The British Empire has come apart in all ways but one. Only in soccer does the world still look to England as its beacon. The English codified the sport, and even if they aren’t terribly good at it themselves anymore, slipping into an international irrelevance sometime after the 1970s, their Premier League still attracts the world’s best and brightest talent and the hordes eager to watch it.
But even with that flagging sense of imperialism comes a presumed moral authority over the rest of the world, the backwaters and unrefined nations. Match-fixing, the growing scourge of the modern game, for instance, could never be an English problem.
“The English FA and the British in general have been insular and racist and they have got an attitude of cultural superiority,” says match-fixing expert Declan Hill, the half-British author of The Fix and The Insider’s Guide to Match-fixing in Football, based on his doctorate on the subject at Oxford University.
“I would go to conferences held by Interpol and FIFA, held by UEFA, held by European footballing authorities of the premier European leagues, and the Brits would arrive, and they would all gather in a corner and they would talk in a superior fashion, saying this doesn’t happen in the UK and it would never happen in the UK,” says Hill. “And I would say, ‘Why?’ and they would say ‘Well, we’re British.’”
Most Brits seem to nurture romantic notions of their three sports — soccer, rugby and cricket — harkening back to their nation’s golden age, perhaps. But these sentiments, understandable as they are, blind them to the ailments and evils of modern sport, leading them to think they simply aren’t there.
And yet there is proof that this isn’t so. Last summer, England winger Andros Townsend was quietly fined and suspended four months — he only served one — for placing a wager on a game of his own club, Tottenham Hotspur. He didn’t seem to have a clue about the FA’s regulations against wagering on a game or competition you’re involved in and insisted he hadn’t intended to manipulate the outcome — he didn’t play at all, as it turned out.
Two English papers — the Daily Telegraph and the Sun — revealed that undercover investigations had found it rather easy to arrange a spot-fix, wherein a single act is pre-arranged, like earning a yellow card, rather than the outcome of a game. All it would take was some $8,000, the Telegraph found. The Sun, meanwhile, got former Portsmouth player Sam Sodje to confess that he could set up such a spot-fix while filming him. Sodje also claimed that he could fix Premier League contests as well as games at the upcoming World Cup.
England’s National Crime Agency subsequently made six arrests on suspicion of spot-fixing, including sometime Premier League striker DJ Campbell. Later that same week, the FA suspended three non-league players for betting rules violations for more than three years in total.
That such things could happen isn’t an indictment of British soccer per se. It’s a global problem, inflicted by globally-organized crime. What is damning, however, is the failure to accept it as a problem, or even a threat. “We’ve always had match-fixing – forever; the ancient Greeks, they were fixing matches — but what we’re witnessing right now is something brand new and it’s the phenomenon of globalization hitting sports corruption,” says Hill.
British soccer is still coming to terms with the influx of foreign money and foreign players to its game, which have conspired to both raise the league’s level and cachet to stratospheric heights and subjugate English talent to mostly fringe roles. And little thought has been given to the peril to its credibility, the very thing that underpins all that success.
“They are sleep-walking their way into a disaster,” says Hill. “The reaction I’ve always gotten is that it couldn’t happen here. Why wouldn’t it? What have you got in place in the UK that is different from any other league? Have you got an integrity hotline? Have you get a dedicated, well-resourced integrity office with former policemen looking at this issue? Have you got a way of monitoring the gambling industry? If you don’t [it doesn’t], aside from your sense of cultural superiority, what is stopping fixers from working here?”
The stakes, so to speak, are higher than anywhere else. English soccer is the most-watched on earth, thus attracting the most interest and gambling. British amateur soccer sees more gambling action than professional leagues in many other countries. And with its believed imperviousness to corruption, that only makes it more of a target.
There has been no evidence of serious match-fixing, mind — unlike in other countries; most notably Italy and Turkey. Spot-fixing is something altogether different, a manipulation of marginal events. It’s illegal and despicable, to be sure, but only a minor factor in the outcome of games.
But the ground is fertile. “The elephant in the room in terms of the Premier League is gambling,” says Hill, referring to the professional game’s well-documented propensity for turning its players into serious gamblers . “Inevitably, if you have a culture of gambling, you’re going to have degenerate gamblers. If you have degenerate gamblers, you’re going to have some form of corruption. It’s inevitable.”
Never mind Townsend, major England stars such as John Terry and Michael Owen are rumored to have suffered through major gambling addictions and stories of British players losing millions of pounds on horse racing and the like are rife. All around them, jersey and stadium sponsorships remind them just where they can place their latest wagers.
Yet for gambling’s deeply ingrained place in British culture, for their own players’ problems with it, the UK’s soccer authorities think that the more sinister sides of it will be kept at bay by some unwritten, unseen honor code of a high society long since eroded. And in this bet, continuing to believe so is the real gamble.