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Bungs and bribes football can't kick this habit

After yesterday's arrest of Bruce Grobbelaar, Glenn Moore argues that corruption has always been part of soccer. But that doesn't make it any worse than the City or politics

Glenn Moore
Wednesday 15 March 1995 01:02 GMT

He was one of the greatest footballers of his age, entertaining, charismatic, admired all over the country. Then he was found guilty of offering a bribe and banned from the game.

The player was Billy Meredith, the year was 1905. He was not the first player so accused - and Bruce Grobbelaar, who was arrested yesterday accused of taking bribes, will not be the last.

There has always been corruption in football. Most supporters are introduced to it while still in short trousers when a gateman squeezes them and their father into one turnstile in exchange for a couple of pounds.

As they get older they hear whispers of darker deeds. Bungs and bribes, fixed cup draws (that velvet bag can contain warm balls and cold balls), and dodgy accounting. Some of the rumours are true, some just hearsay. The difficult thing is to ascertain just how corrupt football is. For obvious reasons, people tend not to talk about it very much.

Grobbelaar's arrest, and the recent dismissal of George Graham, the Arsenal manager, after accusations that he took an unauthorised cut from transfers, suggests corruption is rife. Other allegations made in recent seasons, of managers exchanging bags of money in motorway service stations (alleged), and of betting against their own team (proven), tend to support this belief.

Yet there are many in the game who swear they have never been offered anything to influence a match, and who bitterly resent the impact these revelations are having on the image of the game - and, by association, themselves.

Football has always been a cash-rich industry and these days there is more of it floating about than ever. So much that in 1992, for example, Tottenham were able to settle a £50,000 bill owing to Frank McLintock, the respected former Arsenal captain, now a players' agent, from petty cash.

Football's current financial strength has led to wage levels which ought to mean that players are too wealthy - and have too much to lose - to be bribed. Yet the game's worst bribery scandal came shortly after the overturning, in 1961, of regulations that had set a maximum wage for players.

Four years later 10 players received jail sentences in Nottingham after the exposure of a widespread gambling ring. Many others escaped - it was strongly suspected that up to 100 players were involved, including a syndicate in the South and Wales which was never unmasked. One player, Portsmouth goalkeeper Dick Beattie, was so convincing that after he "threw" a match against Peterborough, the victorious, and unsuspecting opponents bought him.

Over the years there have been a number of other scandals. In the Twenties Arsenal were accused of losing in an attempt to get Tottenham relegated; in the Seventies Don Revie, manager of Leeds, was accused of bribing Wolverhampton Wanderers players in an (unsuccessful) attempt to secure his team the championship.

Revie has also been accused of leaving envelopes full of money in the referee's dressing room. The referee would seem the obvious person to bribe, but such accusations have been rare in England, perhaps because referees, who until recently were paid token fees, were not motivated by money. Not so in Europe where referees have been treated to prostitutes, presents and cash by host teams before European club matches.

Until the Grobbelaar story broke it was widely believed that modern football bribery stopped at Calais. This week Bernard Tapie, French politician and former chairman of Marseille, is on trial accused of organising bribes to help the club win the title.

In Italy, in 1980, Lazio and Milan were relegated and a series of players and officials banned after a betting scandal. They included Paolo Rossi who became a national hero two years later after he inspired Italy to World Cup success. More recently, six club presidents have had to resign after being implicated in political corruption.

Two years ago in Poland the league championship was awarded to the third- placed club after the top two, level on points going into the final weekend, both won unexpectedly by six goals.

The most significant example of alleged match-fixing occurred in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. This was more than just a football competition, it was all that kept the ruling military junta from losing power, and thus Argentina had to win.

Come the last match of the semi-final stage, they needed to defeat Peru by four goals to reach the final rather than arch-rivals Brazil. Peru were a useful side but, after an Argentine team-talk from which the goalkeeper and substitutes were barred, Argentina won 6-0 after Peru hit a post in the opening minutes. Shortly afterwards it is alleged that Argentina shipped 35,000 tons of free grain - and probably some free arms - to Peru, and the Argentine central bank unfroze $50m in credits for Peru. Argentina went on to win the final to defeat Holland.

The list could go on, there are few unaffected countries. Even in Australia, where football is a minor sport, the national team manager is being investigated by parliament.

But this should not be unexpected. There is much at stake in modern football and many of those in the game are ill-equipped to deal with the temptations and pressures. Many promising young players sacrifice their education to concentrate on developing their talent, many come from backgrounds with an ambivalent attitude to morality. When it comes to such actions as taking a cut from transfer fees even those who recognise it is wrong can justify their actions by referring to the game's custom and practice. "It has always gone on, so why should I not take my share."

But attitudes are changing. Football has broken out of its male, working- class constituency and invaded a wider society. With the publication of books such as Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and the gentrification of grounds, football has become respectable, a fit subject for Hampstead dinner parties as well as Liverpool taverns.

No self-respecting modern ground is complete without a row of executive boxes for corporate troughing; team shirts have become fashion items; players such as Ryan Giggs have assumed the same teen-idol status as Take That.

The popularisation of the game comes at a price. With football now dependent on sponsors and television, it must be seen to be clean more than ever before.

This season has seemed like one long winter of sleaze and violence. The Dublin riot, Dennis Wise's conviction, Graham and Grobbelaar, Eric Cantona's assault and Paul Merson's drug confession. But it is not the sleaze that is new, it is the media and public's heightened interest in football, and disapproval of its misdeeds, that is new.

There may be more arrests in the Grobbelaar case; none of those so far will have surprised those within the game. Unlike Billy Meredith, who returned after a season and played at the highest level for another two decades, anyone convicted will never play first-class football again.

Football is not riven with corruption, but neither is it pure. In that respect it is no different from the City, or politics. As might be expected, the national game reflects the nation.

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