Sport: Football's inquiry that must be backed

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The Independent Online
The trial may be over and the Winchester Four may be free, but the implications for football of such a court case and the issues it raised are fully worthy of an official inquiry which the Football Association announced with unusual alacrity last Thursday night. Of course we all know from Yes, Minister that the quickest way to defuse a sense of crisis is to call for an inquiry and then allow its ponderous progress to numb the issue inside the public mind.

The FA and its Premier League colleagues seem to have rendered their famous "bungs" inquiry into a thoroughly inert state, but they will need to keep up the speed on this one because it relates directly to the public's confidence in the game as an unpredictably dramatic spectacle, and to the City's confidence in the football industry as a reliable investment.

We can probably accept - with so much cash flowing through the game - that the odd individual may ask for a back-hander if the circumstances are right, because such actions are unlikely to affect the process of any match. But if the notion took hold that games themselves might be influenced by outside elements such as betting, football would become a pariah sport.

Despite the not-guilty verdicts returned at Winchester, history tells us that there can be little room for complacency, and an urgent need for better policing of the game's ancillary activities is needed. The 1960s case of three Sheffield Wednesday players, Peter Swan, Tony Kay and David Layne, who were ultimately jailed for accepting money from a gambler on the appropriately named fixed-odds betting, will become fresh currency when the BBC's film The Fix is shown this autumn.

We will also remember the less serious case of Lou Macari betting against Swindon, the club he managed, in a Cup tie against Newcastle United, an offence for which Macari was duly sacked. And what about Paolo Rossi, the striker whose six goals won the World Cup for Italy in 1982, after he had served a two-year suspension on suspicion of helping a betting ring find suitable matches to gamble on?

Last week, I was reminded of another probable case at the highest level, when viewing, for a documentary I'm working on, the World Cup match between Argentina and Peru in 1978. Although no betting scandal was involved, the fact that Argentina needed to win by four clear goals to leap-frog Brazil into the final, seemed to produce what can only be described as a bizarrely nervous display from the Peruvian goalkeeper, who managed to let in six goals.

And we know also, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, that certain referees were not too careful about gifts they received from clubs competing in European cup-ties. Even today, we have not yet fully digested the implications of the bribes scandal which brought Olympique Marseille and its President, Bernard Tapie, into open disrepute, and trying to get a bet on the closing stages of the Italian Serie A is a fruitless business, so suspicious are the bookmakers that results are being arranged for the mutual convenience of clubs.

The bookies, who have enjoyed with relish the rapid growth in sports betting, should now have a duty, perhaps through an official commissioner, to report either sizeable bets or unusual betting patterns to the football authorities without compromising their client's confidentiality. This process is regularly undertaken in the core business of horse racing, where all manner of enterprises are attempted to win money, and it should be applied to football without delay.

You may say that horse racing exists solely for the purposes of betting and that nobody attending a meeting is innocent of intent to make a profit. But thanks to the expansion of satellite television coverage, football is now as much a betting medium and it is a spectacle. So the same scrutiny must be brought to bear.

We know, for example, that the last World Cup generated some astonishing six-figure wagers on individual matches, and that much of this money had the Far East as its source. English bookmakers are only too happy to open massive deposit accounts to accommodate clients in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, but it will be in their own interests as well as football's if they can alert the authorities before any match occurs so that the proper watchfulness can be exerted over the game in question.

How many of us viewed the replayed footage shown at the Winchester trial with renewed - but as it transpires, unjustified - suspicion in the light of the accusations the court made? That seed of doubt will flourish into a choking tangle of weeds, unless we can be sure that the game is the pure spectacle that football is meant to be.

With the vast sums that players are at present earning, there are probably few who would risk their profession for dubious rewards. But human nature tells us that when the stakes are higher, the rules are more likely to be broken and nobody, not the bookmakers, not the players and especially not the fans who underwrite it all, can countenance the worst of all sporting outcomes, a bent result. So let us wish for a swift and transparent inquiry, resulting in protective measures for the game we still love.

Cricket has come in for its fair share of criticism in the past few weeks as the English and Welsh Cricket Board have produced their report on making the game more of a draw for spectators. The report itself, compiled under the chairmanship of Lord MacLaurin of Tesco, has itself taken flak so I wish they had had the courage to deliver their alternative report, a copy of which has fallen into my hands not by way of Chris Patten or Jonathan Dimbleby, but from my man on the boundary with the cigarette curled in his palm and a can of lager behind the sight screen.

The unofficial Tesco Report suggests among many measures to enlighten the game, that certain batsmen once given out should return to the pavilion by way of a "Five Runs or Less" counter. It also proposes that a wider range of drinks, including alcopops be served to the players from a wire- mesh trolley pushed by a buxom wench in a see-through nylon smock.

Another innovation would be musical stumps, which when hit by the ball would play that old Swinging Blue Jeans number "You're No Good" to admonish the failed batsman. The report also encourages the holding of disposal barbecues on late-night opening matches, featuring a wide range of fresh produce at various points around the boundary, so that spectators can enjoy some finger-licking snacks rather than curled up sandwiches. Thermos flasks would be banned in favour of a coin operated hot drinks dispenser, and folding deck chairs replaced with white plastic garden furniture.

Car parks would be greatly expanded once the existing stands had been demolished, allowing spectators to watch from the comfort of their own vehicles while being ferried regular score-cards by spotty youths in dicky- bows. All individually designed pavilions would be replaced by easy-to- build Amish barns, and any tannoy announcements will be preceded by an audible bing-bong chime to alert dozing spectators.

Finally every "Man of the Match" will no longer receive a cheque but an invitation to take part in a supermarket sweep of one minute duration, allowing him to keep all the goods he can gather in that time, provided he successfully opens the plastic bags provided for the purposes of carriage.

You will no doubt sigh with relief that this unofficial report was, so to speak, shelved. But on reading the official version I can see that many of its recommendations still hold good.

Peter Corrigan is on holiday