Next year’s football World Cup in Brazil is fast approaching and, after last Friday's draw, England’s place in the “group of death” with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica is the subject of much pre-tournament wisdom on all sides. But even as fans of the beautiful game are savouring that heady mix of hope, dread and plain old thrill that precedes every overseas contest, the domestic game is under the spotlight as never before. And the charges being levelled at it are far from cheering.
First, last month, came accusations that an international betting syndicate has been fixing lower-league English matches – perhaps for as little as £50,000 – and cashing in with vast bets on Asian websites. The biggest match-rigging scandal for decades has prompted inquiries by the National Crime Agency – Britain’s newly formed equivalent of the FBI – and there has already been a flurry of arrests, including at least three footballers.
But the allegations of corruption do not end there. As of yesterday, another three people were in custody after undercover footage made during a second – entirely separate – newspaper investigation showed ex-Portsmouth player Sam Sodje describing, among other things, how he had deliberately provoked a red card in exchange for £70,000.
All of which makes for depressing reading. Even more so seeing as there is no easy solution to a global problem where both the syndicates and their bets may be thousands of miles, and many jurisdictions, away. Law enforcement can, of course, take all possible steps to ensure that those who are engaged in match-fixing in this country are brought to justice. But this is not only a matter for the police, after the event. Greater vigilance on sidelines and in dressing rooms might also help to make it harder for corrupted and corrupter to get that far. The stakes are certainly high. If fans lose faith in the veracity of what they see on the pitch, the game is lost.