IT IS the sort of practice that has seldom reared its ugly head in Scotland, but that is not to say it could never become a scourge.
Fraser Wishart knows a thing or two about match fixing and spot fixing in football. As chief executive of PFA Scotland he has attended and organised conferences with players from abroad who have succumbed to the lure of an illicit pay day, often fixing situations within football matches for reasons no more sinister than self-preservation.
“You name it, it has happened,” said Wishart yesterday as the SFA launched their new “Keep It Clean” campaign at Hampden. “There were a couple of players in Croatia who were not paid for ten months. They had signed a registration form but had no contract. They asked the owner for their money and that was when they were intimidated.
“It was a case of they would get their salary if they spot-fixed matches. They were going to be relegated anyway, so it was a case of not trying quite as hard and they lost games. It was the only way to feed their children.
“They ended up in jail,” Wishart added. “One of the guys came to our conference recently in St Andrews and was in floods of tears telling his story. He was mortified because he was arrested in front of his children. I felt for the guy. The intimidation in some places is horrendous, with players at the end of a chain of intimidation and threats.
“Another player signed for a club in a different country, a striker, and was told he was not allowed to score unless the president had his hat on. If he scored when he was hatless, there would be a knock at the door.”
Stewart Regan, the SFA chief executive, insists he has no intelligence to suggest the scourge of match-fixing has infiltrated Scottish football. But the recent newspaper sting in England that implicated Akpo Sodje coincided with the SFA’s final touches to a campaign they hope will remind all involved with the game here of their moral responsibilities, not to mention the consequences of cheating.
Keep It Clean covers match fixing, immoral betting and doping in football and an “Integrity Hotline” will be set up in conjunction with Crimestoppers to encourage anyone with information on suspicious conduct to anonymously disclose it. The SFA will be sending out awareness packs and they have also appointed a security and integrity officer, former police superintendent Peter McLaughlin.
The conviction of Rangers midfielder Ian Black last autumn for betting on games in which he had a vested interest alerted PFA Scotland’s membership to the pitfalls of betting on football. The penalty for Black was a long suspension but one of Wishart’s most pressing tasks is to make sure Scottish footballers know that accepting money to fix any element of a game, even one that seems innocuous, can result in a prison sentence.
“We’ve told players to be aware that if they do get involved in spot-fixing, it’s not just a five-match ban they can expect. We use the example of the Pakistani cricketers [Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer] and the word match-fixing is perhaps a misnomer because the person influencing a result is probably the referee, but with the cricketers it was about no-balls at a certain period.
“Now that might seem very harmless – ‘put your foot over there and you get a few quid in your pocket’ – but they ended up in prison. So we do educate our players, and if they don’t know about this yet they will be told in the very near future. But what’s great about today is that all the bodies are working together.
“One thing I’m always stressing is that this is not just about players,” added the former Motherwell and Rangers defender. “A player doesn’t wake up in Eastern Europe one morning and decide to fix a game. There’s a chain that almost always involves a Mr Big. Players in eastern Europe and South America have had a knock at their doors and been told to do x, or y will happen to their families. Players deserve protection against that. If it’s purely greed then hell mend you, but if – and it almost always is – a financial or physical threat, then we must protect the player.
“Events on this scale have not happened yet in Scotland, but we can’t be complacent and must keep it away from our borders. Education is important and it’s also crucial we have a programme in place to help protect those who have been approached about match fixing but don’t want to do it.”
Regan first touched on his fears for the external corruption of Scottish football in September, when he spoke of increasing evidence of Asian laptop-bearers occupying lower-league grounds. He was reluctant to add anything yesterday that might create the impression of a stream of disclosure, but said: “Football generally, across the world, is concerned and you only have to go on the internet to see the challenges being faced in other parts of the world.
“Football relies on the game being clean to maintain sponsorship, the trust of the television companies and interest from the fans. It’s everyone’s responsibility within the football authorities to do what they can to prevent anything like that taking hold. There are undoubtedly unscrupulous people out there who will try and put pressure on others to get involved.”