James Lawton: If the World Cup can be bought by the highest bidder, so can the odd match
Europol’s news was in one way just another random wave of catastrophic publicity for the game
Reality, cold and classical, came calling on English football yesterday with the news that not only is match-fixing rife across Europe but also contaminated a Champions League tie involving an English club.
There may, it is true, be some relief in the Europol agency report that of 380 games in which tampering is suspected all but one of them occurred elsewhere, mostly in Turkey and Switzerland and Germany it seems, and that the origin of the corruption is in the vast Far Eastern betting market, which 14 years ago provoked the floodlighting scam at Selhurst Park that left four plotters in British prisons.
So there is reason, then, to call for the bowl of water and the soap and the towels and the ritual washing of hands?
It cannot be so because this would be to both forget events of the past and dismiss all the perils that might just be around the corner in a football culture where the concept of cheating has for some time become absorbed in the workaday mores of the professional's life.
Taking a dive to win a penalty, many will no doubt say, has little or no relation to selling your shirt, for the cause not of a win bonus but a well-stuffed brown envelope or a deposit in some offshore account. Others might argue it is simply a matter of degree. They might say that if compliance in the fixing of a match is the ultimate crime, it is one that might just seem a little less egregious in an environment when the international game's ruling body has become synonymous with outright corruption.
If it is the perception, rightly or wrongly, that the desert enclave of Qatar has been able to buy football's greatest tournament, how much more shocking is it to purchase a single match? Or even 380 of them, which is the charge against the betting moguls of the East who are said to deal in billions each week?
The timing of yesterday's announcement was in one way just another random wave of catastrophic publicity for the game, the beautiful game, which was widely seen to face a huge challenge to its credibility in the wake of the London Olympics. It came a few hours after the nation's biggest-selling newspaper had a front page showing a Premier League player lying in the gutter with vivid wounds in the small hours of the morning. It came after West Bromwich's Goran Popov received a red card for spitting at his Tottenham opponent Kyle Walker, and Edin Dzeko, the hugely rewarded star of champions Manchester City, received one of yellow for remonstrating with officials who had decided he had feigned serious injury while his team conceded a goal that might just shape their season.
None of these miscreants disfigured the game in a way that has brought so many of their fellow workers into the sights of Europol.
However, they did perform desperately poor service to the image of a game which has never been in greater need of some lifting of shoulders and faces turned to the sun. Certainly, it was a poor reward for the Football Association's attempt to dignify the efforts of the nation's leading players with a new set of awards, the most significant of which went to Liverpool's Steven Gerrard.
The Liverpool captain hasn't always been a paragon of virtue but in the final phase of an extraordinarily committed career he could hardly have done more to underpin, on behalf of both an embattled club and country, his reputation for both spectacular talent and unremitting effort.
It is surely time for English football to fight for its good name more vigorously than ever before – and such a requirement was only redoubled by the extent of the stain that spread across the game yesterday.
The solitary match involving an English club is still under investigation but, if there is no reason to believe in the worst implications from the home perspective, there is plenty of cause to hope that even a brush with potential catastrophe is enough to signal new levels of vigilance. There is, after all, not so much reason to believe in the strength of resistance in the game to most kinds of folly.
We've had two extremely ugly cases of racism – and ferocious criticism of the strength of clubs' reaction to them. We've had the traducing of referees, the callous dismissal of successful managers, the growing sense that the hopes and the instincts of the fans have never seemed so remote from executive thinking, but if any reminder of the ultimate betrayal was necessary it surely came yesterday with cool police assessment of the extent of the match-fixing problem.
One highly placed executive in the British betting industry is unequivocal about the level of danger. He said: "You only have to look at the extent of the betting action in the Far East to know the threat is always going to be there. When so much money – and we are talking billions here – can be made so quickly, who could be surprised by yesterday's news? The Hong Kong Jockey Club some time ago saw the scale of the football business and they pushed for its legalisation. Now they have their own football department and it far outstrips the race betting. But of course, the majority of the football betting is still illegal across the Far East.
"We know that in the past games have been fixed in England – and there is just no reason to believe that a serious threat has gone away. In fact, it is quite the opposite."
The horror has come to Italian football in serial form down the years, of course, and for some here it has been, understandably enough, astonishing that the nation's fascination, indeed passion, has not been more seriously depleted. How could Italy celebrate the World Cup star of 1982, Paolo Rossi, so soon after he served a suspension for match-fixing? It was hardly a fluke, as we saw with the swift reinvention of Juventus after emerging from a similar convulsion so many years later.
It is also true that England's celebration of the game could hardly have been more enthusiastic when the Boys of '66 won the World Cup – and that was just two years after the scandal that sent at least one potential member of that team to prison for fixing a match. England centre-half Peter Swan and his Sheffield Wednesday team-mates Tony Kay and David "Bronco" Lane and in all 33 players were prosecuted.
The story broke on a Sunday morning in April 1964. Its author was Jimmy Gauld, a Scottish player who had 10 clubs before breaking his leg in those days when the employers had all the advantages. He fixed the games and then told the story. His reward was £7,000 from a Sunday newspaper and four years inside. It may sound like 30 pieces of silver now but you could do quite a bit with such an amount in those days, when great players took the bus to training and contemplated their days running pubs or sweet shops and when the great Tommy Lawton reported that on one rainy day in Nottingham he was splashed by the chairman's Rolls as it swept by. You could buy a decent semi-detached house with half of Gauld's bounty and get behind the wheel of a shiny new saloon.
There are no such temptations today, of course. Or so it was pleasant to imagine shortly before lunchtime yesterday, when the policeman opened his file and offered the grim possibility that for some only the price may have changed.
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