Football: Hedging their bets over the wagers of sin

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The Independent Online
Revelations that betting on football is rife among players and officials have failed to send a shock of even moderate voltage through the nation. This is partly because the game's past activities have created an exceedingly high amazement threshold and partly to a general realisation that they share similar vices to many of us and have much more money and time with which to pursue them.

However, one aspect of the report on gambling within football produced last week by Sir John Smith, former deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, which may have caused an eyebrow or two to twitch was that football already has enough regulatory power to come crashing down on offenders and has possessed it for over a century.

Football Association Rule 26 (a) (vi) states that it shall be misconduct for any club, director, official, referee, assistant referee or player "to bet on any football match other than authorised and registered football pools". The rule also decrees that it shall be misconduct for anyone in the game to act as a bookmaker or assistant to a bookmaker without the written consent of the FA. Sir John recommends that all players be sent a copy of the rule as a reminder. Only the most mischievious would mention at this point that even as Sir John was delivering his report in London the manager of our leading club, Alex Ferguson, was performing the official opening ceremony of Fred Done's new betting shop in Northenden, Greater Manchester.

It is no secret that Ferguson enjoys horseracing - he's just spent a small fortune on two yearlings - but there are sinister minds who might point out that his high-profile presence on this occasion might constitute assistance to a bookmaker. Ferguson may well have had permission but in the very unlikely event of him getting a visit from the FA collar-feelers may I offer a little something in the way of mitigation. Among the sponsors of Euro 96, the success of which the FA are so very proud, was a firm called Ladbrokes. If that is not consorting with the men of the heavy satchels, I don't know what is.

What we have witnessed in this episode is an understandable attempt by the association to get back onside in the matter of betting after the prolonged court proceedings against Bruce Grobbelaar, Hans Segers and John Fashanu for alleged match fixing. They were cleared but during the trial it emerged that some forecasting help was given to oriental backers and this will lead to Grobbelaar and Segers appearing before the FA for a breach of the aforementioned Rule 26.

It is going to be difficult to discipline them now that Sir John has revealed that the entire game is on a wagering spree. Furthermore, the game is betting so freely largely because of the FA's long-time laxity in imposing its own rules.

We should be thankful that there is no suggestion that football is corrupt but the inquiry does reveal a game riddled with the potential for corruption and suggests that players have bets on their team to lose. Sir John has passed on no evidence of this so it can be assumed that he didn't regard it as serious and that no false result occurred; although there is a distressing implication that we have teams so bad they couldn't even win a bent game.

This brings us to an undiscussed aspect of this subject. Football people may well have been betting with wild abandon - but they haven't been winning. Otherwise the bookmakers would have been screaming blue murder as they did, you may remember, when they took a few hidings at the snooker table some years ago.

Contented bookies indicate a ready supply of losing customers. It should not escape the ordinary punter that if people at the heart of the game can't employ their specialised knowledge to pile up the winning bets, what chance do we mortals have. Come to that, when was the last time you heard of a professional footballer registering a big win on the pools which would be entirely legal? I suspect it has never happened. They may, of course, place an "x" for no publicity but I doubt if it is possible to keep such a secret for long.

A considerable contribution to the growth of football betting - and the growth within the game is only on a par with the growth outside it - is the increase in what the bookies like to call betting opportunities. You can now bet not only on the result but the first and last goal scorers, the total shirt numbers of the scorers, the numbers of free-kicks, corners and throw-ins.

The Spurs skipper David Howells has welcomed the proposed crack-down because he knows of cases of players booting the ball into touch to win a bet on the timing of the first throw-in. The spread-betting firms are responsible for most of these odd bets which is ironic because most of them will not accept bets placed by sportsmen on their own sports.

But bets can be easily placed by proxy and this has been put forward as a reason why the FA's clampdown won't work. This is no reason to hold back from threatening to impose the law strictly. You can get someone to commit any crime on your behalf, with the possible exception of rape, but that doesn't reduce the magnitude of the offence.

The FA are obliged to follow Sir John's advice and outlaw that to which they have turned a blind eye in the past. It would help if they could persuade the bookmakers to confine their market to the more straightforward bets. They should insist on it; there must be some copyright involved. The bookies will resist because football betting is making big inroads into racing turnover and there's the added incentive of not having a levy to pay out of the nine per cent "tax" they add to each bet.

Like footballers, bookies only moan when they're losing but that could be football's safeguard. The sophistication of the gambling industry means that they can keep a close eye on would-be crooked players and spot suspicious betting patterns in a flash. People used to keep geese whose cries would be an early warning against intruders. Let Sir John be comforted that the squawks of the bookmakers will serve a similar role in football.

JOHN Hartson faces FA disciplinary action for his outburst against the referee Mike Reed's performance in West Ham United's defeat against Leicester City on Monday. But they will have to admit that his contrition since has been admirable. Calling Reed "a homer", "a disgrace" and "an absolute joke" after the match, Hartson was soon firing off faxes of apology in all directions, proving that he can be as impressive in retreat as he is in leading the charge of West Ham's attack.

Unlike the FA, Reed has accepted Hartson's apology which is a commendable act because the accusation of being biased towards the home side strikes a particularly sensitive note in this case. It was Reed who awarded the dubious penalty that cost Leicester their FA Cup fifth-round replay against Chelsea last season and he was booed on to the field at Filbert Street on Monday.

Any suggestion, therefore, that he was currying favour with the Leicester fans is serious. Added to which, the two have a bit of previous. Reed once sent Hartson off for calling him "a shithouse".