Betting scandals and corruption in sport are not new, nor are links between sport and organised crime. The scale and impact have increased and the widespread links between betting on sporting outcomes now promoted assiduously by sporting organisations and abetted by governments and the media must be held partly to blame for the current episode affecting Australian soccer. International security expert Chris Eaton may say that Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are the benchmarks for good governance of gambling but it is the insidious growth of a gambling culture in these countries, as elsewhere, which is at the root of the problems. It is easy and hypocritical to blame other countries for laxity in matching organised crime with an organised response. Soft targets abound in Australia as elsewhere and as long as there is a buck to be made by rigging a betting game, whether it is two up or World Cup football, fixing will go on. This time round we may see some exemplary punishments of low-level participants, but an end to match fixing in sport is not in sight.
In my own family, the story begins in late 1925 when our local club, then managed by my grandfather, was in danger of relegation from the top division of the Scottish Football League. My grandfather had been the captain of Glasgow Celtic, Newcastle United and Scotland before the First World War and he asserted that a director of the club had attempted to bribe a referee to secure a favourable result in a match against Third Lanark. When the issue became public and went before the Council of the Scottish Football Association my grandfather was told he had no evidence to support his allegation and that he should apologise. When he refused to do so he was suspended sine die (effectively a life time ban) from the game that had been his life to that point.
The man he had accused had been the Treasurer of the Scottish Football Association for 20 years and the SFA were not prepared to have him cross-examined about the issue. The next year he was voted off the SFA executive, the first time an incumbent had lost an election in more than two decades. My grandfather’s suspension was lifted a short time later. But he refused to have anything to do with the game thereafter, apart from acting as a scout for new players for Newcastle United. The impact of his suspension continued in the family for my father won a Scottish Schoolboys Cup medal in 1926 but never pursued a football career. Two lives had been changed irrevocably. Much later, in 1954, the future head of the Scottish Legal System, Donald (later Lord) Cameron told a Glasgow Rangers player Willie Woodburn that his sine die suspension was illegal, it being beyond the powers of a private body to suspend a member indefinitely, where it was depriving him of his livelihood. If that was the case then, it would have been so in 1926.
Talent skipped my generation, but I often used to reflect that when my son played for local clubs in the Third Division of the Victorian league, the matches would appear on the British football pools. So the fate of millions of devotees of the soccer pools run by the likes of Littlewoods and Vernons could rest on results in games in which my son took part.
There were several more high profile match fixing scandals in British football over the years and last month a leading Rangers player was suspended for betting on football matches, including, it is alleged, some games in which he played and bet against his own team. The manager director of Accrington Stanley has admitted on his own website that he made over 200 bets on his own side, including 37 when he had backed them to lose. Remember Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh when playing for cricket for Australia against England in 1981 or Shane Warne and Mark Waugh and ‘John the bookmaker’ or Hanse Cronje in South Africa. Some of these may be regarded as small beer compared with the millions wagered in betting coups in Asia, where the sums generated allow for the suborning of players all round the world, particularly in lower leagues. But the principles involved are exactly the same.