Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Hurt of Match-Fixing

Imagine your all-time hero was arrested. Imagine the crime of which he or she was suspected cast doubt on all which you've invested in for years. Imagine the horror. When Ian Goodison, the definitive icon in the history of my football club, was held in police custody this week with relation to a recent spate of alleged match-fixing, this dystopian scenario became reality.

Goodison, a veteran of over 400 appearances since joining Tranmere Rovers in 2004, is in every way the archetypal folk hero. A Jamaican international who captained the Reggae Boys at the France '98 World Cup, the fiercely-competitive defender is renowned for his languid style and love of Tranmere. It's a mutual feeling; Goodison's name is sung with gusto on the Prenton Park terraces and his loyalty praised from every quarter. I have shirts printed with Goodison's name and number. I've had my photograph taken with him. I've dedicated hundreds of column inches to exulting his legacy, and even took a ten foot Jamaican flag to every home game last season in his honour. He is a hero. He is a legend. He is Mr Tranmere.

Therefore, we were heartbroken as a fanbase by news of his arrest on Sunday. Goodison was one of six men detained by Police and later bailed following a Sun sting investigation into so-called 'spot-fixing,' whereby players receive illegal payment for purposely manipulating aspects of play. The Sun published video footage proposing to show former Charlton and Portsmouth defender Sam Sodje taking payment for staged red and yellow cards during games in order for gambling networks to earn small fortunes betting in foreign markets. Soon thereafter, the scandal began to burn closer to home.

According to the Sun, Akpo Sodje, Sam's younger brother, “sipped a glass of lemonade as he offered to fix games for cash.” Akpo is also a Tranmere Rovers player. Akpo was also arrested in relation to these allegations. Our anger was raging deep inside by this point. On social networks and fan forums, many people urged the club to launch an internal inquiry of its own and to cut all ties with Sodje should he be found guilty of rigging matches. I shared these emotional sentiments.

Whilst these dark revelations barely registered on the radar of Premier League clubs and fan-bases, the tight-knit Football League community was collectively appalled. It stuck in the throat, with many eyes opened for the first time to a murky undercurrent of professional sport. The feeling of betrayal intensified when DJ Campbell, a household name in the lower leagues, was later arrested amid similar spot-fixing accusations. At our level, players don't get much bigger than Sodje and Campbell. They were known by all, and all felt violated.

The potential for a match-fixing scandal began to percolate earlier this month, when two Whitehawk FC players, namely Michael Boateng and Hakeem Adelakun, were charged with conspiracy to defraud contrary to common law following a National Crime Agency (NCA) probe into fixing in Conference South games. The players were later sacked by their club and ordered to attend Birmingham Magistrates Court.

A month earlier, in a case which seemingly didn't receive as much publicity, former Premier League striker Delroy Facey was also implicated in the investigation. As a lifelong Tranmere fan, this initial revelation came as quite a shock; Facey played for my club during the 2005/06 season and is held in high-esteem for a special goal away to MK Dons which helped stave off relegation. In the aftermath of his investigation by the NCA, we were left somewhat worried and laden with questions regarding Facey's spell at our club.

However, the Sun footage and report into Sam, Steven and Akpo Sodje, which also featured Oldham forward Cristian Montano, created an even bigger storm.

As a Tranmere fan, I was incredibly worried, even to the point of sleepless nights. The entire match-fixing scandal seemed to be centred around the club which I love. Facey and Akpo Sodje played for Rovers. The major incidents under NCA scrutiny involved two more former Tranmere players: Sam Sodje mindlessly punching Jose Baxter in one suspicious incident and Campbell scything down Aaron Cresswell with a reckless challenge in a recent game. Whilst Baxter and Cresswell are in no way linked to the arrests and explicitly not under investigation, many figures related to Tranmere were making headlines for all the wrong reasons. We simply didn't know what to think or believe.

However, the final straw, the defining moment, the event which blew up this entire scenario into one of nightmarish proportions was the arrest of Goodison. We howled in anguish and remain under a black cloud of uncertainty. Of all the players in all the professional clubs, why did it have to be Goody, a hero to thousands? At this point, it's important to stress that no charges have been brought against Goodison or any of the other five men held this week and, naturally, they remain innocent until proven guilty. However, just the mere thought of your all-time icon being arrested in relation to accusations which would, by very nature, contradict a lifetime of support, sends a shiver down the spine.

My mind raced. The feeling of betrayal, even before any evidence was displayed or any charges levied, was inexorable. One question burned in my mind: have I spent thousands of pounds, traveled all over the country and become emotionally-invested in football games which have a pre-determined outcome? All week, millions of people across our land look forward with great anticipation to a day out at the football on Saturday. We hope and pray for a good result, a strong performance, some true entertainment. I would be destroyed if it came to light that such feverish interest was in vein; if the course of my weekends had been scripted in seedy gambling dens beforehand; if the results were rigged for the pleasure of a craven minority; if my heroes were willful participants in nefarious criminality. It would represent a dagger to the heart.

As a nation, a society and a body of football fans, we cannot tolerate such deceptive cheating. If our culture is imbued with the kind of corruption professedly unearthed by these recent investigations, the world will be a dark and hurtful place. Of course, the sprawl of online gambling, with fans able to bet within seconds of real-time play via mobile phones and tablets, has been so all-consuming as to be unstoppable. We're never going to stop the gambling industry from offering football markets. However, we can, and must, regulate football in such a way that match-fixing is met with severe punishment. If any of these players are found guilty of illegally changing the course of matches, no matter how minutely, lifetime bans are the only solution. We must deter today's young players from resorting to corruption. The honesty and integrity of our national sport must be upheld.

Also, the Premier League has a huge part to play. Whilst players at the top level earn thousands of pounds, drive sports cars and live in mansions, this is not always the case in the lower leagues. At Conference or League Two level, there is not much financial difference between playing football or working in an office or on a building site. Thus, the lure of additional money, procured by merely getting a yellow card during a match, must undoubtedly by difficult to ignore. That's just human nature. Therefore, the Premier League must work harder to support the Football League through revenue sharing initiatives and more realistic wage structures. A salary cap should be considered, thus helping to close the financial canyon between its players and the rest of us. In turn, this would help decrease and perhaps eliminate the grotesque desire of many less-talented players to make-up the difference illegally. In short, English football must return to Planet Earth.

Obviously, corruption is as old as gambling itself. The big-money world of sport has always represented a huge target for illegal gangs eager to distort the rules for financial gain. In 1919, perhaps the most notorious instance of match-fixing came to light after a group of well-connected gamblers bribed members of the Chicago White Sox to throw baseball's World Series. A little closer to home, Italian football was rocked in 2006 when the Calciopoli scandal unveiled two administrators, Luciano Moggi and Antonio Giraudo, lauding over an intricate network of corruption which controlled with absolute authority many aspects of the Italian game. The two schemers used bribes, phone calls and psychological violence to alter the impartiality of referees, managers, players, club presidents and even journalists. Therefore, they were able to manage and effectively direct the shape of the Serie A standings for a number of years; a macabre feat of patronage which ultimately saw huge clubs like Lazio, Milan and Fiorentina deducted points whilst Juventus were stripped of two league titles and demoted to Serie B.

Whilst the allegations levied against Ian Goodison and company this week may seem comparatively minor, I was crestfallen. I'm rightly outraged by historical cases of match-fixing just like everybody else. However, when rumoured collusion strikes firmly at your door, asking for your ultimate hero to be handcuffed and questioned, fresh perspective is given and new aspects of life reviewed. Whatever the outcome of this saddening scandal, lower league football will never be the same again.

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