On the morning of the 2014 World Cup draw, the English papers all led withone football story: England national team coach Roy Hodgson roaring his confidence in the team and declaring: "Go and put a tenner on us to win the World Cup!"
A few hours later, when Group D came out with Uruguay, Italy and Costa Rica, Hodgson's words looked somewhat foolish. Some thought that, given the FA's crackdown on players gambling and the four-month ban and £18,000 fine dished out in the summer to Andros Townsend (a player who was instrumental in helping England reach Brazil) for betting on matches in competitions in which he was involved, Hodgson should not have joked about betting at all.
Last month the Daily Telegraph broke the story, which it passed on to the National Crime Agency, that a betting syndicate budgeted £70,000 to spend on players for 'a fix,' £5,000 of which would go on a player to get booked in the first half to show that the fix was on. Last weekend, two days after Hodgson's comment, The Sun on Sunday filmed ex-Portsmouth defender Sam Sodje allegedly claiming he could arrange for League Championship players to get themselves booked in games for cash payments.
On Monday, the National Crime Agency arrested six players, among them two former Premier League players, for rigging incidents in matches for money (whereas match-fixing is affecting the result of games, spot-fixing is about individual incidents, like red or yellow cards). The six have now been released without charge.
The story led the news bulletins for a brief while. On the rolling sports news channels, they discussed it in between advertisements for online betting sites while radio talk shows chatted it over on slots sponsored by betting partners. One of Sky's live Sunday games featured Fulham, shirts sponsored by Marathon Bet, beating Aston Villa, whose shirt sponsor is dafabet, described on its own website as "Asia's No. 1 online betting and gaming site."
Betting, betting, everywhere: So it's no surprise that the gambling industry dwarfs that of the football industry in revenue terms. In The Fix, the seminal 2008 book on match-fixing, author Declan Hill quotes a study by American journal Foreign Policy that estimates the Asian gambling industry at $450 billion per year.
By comparison, Real Madrid's 2012-13 financial results showed the largest revenues for any football club, at €521 million. If the gambling market is a large supermarket, the biggest club in the world is just a kiosk on the corner. Hill, writing on his excellent eponymous blog, has long warned this problem existed in England, even if the assumption was always that this kind of illegality happens in Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, Greece, Romania and Turkey -- but not England.
The same may now be true of those denying its existence in English football's crown jewel, the Premier League. Hill also charts the familiar stages to these stories: Denial, more scandals, loss of the sport's credibility and then resignation to the fact it happens.
The Fix has been translated into 20 languages and will be the subject of a Ridley Scott-directed TV series. Hill says that as long as gambling is a problem in football, so fixing will be too. But he has also come up with a plan to rid British football of the problem, and fast. It includes setting up a 90-day amnesty for all fixers, during which time they turn themselves in or face a lifetime ban from the game; that they can keep their money and that of those they turn in (if greed has attracted them to this in the first place, this might just work).
Hill believes this would not cost more than £250,000 to run, and would be a step in solving the problem in one go, rather than letting it fester.
Would it work? Will the FA listen? On Tuesday, the FA and the Premier League were present at a match-fixing summit hosted by the government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The Guardian reported Tuesday that the FA would be prepared to sign up to a cross-sport anti-corruption body while it has also been suggested that football learn lessons from outside sport.
"If you look at industries where similar issues occur, they try and make it easier for the whistle-blower," former FA chief executive Mark Palios told BBC Radio Four.
"The worry is that match-fixing will destroy the core values of the game," wrote Oliver Kaiser, chief executive of Ledavi Network, a consultancy specializing in branded entertainment in sports, in the launch issue of The Global Player magazine, which is out this week. "We need more transparency in this area, and organizations or third parties to look at it, or to gain knowledge from regular industries."
More than diving and referees making mistakes, more than FIFA's 'make-it-up-as-you-go-along' decisions on World Cup hosts or a lack of women in football boardrooms, match-fixing is the biggest threat to the sport in the future. Once we start to doubt the reality of what we are seeing, we will stop going to games, and we will stop paying to watch them on pay TV channels.
Every stakeholder in football has a responsibility to keep the game clean. At the moment, the crooks are winning. As Palios put it: "The PFA educate players, but, unfortunately, crime is not the preserve of the uneducated."