Athlone bans set dan­ger­ous prece­dent

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Richie Sadlier

Ionce missed an open goal in a Cham­pi­onship game. The ball bounced at my feet with no­body in front of me and em­bar­rass­ingly I sliced it wide. I did it on in­ter­na­tional duty too, while play­ing for the Repub­lic of Ire­land un­der-19s against Den­mark at Da­ly­mount Park. On nei­ther oc­ca­sion was I ac­cused of try­ing to de­lib­er­ately ma­nip­u­late the re­sult for fi­nan­cial gain. I guess I was lucky there were no sus­pi­cious bet­ting pat­terns as­so­ci­ated with ei­ther game.

Dra­gos Sfri­jan and Igors Labuts were not so for­tu­nate. They have both been banned by the FAI for one year from all foot­ball-re­lated ac­tiv­ity for of­fences re­lat­ing to match-fix­ing. I was in­volved in the hear­ing of their case ear­lier this week, which I’ll re­turn to in a mo­ment, but first, con­sider what ev­i­dence you’d as­sume was un­cov­ered. Given the sever­ity of the charges against them, what bur­den of proof would you ap­ply to the pros­e­cu­tion?

You’d imag­ine in­crim­i­nat­ing phone or bank records would be re­quired. Maybe sus­pi­cious gam­bling records or proven links to gam­bling syn­di­cates would do the job. A pa­per trail would be ideal, ob­vi­ously, but even strong cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence might do.

Ei­ther way, you’d ex­pect the case to in­volve ev­i­dence of some kind, par­tic­u­larly given the se­ri­ous­ness of the of­fence. Not in Ire­land, it seems. Un­der the FAI’s watch­ful eye, if there are bet­ting ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties as­so­ci­ated with a game, just mak­ing a mis­take on the pitch is proof of a player’s in­volve­ment.

To ex­plain the back­ground, this case was trig­gered by a re­port the FAI re­ceived in May from the Uefa Bet­ting Fraud De­tec­tion Sys­tem (BFDS). The re­port high­lighted ir­reg­u­lar bet­ting pat­terns as­so­ci­ated with Athlone Town’s de­feat to Long­ford Town on April 29th. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion that fol­lowed led to charges be­ing brought against Sfri­jan and Labuts, due to mis­takes they each made in the build-up to two of Long­ford’s goals. This was based solely on the opin­ions of three men the FAI had asked to re­view the footage.

To go back a lit­tle fur­ther, in late 2015 the FAI sold the in­ter­na­tional on­line view­ing rights of the League of Ire­land to a com­pany called Track-Champ. The deal was struc­tured in such a way, that to view the live footage, sub­scribers needed to have an ac­tive gam­bling ac­count. Bet­ting was no longer pe­riph­eral to the view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, it was a re­quire­ment of en­try. There were ques­tions raised at the time about the wis­dom of such a deal but the FAI said it was con­fi­dent it was for the good of the game.

Guilty ver­dict

I was asked by the PFAI for my take on the footage of the two goals. I was orig­i­nally hes­i­tant, not want­ing to com­pro­mise my abil­ity to com­ment pub­licly on the case. I also warned Stephen McGuin­ness, PFAI gen­eral sec­re­tary, he shouldn’t pre­sume my opin­ions would match his.

As I ex­pected, both play­ers were guilty of poor de­fen­sive play. So too were sev­eral of their team-mates. I out­lined this in my re­port, won­der­ing why no other play­ers were sim­i­larly cited. I con­cluded that I did not see any­thing in the footage I be­lieved to be ev­i­dence of match-fix­ing. It was in keep­ing with the stan­dard of play you’d ex­pect from a team bot­tom of the First Divi­sion. In fact, it wasn’t far off what can be reg­u­larly seen in the divi­sion above.

A guilty ver­dict was re­turned on Thurs­day. In ad­di­tion to what the com­mit­tee con­sid­ered to be “de­lib­er­ately in­ad­e­quate” per­for­mances by the play­ers, their fi­nan­cial ar­range­ments were de­scribed as “in­suf­fi­cient and un­con­vinc­ing”.

I think the point is the play­ers earn so lit­tle from play­ing foot­ball it aroused fur­ther sus­pi­cion. I found this puz­zling, given that any con­tract agree­ments be­tween clubs and play­ers must be signed off by the FAI’s in­tegrity of­fi­cer, Fran Gavin, be­fore they’re of­fi­cially ac­cepted by the FAI. If the terms were ac­cept­able when they first joined the club, why is the FAI cit­ing them now as grounds for con­cern?

The PFAI say they will take their case to CAS if nec­es­sary and they might have to. First, though, they must go be­fore an ap­peals panel put to­gether by the FAI. They’ve al­ready faced a three-man dis­ci­plinary com­mit­tee, se­lected by the FAI. The case for the pros­e­cu­tion orig­i­nally hinged on the tes­ti­mony of a three-man panel of ex­perts who viewed the match footage, all of whom were also se­lected by the FAI. The FAI, re­mem­ber, are the ones tak­ing the case against both play­ers. The in­de­pen­dence of­fered by CAS may of­fer some hope.

Se­ri­ous is­sues

Some se­ri­ous is­sues arise as a re­sult of this case. Firstly, given the se­ri­ous­ness of the of­fences for which the FAI have found the play­ers guilty, would it not be more ap­pro­pri­ate to give length­ier bans? It’s not the great­est de­ter­rent to would-be match-fix­ers to stay away from the league. If the League of Ire­land wasn’t on the map for crooked foot­ballers prior to this case, it cer­tainly is now.

Se­condly, if this ver­dict is up­held and the prece­dent is es­tab­lished here, ev­ery foot­baller in the league should worry. The bur­den of proof is out­lined as “com­fort­able sat­is­fac­tion” in cases of match ma­nip­u­la­tion. So even when there is no ev­i­dence at all to link the two, the FAI will be com­fort­ably sat­is­fied of your guilt if you play badly in a game where there’s sus­pi­cious bet­ting pat­terns. Reg­u­lar ob­servers know there’s of­ten poor play, so it will be bet­ting pat­terns that de­ter­mine the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the play­ers in­volved.

I don’t have the fig­ures from be­fore the sign­ing of the Track­Champ deal, but the average mar­ket for First Divi­sion games is ap­prox­i­mately ¤650,000 ac­cord­ing to Uefa’s BFDS. That’s for each game. On average. In the First Divi­sion. I won­der whether the FAI be­lieves there’s a link be­tween the two. I sup­pose we could just go and ask their in­tegrity of­fi­cer.

You’d ex­pect the case to in­volve ev­i­dence of some kind, par­tic­u­larly given the se­ri­ous­ness of the of­fence

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