

Last week, Arsene Wegner made an allegation about doping in football which has been treated the same way.

Only Daniel Taylor, of The Guardian, has put his head above the parapet as yet, to suggest that football must not sweep these allegations under the carpet.

I fear that’s exactly what will happen though, because this, like gambling amongst players, is one of those areas the game simply doesn’t want to go.

Cheating refs will usually always get caught, likewise with match-fixing.

It’s not common, so those on the periphery will always be willing to talk in an effort to root it out.

But players putting on the occasional bet, or the use of performance enhancing drugs?

One suspects that Wegner is right on the money, but also that it’s so prevalent and widespread that the impact on the sport would be just too big if all the skeletons came out of the cupboards.

If a scandal in sport involves a handful of people, it’s easier to demand harsh punishments all round.

When it involves hundreds, many of them high profile, there’s less desire to see justice done.

No-one wants to deal with the consequences of finding out that major tournaments and huge games have been settled by fraud or by performance enhancing drugs.

Acts of football giant killing, heroism, everything that goes into creating the mythologies of certain events or certain clubs … there’s a real interest in keeping that stuff pure.

Yet without that kind of scrutiny how do we know what we’re watching is a clean game?

I’ve said before that my experience leads me to believe that at least one match in which I’ve had an emotional stake has been either wholly or partially rigged, and whilst I was specifically talking about gambling syndicates I might as well have been talking about doping.

The Celtic manager, Ronny Deila, was brought to the club with the explicit aim of improving the general fitness of the players and there have been times when it’s almost looked as if it was working. Yet in numerous ties, particularly against continental opposition, we’ve looked a yard slow and our opponents almost superhumanly fit.

Am I suggesting doping? Of course not.

Celtic were lamentable in those games; what I’m saying is that teams who are super-fit can make any team look ordinary and nothing will keep you running all day like some of those drugs athletes are banned from using.

Taylor, in his Guardian piece, discusses some of the games where he knows it’s happened, and the memories people have of them are pretty clear that the difference was noticeable.

Do I think it’s happened in modern football?

Hell yes, of course it has.

With the vast amounts of money now swirling around the sport it’s bound to have.

In fact, the Russian athletics head who’s just been caught was on the staff at Zenit St Petersburg, who’s European record is such now that they’re a major Champions League seed … despite a squad comprised nearly all of home grown footballers.

How, in the modern age, does that happen?

Are they just an extraordinarily well run club or is there something else going on behind the scenes?

To me, speaking as someone who loves football, who would watch it even if it was Brighton Under 15 Ladies versus their Port Vale contemporaries, it shocks me what we allow to happen in the sport and it sometimes seems as if the whole game is sitting atop a volcano of scandal, just waiting to erupt.

Ignoring people like Wegner – who, let’s face it, hardly comes across as a paranoid conspiracy theorist type – only delays that day; it doesn’t prevent it.

Ultimately, sooner or later, one of these issues is going to blow up on us, whether it’s match fixing, gambling, doping or whatever.

Like the shockwaves going through FIFA right now, it will change the way we think about this sport, and for a long time to come.

But then we’ll know.

Then we’ll at least know the game is clean.