Football: Banning betting may prove an impossible task

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The Independent Online
In its investigation into gambling by professional footballers on their own sport, the Football Association may have opened a can of worms. Nick Harris believes that enforcing a no-betting policy will be as difficult as ever.

Revenue from football bets is rising between three and five per cent each year. Current estimates suggest that between pounds 200m and pounds 500m are wagered on football bets annually in this country.

Sir John Smith, the former Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner who led the FA's inquiry into betting, said on Thursday that those who gamble, be they supporters, players or officials, "have become involved in the culture of betting that is apparent throughout every aspect of modern life, evidenced by the popularity of the National Lottery." In short, gambling is widely regarded as normal, healthy and is even promoted by the Government.

Sir John's report emphasised that for more than 100 years players have been banned from betting on matches. Yet it is generally acknowledged that many footballers do bet - and on games in which they are involved. For many the key question is: does "recreational gambling" by players lead to corruption?

Sir John thinks not, as he found no evidence of corruption. However, he warned that any wagers by interested parties can create an environment with the potential to damage football's integrity.

In some instances, such as the laying of "spread" bets on the timing of throw-ins or corners, that risk is heightened and may facilitate what is effectively insider trading. David Howells, Tottenham's captain, says that he personally knows of cases where spread bets have led to games being affected in this way.

Clarification of other betting activities is also needed and will happen. Most notably, revised FA rules will distinguish between secret forecasting for betting purposes and public forecasting in a general sense. Whereas it will remain against the rules for a player to sell covertly information to a gambling syndicate, some information will be allowed to be sold. For example, West Ham's manager, Harry Redknapp, writes a weekly football tipping column in the Racing Post, and he will be able to continue.

The feasibility of a ban on the majority of other gambling activities still has to be addressed. For example, it would not be difficult for any player who wished to continue gambling to ask a friend or relative to place a bet for them. And bookmakers, who have accepted their bets in the past, do not seem keen to stop them continuing.

Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for William Hill, said: "I can't see any objection in theory to allowing a player to have a small fun bet on a game in which he is taking part." He added that he knew of few instances in the past when the FA had done anything to implement its rules. "I suspect there is an element here of the FA endeavouring to be seen to be doing something," he said.

It must also be doubtful whether Sir John's recommendations would be effective. One is to send a copy of FA rules to all players. Another is to make the betting industry more aware of the rules and help enforce them by refusing to accept bets from footballers and ceasing to place betting slips in areas of football grounds which players and officials use exclusively.

Another key question is how the FA plans to enforce its rules. David Davies, the FA's director of public affairs, said that the governing body would use its full range of disciplinary measures - fines, suspensions and bans - to punish offenders. He added, however, that "the FA are not a police force".

Davies also said that he did not know whether bookmakers would be asked to inform on players who gambled in contravention of the FA's rules. Nor did he say how players would be prevented from asking others to place bets for them.

In short, for the past century the FA has banned betting by players but has generally failed to prevent them from doing so. Whether anything can effectively be done to change that in the future must be open to question.