LONDON - It has not been a good week for the beautiful game.
Joey Barton was banned for 18 months for gambling, Newcastle United and West Ham United were raided by the tax man and David Moyes was charged for possible “threatening behavior” toward a female reporter.
Football has battled against betting, backhanders and bullying for column inches and air-time as the season reaches its climax.
On Wednesday the English Football Association hit Barton with an 18-month ban and a £30,000 fine for 1,260 bets worth £205,172, at a loss of £16,708 between 2006 and 2016. Players, indeed anyone involved in the sport, are not allowed to bet on a match or competition in which they are involved that season, or which they can influence; or any other football-related matter concerning the league that they play in.
Barton, 34, was addicted to gambling (he said he is over it now), but in his case practice certainly did not make his betting perfect. He was the dream punter for any bookmaker because he lost a lot of money though it was Betfair, the company Barton used, which notified the F.A. when it came to its attention that the player was in breach of the governing body’s regulations.
His argument that he never placed a bet on his team when he was involved is not the strongest or most accurate of defenses. “I am pleased that my integrity on that point has not been in question,” Barton said, forgetting that he once bet £5 on Manchester City teammate Georgios Samaras not to be the first scorer during a match against Fulham when Barton played (a rare bet he won).
The hypocrisy is that football is happy to take gambling companies’ sponsorship yet bans those involved in the sport from effectively using the product it benefits from so handsomely.
The F.A.’s betting partner is Ladbrokes while the Football League is sponsored by Sky Bet. Ten of the 20 Premier League clubs have betting companies as shirt sponsors, including Barton’s club, Burnley. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that without bookmakers English football would be financially challenged, so the F.A. and clubs are never going to refuse the millions that comes their way from betting companies.
Earlier this season, the Scottish F.A. (whose domestic cup is sponsored by a betting company, William Hill) gave Barton a one-match suspension after placing 44 bets while with Rangers.
Barton said the English F.A. did not consider his addiction by imposing such a lengthy ban that realistically ends his career, though he is appealing against the suspension. Eighteen months seems very harsh — it is twice as long as Eric Cantona was given for his kung-fu kick at a spectator.
If the F.A. wants to send out a clear message that those involved in football cannot bet on the sport, it has succeeded. However, such punishments would be more credible and rest more easily if the sport was not accepting millions of pounds from the betting industry those involved in football must avoid.
Meanwhile, HM Revenue & Customs is investigating alleged secret payments — kickbacks — to players and agents in a £5 million fraud with Olympique Marseille at the center of the inquiry. The sheer scale of the swoops on West Ham and Newcastle involving almost 200 officers is unprecedented and HMRC is thought to be focusing on whether any agent has been paid twice, once for representing the player and again for representing the club, but only declaring one of the payments for tax purposes. While it is not illegal for an intermediary to represent both parties, it is an area of concern for the tax authorities.
There is also the possibility of a “sweetener”being paid to a club official or an agent to “help” a deal go through. A Premier League inquiry into illegal payments found the money trail impossible to follow — “once you get to a bank in Luxembourg, Switzerland or Liechtenstein you hit a wall,” one of the investigators told me. The Premier League did not have the authority to force agents, who know all the secrets, to reveal their finances.
HMRC has far more clout, and some of those involved in transfers of players from France to England may be sleeping uneasily because potentially this could be one of the biggest scandals to hit English football for a long time.
One person who has been charged is Sunderland manager David Moyes after telling BBC reporter Vicki Sparks that she might “get a slap.” While the official TV interview had finished, the camera was still recording.
Saying Sparks “might get a slap even though you’re a woman” and that she should be “careful” next time she visited was ill-advised though it was meant in jest, not literally, and Sparks accepted Moyes’ apology. The social media PC brigade was soon up and running and the F.A. said his remarks were “improper and/or threatening and/or brought the game into disrepute.”
I do not condone what Moyes said, but I am uneasy about what he thought was a private exchange was subsequently sold (presumably) to a tabloid. Had Sparks complained it would have been a different matter, but she did not and Moyes could be banned for five matches.
Making the punishment fit the crime is never an easy task, but in another master class of disciplinary ineptitude FIFA banned Neil Taylor of Wales for two games for the tackle that broke the leg of Republic of Ireland captain Seamus Coleman — half the punishment it handed Lionel Messi for what the Argentina striker said to an assistant referee.
Sticks and stones . . . ? Not with FIFA.
Writing on the wall
The suspicion is that Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s knee injury, which is likely to sideline the striker until January, has prevented Jose Mourinho from having to make what was always going to be a difficult decision.
There is no disputing Ibrahimovic has been a success since joining Manchester United from Paris St. Germain, scoring 28 goals. His contract ends in June and there was a growing feeling that despite his goal-scoring stats the Swede’s presence in the team slows United’s game down.
Ibrahimovic, 35, tended to be the go-to forward, and while he has scored regularly, Mourinho has been impressed by the speed, mobility and variety the more youthful and athletic Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial give the attack.
Not offering a player who had ended the season with almost 30 goals a new contract, even if he will be 36 in October, would have been a hard call, but Ibrahimovic’s injury has effectively made Mourinho’s decision for him.
The club is not going to give a new contract to someone who will miss at least half the season and is unlikely to win his place back.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.