A majority are immune to the shock of discovering that all people in sport are not as chastely virtuous as Little Eva

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The Independent Online
Some years ago, quite by accident, the tenant of this space came across proof that the number of footballers under scrutiny in a match- fixing scandal was far greater than the public wanted to imagine.

Waiting for the statement that followed an inquiry at the Football Association headquarters in London, idly playing around with a place-mat on the council room table, I discovered beneath it a document listing every player suspected of criminal activity.

Left by an official doubtless of pensionable age and probably given to recurring amnesia, it was, as they say, dynamite. Apart from those who were eventually found guilty and given terms of imprisonment, including two England internationals, Tony Kay and Peter Swan of Sheffield Wednesday, there were a number of others.

Realising the implication of theft, I made a note of the names and returned the list whence it had come into my possession. Professionally, of course, the information without proof was quite useless. Some time later I took the list from a safe and put a match to it.

A thought at the time was whether football could have survived further evidence of corruption. Would more hammer blows have reduced the structure to rubble? As it happens, when three of the best-known footballers were sent to prison in January 1965, it had little or no effect on the public's perception of the national game. When England won the World Cup little more than 18 months later, attendances rose accordingly.

The disturbing impression here is that a majority are immune to the shock of discovering that all people in sport are not as chastely virtuous as Little Eva.

In fact, it has been common knowledge for a long time that there is such a phenomenon as a climate of crime, an atmosphere of sin. Betting is invariably at the root of it. Writing for Athletics and Football in 1888, M Shearman said: "Every sport which comes to the state of merely being a resource for betting will arrive eventually at a condition of rottenness which will make it the despair of a reformer."

Going back many years, the legendary Welsh international Billy Meredith was put out of football for a season for allegedly offering an Aston Villa player a bribe to throw a game against Manchester City.

Coming forward in time, one attempt at rigging a game - not for betting purposes but to improve chances of survival in the old First Division - had hilarious consequences. Four players, the goalkeeper and strike- force of a club safe in mid-table each accepted a pounds 100 bribe to lose.

Approaching half-time a goal down, the conspirators went happily about their work, missing a number of quite simple chances. Then came disaster. A move in which all three participated ended with one of them scoring inadvertently, the ball bouncing in from the back of his head.

During the interval, their manager referred to this move in glowing terms. Super passing, brave finish. Despite the goalkeeper's valiant efforts to put this right, the score still stood at 1-1 after 90 minutes. A draw was not good enough.

Bearing in mind that we have another betting scandal, there is nothing in sports history to compare with that of 1919, when eight players with the Chicago White Sox - identified as "Black Sox" in all baseball literature composed since 1920 - were ruled out of the game for life for selling the 1919 World Series. This is immortalised in the plaintive remark - "Say it ain't so, Joe" - a boy is said to have made to the great "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.

Far from doing baseball irreparable harm, the scandal proved beneficial in the weeding out of chicanery. Public confidence was restored by the appointment of an autocratic commissioner, Judge Landis, and the spectacular emergence of Babe Ruth.

An interesting thing is that people will question the veracity of a sport and yet still give it enthusiastic attention. This applies particularly to horse-racing and professional boxing. From time to time, you come across rumours suggesting dishonesty on the part of some jockeys and fighters, but they do not appear to adversely affect attendances. This is probably because few believe that it is possible to extract all larceny from the human bosom.

The charges levelled this week against Bruce Grobbelaar, Hans Segers and John Fashanu loom darkly over football, and should concern us all greatly. The trouble is that right now nothing about the game enters more into the mind of a supporter than the imminence of a new season.