In a week in which football appeared to rival politics as the cradle of scandal, the least obvious example of possible corruption was to be found in what would seem at first glance to be an entirely innocuous exercise.
A more forensic scan of the Uefa.com European Team of the Year, however, made it difficult to avoid the suspicion that the majority of those who cast votes may have been guilty of transcontinental discrimination.
Since the governing body of the European game trumpeted the fact that a record 6.3 million users had participated in the ballot, you would have to conclude from their final selection that the electorate must have been riddled with a virulent form of anti-South American bias. Either that or, much more probably, the annual poll had simply attracted the worst judges in Europe.
But for the inclusion of Thiago Silva, Paris St Germain’s Brazilian defender, the uninformed reader might naturally have supposed that only European natives were eligible for inclusion. That would have qualified as an acceptable explanation of the absence of so many from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay who are in possession of unimpeachable credentials.
Indeed, it is the greatest irony of the result of the deliberations of so many that the only South American in the team is a defender; in Britain at least, there is widespread agreement that, with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo, the most brilliant, fearsome and deadly forwards in Europe are the descendants of the conquistadores.
Ronaldo’s candidature would be enough to ensure that Sergio Aguero of Manchester City, Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Luis Suarez of Liverpool could not all be accommodated in a team deployed in a 4-4-2 formation. Messi’s chances would be, in any case, legitimately reduced by his having had a relatively unspectacular year sabotaged by injury.
That the majority of 6.3 million people could, however, arrive at the conclusion that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, only the second-best striker from Sweden in the past 15 years, far less among the best in the world, should warrant selection ahead of Aguero, Messi and Suarez suggests that, as youth is said to be wasted on the young, professional football is wasted on certain “aficionados”.
This argument is surely supported by such infamous episodes as the Celtic supporters who booed Fergus McCann as he unfurled the championship flag in 1998, the Rangers followers who worshipped Nacho Novo, a player so moderate he was rarely selected by the most revered manager in the club’s recent history (Walter Smith), and the Scotland fans who regularly and loudly expressed the view that Denis Law and Kenny Dalglish weren’t up to much.
We’re not yet at the races in the eyes of high rollers
The stink of authentic, tangible corruption was in the air when the Scottish FA chief executive, Stewart Regan, joined others from the upper rungs of officialdom’s ladder to launch the Keep It Clean campaign. This is an initiative designed to maintain eternal vigilance in the face of the ever-present threat posed by match-fixing.
It is unquestionably well-intentioned, but will almost certainly prove to be as effective as a bandana against bubonic plague if the gambling desperadoes ever decide to make a serious incursion into the Scottish game. The sport in this country has long been considered to have a built-in defence, in that genuine high rollers could not get enough money on with bookmakers to make bribing players worthwhile.
But, as a long-time associate who occupies an executive position at the heart of the betting industry explained, that has all been changed by the kind of astronomical sums that are wagered in the Far East – on events throughout the world, including such apparently trivial events as non-league football.
“I have a friend who is a very serious player,” I was told. “He finds it difficult to get a bet of ten grand on in the UK. In the Far East, he can have three million on in the blink of an eye. Most people have no idea of the scale of the business in that part of the world.
“For example, more money is bet on one day’s racing in Hong Kong than in a whole year in Britain. That’s why the Hong Kong authorities legalised it. If somebody in the UK wants a big bet on in the Far East, they can have it without hesitation and, if they win, it doesn’t matter. Those who are laying the bets are taking so much money they can’t lose.”
Time running out for Skrtel’s wrestling exhibition
The Liverpool defender, Martin Skrtel, is quickly building a bizarre reputation as a man who couldn’t play football if he lost his hands.
Television close-ups of the Slovakian’s routine grabbing, holding, pulling and wrestling of an opponent, most often at corner kicks, suggests that he has reached the stage where he considers the manhandling of a rival to be as central to the game as kicking the ball.
Skrtel may be unaware (and if he is, his manager should enlighten him) that referees who miss these actions regularly review their own performances, especially in the company of their supervisors, who are keen to highlight and, if possible, eradicate the flaws. Making a referee look foolish is, in most ego-driven match officials’ minds, the most heinous offence in the book, and Skrtel has become probably the most persistent and irritating recidivist in the English Premier League.
Referees who feel they have been insulted by Skrtel’s behaviour are unlikely to forget, and they will keep him under surveillance, certainly as covertly as possible.
The point is that, almost inevitably, the big defender will cost his team a severe penalty on one of the most crucial occasions of their season. That is, of course, unless the match officials adhere to their own scandalous determination to abdicate their responsibilities.