Six arrested over allegations of spot-fixing in English football

Yesterday, a potentially huge story broke here in the UK where, at the time of writing, six men, five of which are current professional footballers, have been arrested as part of an investigation by the National Crime Agency (the national agency dedicated to fighting organised crime) over allegations of spot-fixing in football matches.

Those players include former Premier League players DJ Campbell, now at Blackburn Rovers, and Sam Sodje, a former Nigeria international who is currently unattached after being released by Portsmouth last summer. The other men arrested were Sodje’s brother Steven, Oldham Athletic midfielder Cristian Montano and Tranmere Rovers players Akpo Sodje (another of Sam Sodje’s brothers) and Ian Goodison, a former Jamaica international. At the time of writing Goodison remains in custody whereas the other players have been released on bail.

A newspaper yesterday published an article and uploaded a supporting video, which appears to show Sam Sodje, admit to an undercover reporter that he intentionally punched Oldham Athletic player Jose Baxter whilst playing for Portsmouth last season, so that he would be sent off; for which he received £70,000 in return.

The video also shows Sodje claiming that he brokered a deal where a player in the Championship (the league below the Premier League) received £30,000 in exchange for getting a yellow card and that he could arrange for players playing in the Premier League and in next year’s World Cup to do the same.

The video also shows current Oldham Athletic player Cristian Montano appearing to admit that he tried, and failed, to get booked in a game against Wolves in October, and allegedly offering to do the same again for the reporter, seemingly saying that he could get a booking at a pre-arranged time. It is also believed that police are investigating a booking Campbell picked up whilst playing against Ipswich Town last week.

There’s a big distinction between match fixing and spot fixing. Whereas match fixing would involve influencing the result or the score of a match, spot fixing involves influencing the outcome of one particular event in a match, in this case, a particular player getting a yellow card.

Match fixing is not an easy task to pull off. It’s very hard for one player, even a goalkeeper, to have a direct influence on the outcome of a game, so usually, a fixed match requires several team members to be in on the fix. That is risky because then those players are dependent on the rest of the team to either be kept in the dark, or to not have the moral strength to report what’s happening.

Spot fixing on the other hand is actually pretty easy to do. People can, and do, bet on games played all over the world. The popularity of English football means there are huge sums of money being bet globally on each game and thousands of different bets available. So it’s relatively easy for players to deliberately get themselves booked, concede a corner or hit the ball out of play without drawing suspicion.

Spot fixing in English football is not a new thing either. A few years ago, former Southampton player Matt Le Tissier, one of the greatest players of the early Premier League years, admitted in his autobiography that he deliberately tried to concede a throw-in from the opening kick-off of a game against Wimbledon in 1995 to win £10,000 on a bet. Le Tissier’s plan was thwarted when team-mate Neil Shipperley, who was not in on the bet, kept the ball in play.

Last year, another Southampton player, Claus Lundekvam, revealed that he and some of his fellow players organised a spot-fixing scam between themselves for years. Lundekvam said “We made a fair bit of money. We could make deals with the opposing captain about, for example, betting on the first throw, the first corner, who started with the ball, a yellow card or a penalty.

“There were often thousands of pounds in the pot, from several players. We would give the money to one of the staff to put on for us.”

Police decided that it wasn’t worth devoting time and resources to investigating Le Tissier’s statements; so no charges were ever brought. FIFA, presumably citing the case of pot vs. kettle, decided they would investigate the allegations of corruption against Lundekvam, which has yet to be concluded.

The concern here is that the six men arrested are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an uneasy feeling that, far from the beginning and end of the problem, the arrested players were just the ones stupid enough to get caught and there could be untold numbers of players doing the same thing. Actions like this affect the integrity of the sport as fans will no longer be sure if they are the result of a genuine mistake or corruption.

There is also anger from football fans towards the football authorities, as these latest revelations as with many revelations involving impropriety in football, were the result of an investigation by a journalist, rather than by any work done by the football authorities.

The players’ union, the Professional Footballers Association stated that it takes the integrity of the game very seriously stating: "These allegations, if proven, unfortunately demonstrate the real issue football faces in terms of corruption and highlights the necessity of the work carried out by the PFA and other stakeholders in the game in educating players of these risks.

"We take the issue of integrity very seriously and will continue in our efforts to eradicate this evil from our game.”

Unfortunately, I don’t really see what the authorities can do to prevent spot-fixing. Banning or putting pressure on bookmakers not to accept bets on throw-ins, yellow cards etc. is not the answer. Bookmakers keep meticulous records and, as it is in their best interests to do so, are willing to report any suspicious bets to the authorities. Banning those bookmakers from accepting those bets runs the risk of those bets being made on the illegal market, which would mean any suspicious bets never get revealed to the authorities.

I’m not even sure that life bans or possible jail sentences would act as a sufficient deterrent towards players doing this again.

In 2010, three of the Pakistan cricket team were accused of spot fixing during a test match vs England in London, leading to a police investigation which resulted in three players, Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, being found guilty of conspiracy to cheat at gambling and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments and all three were sent to prison.

In this case, with the exception of Montano, all of the players allegedly involved are at least in their thirties, with Ian Goodison being 41. This means as those players are coming towards the end of their careers anyway, the risk/reward ratio that they had to think of when deciding whether they should participate in such a scheme had tilted in favour of reward. Simply, the payoff is more of an attraction than a ban or criminal punishment is a deterrent.

The very human quality of greed also played its part in this case, and again, is something that makes it almost impossible to prevent this from happening in the future. All of the players involved, even Sam Sodje and DJ Campbell, who have played in the Premier League, have never really been making the sort of sums of money that would put them in a financial position where they would not be tempted to make some easy money.

The average League One footballer earns £80,000 per year, so a cash offer of somewhere between 30-70k will be far more attractive to them than it would to a Premier League player, who earns, on average over £30,000 per week and has far more to lose.

It’s unclear what measures English football and football in general, can do to prevent spot-fixing from happening again. Relying on law-enforcement as the main weapon isn’t a good idea, as there is often a paucity of evidence available, so it’s very hard to build a case that will result in a conviction.

Players are only human, and as a result, you will always get players who are tempted to do something dishonest, and it is both very easy for a player to carry out a spot-fix and very hard for that fix to be detected.

However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Setting-up some sort of anti-corruption anonymous phone line or other ways of reporting any suspicious behaviour would help, as would setting up a dedicated department working towards preserving the integrity of the game.

One of the conditions that makes fixing in football attractive is if players are badly paid. Whereas the players in this case are very well paid compared to your average Brit, in footballing terms, they are being paid very little. If the Premier League clubs were more willing to share the wealth with lower-league clubs, this would allow clubs in League One and League Two to be able to pay higher wages to their players and make a payoff such as the one these players allegedly received far less attractive.