COMMENT Time to end game's conspiracy of silence

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The Independent Online
The plot thickens, and so does the stench around the game. We now have three players under arrest in connection with bribery, three awaiting trial for assault (Messrs Cantona, Ince and Ferguson), and another on bail pending an appeal. At this rate the infamous "Lags XI", featuring George Best, Tony Adams and Jan Molby, is going to get some useful new recruits - and just in time for the transfer deadline.

Enough frivolity, this is getting serious. When Tony Kay, Peter Swan and company went to jail in the Sixties' betting scandal as many as 80 players are believed to have escaped detection. At least 16 clubs were proven to have played in rigged matches and many others probably did. It was a widespread scam.

So how bad is the current one? Three players in the dock, who's next? The Football Association, though it denies the suggestion that corruption is rife, has admitted that its appeal for further information did elicit a response. However, it was not a big one and the Sun, which had the advantage of offering money for information, does not appear to have gleaned any from its own appeal.

The immediate impact will be another round of jokes from the terraces. Funny, yes, but they hide a deeper suspicion which will again be revived by this wave of arrests. The talk on the terraces will, this week, have a sinister edge - "Was that an accidental mistake, or a deliberate one?"... "Remember that match in November, the one we could not believe we had lost, remember that missed tackle and dropped cross..."

It is not as if the FA's response encourages a belief that all will be uncovered. Both the Grobbelaar and George Graham cases were broken by the media. Alan Sugar's revelations about Tottenham's illegal payments was preceded by a World In Action investigation, Swindon's by a Sunday newspaper. It is hard to recall when the football authorities last uncovered wrongdoing by themselves.

But it is not just the FA and other bodies who are to blame. There is a conspiracy of silence within the game. Late last year Graham Kelly (FA), Rick Parry (Premier League), David Dent (Football League) and Gordon Taylor (Professional Footballers' Association) agreed in principle to create an independent "compliance and advisory unit" to investigate financial shenanigans. The clubs of the FA Premier League, represented by three lawyers (Keith Wiseman of Southampton, Maurice Watkins of Manchester United, and Trevor Nicholls of Norwich), rejected the idea and hid behind the fanciful belief that "the industry does have integrity and credibility". Of course it does, and Father Christmas is alive and playing on the wing for Barnsley.

Football does have people of integrity, many of them, but there are also dishonest ones which is why, as an industry, its credibility is as poor as Barings Bank.

This sort of thing is not, of course, new. Match-fixing has gone on since 1905 at least. The great Billy Meredith, a central figure in that case, said that "clubs do not get punished for breaking the law, they get punished for being found out." Ninety years on that assertion has never seemed more true.

However, even though match-rigging strikes deep into the heart of the game, football survived that scandal and all the others since. Even if Grobbelaar and company are found guilty - and nothing is yet proven - the game is too popular not to survive once more.

However, it is high time the game really got itself in order. All these scandals, while unrelated, create a mood. It is appalling to think that, had he been fit, Chelsea would have played Dennis Wise while released on bail last night. If he does go to jail he should not play for England again. There may be a precedent in Tony Adams' case, but that does not mean it is right: at the very least Wise should be barred from the national team for a year.

A concerted effort to clean up the game will, in the short term, lead to bad publicity. For the long-term good of the sport that must be endured.

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