One observation to be made after reading Joey Barton’s suspiciously well-written and cogent response to the news he has been banned, with an appeal pending, for 18 months by the English FA for betting on football matches is that, yes, well, there’s worse crimes.
After all, he might have tried to stub out a lit cigar in a team-mate’s eye. But of course Barton has moved on since those days when he was such a troubled soul. This is underlined by the fact that as news of his suspension emerged yesterday, his autobiography, the roundly praised No Nonsense, was being included on two short lists in the Cross British sports book awards.
But Barton wasn’t so unguarded in this recently published autobiography to open up about his betting activities. There is no hilarious anecdote about the time, the night before a game between his then team Manchester City and Fulham in April 2006, he placed a £5 bet that team-mate Georgios Samaras wouldn’t score first the following day (it turned out Barton’s, ahem, hunch was right– Samaras started on the bench).
Nor is there any self-deprecating humour sourced from the time he bet on Manchester United to beat Newcastle at Old Trafford in August 2008. The home team had won the corresponding fixture 6-1 the previous season, and this was expected to be another “ritual slaughtering,” one match report noted.
Although at Newcastle at the time, Barton wasn’t involved in the squad on this occasion. So he had no influence on the game as his team plundered a surprise 1-1 draw, which meant he lost his £300 stake.
Such details only emerged yesterday, admittedly at Barton’s behest. But they were not included in such black-and-white terms in his book because he knew then, as he knows now, that professional footballers are not permitted to bet on football matches they are involved in or can influence, or on competitions in which their club are involved (these rules have since been tightened in England to include any football match anywhere in the world, something already the case in Scotland).
But Barton, remarkably, bet on matches regularly, over 1,200 times between 2004 and 2011 – the equivalent of one bet every two to three days.
You say remarkably because, as Barton himself points out in a statement on his official website, he was hardly doing so anonymously. While the recent proliferation of online betting sites means punters are granted a degree of privacy in that they do not have to queue up in local shops, Barton explains that his account was set up using his home address, and was verified with his passport.
He was betting in the full view of whoever it is who monitors accounts for the betting company – Betfair in this instance. He was not doing so under cover. The failure to bring him to book before now is as much Betfair’s fault as the FA’s, since Joey Barton, even then, was one of the highest profile players in Britain, for what he was doing off the pitch as much as on it. So there are others at fault. But Barton’s argument that top-class football, by accommodating and, indeed, pursuing such a close relationship with betting companies pumping cash into the game, is adopting a hypocritical stance in imposing such strict rules on players’ gambling misses the point.
He complains about the “huge clash between the rules and the modern culture that surrounds the game, where anyone who watches football on TV or in the stadia is bombarded by marketing, advertising and sponsorship by betting companies, and where much of the coverage now, on Sky for example, is intertwined with the broadcasters’ own gambling interests”.
Sure, it’s an unhealthy relationship and exposes football as being over-reliant on investment from gambling, which is not everyone’s cup of tea and can contribute towards a variety of social problems.
But footballers can surely be expected, for obvious reasons linked principally to sporting integrity, to exhibit self-restraint when it comes to betting, whether they pull on a shirt each Saturday promoting the name of a betting firm (as Barton has done for both Rangers and Burnley this season) or not.
Barton’s high wages are what they are due to a large extent to such investment. While the message being sent out is indeed a mixed one with regards football authorities’ links with gambling companies, it’s unequivocal when it comes to players: don’t bet on football.
Eighteen months is a long time, no question. And Barton’s remorse seems genuine. After all, in what was a timely event for the purpose of drawing comparisons, Maria Sharapova returned to tennis yesterday after serving only a 15-month ban for use of a banned substance.
Barton’s appeal is likely to see his own suspension reduced, with around six months seeming a fairer term.
No one wants to see a career, which had been progressing well again at Burnley after seeming to stall at Rangers, end so abruptly. But, in football terms, a serious crime has been committed.
If he wasn’t handed a severe punishment then the message risks not getting through, which clearly in the case of Barton, handed a lenient one-match ban by the Scottish Football Association after placing 44 bets on matches while at Rangers as recently as earlier this season, it wasn’t.