They think it's all over …

Chris Evans
Online Editor
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Post date: Monday, 23rd May 2011

When the new Bribery Act comes into force in July, the business of the 2010/2011 football season will be done and dusted. Alex Ferguson will have picked up his customary piece of silverware, the players will be on their exotic summer holidays, while the tabloid rumour mill will have cranked into overdrive with stories of Player A going to club X and Player B leaving Club Y … and Carlos Tevez wishing to leave whichever club he's currently contracted to.

So far, so similar. But maybe not this year. There are hopes that the end of the 2010/11 season represents the end of an era, and will welcome in a new dawn of transparency in the world of football. The Bribery Act is seen as one of the toughest pieces of anti-corruption legislation in the world and has got businesses running scared, but what about the business of football?

Bribery and corruption in football is nothing new. There I’ve said it. The phrases “bungs” and “tapping up” all appear to have been coined in the world of football and made their way into common corruption vocabulary. But is football fundamentally corrupt? Is it endemic worldwide from the top down, on the pitch and off the pitch?

Last year, almost three million people tuned in to watch Panorama allege that three senior FIFA officials took bribes in the 1990s from a now defunct sports marketing firm that was awarded lucrative World Cup rights. Each of these three voted on England’s failed 2018 World Cup bid.

Only recently, FA chairman Lord Triesman has accused FIFA delegates of corruption, including vice-president Jack Warner, who he alleged requested £2.5 million to build a football education centre in Trinidad in his name in return for supporting England’s bid. 

Meanwhile, there are also allegations that Qatar’s success in the 2022 bidding may be attributed to bribery, millions of pounds worth of bribery. A whistleblower alleges that FIFA members Issa Hayatou and Jacques Anouma were paid $1.5million dollars each to vote for Qatar. Claims that the oil rich Arab emirate strenuously denies.

FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter announces that Qatar will be hosting the 2022 Soccer World Cup.

Amid the current storm surrounding the international game’s governing body; FIFA has just signed a landmark agreement with Interpol to target illegal and irregular betting and match-fixing – a deal which the body hopes will help to restore some credibility when it comes to matters on the pitch.

According to Commissioner Friedhelm Althans of Germany, who heads the Bochum inquiry into match fixing, there are about 300 matches in 20 countries where there is a suspicion of manipulation. Although the matches concerned involve mainly lower-ranking leagues, he believes it goes “all the way up to national teams, Champions League matches and Europa League matches”.

On our own footballing shores, the 2007 Lord Stevens' investigation into illegal payments during football transfers raised concerns over 17 deals, five Premier League clubs, two managers and a number of agents and third parties. However, it took a team of 20 meticulous forensic accountants almost ten months - at a cost of almost £1 million - to find these “concerns”. After which it was concluded that there was “no evidence of any irregular payments to club officials or players”.

So, if anything, the cynics may be wrong and when it comes to financial transactions at least, the overwhelming majority of agents and clubs run professional businesses in a legal and above-board manner.

That’s the line sports lawyer Mel Stein, chairman of the Association of Football Agents, also takes. He believes that in any profession you’re going to have “rotten apples”.

“You read the Law Society Gazette every week and see the solicitors struck off. If you read the Pharmaceutical Journal you’ll see pharmacists struck off. Inevitably there are going to be some agents ducking and diving within and below the regulations to cheat and make themselves a lot of money … but corruption is not endemic,” Mel Stein said in a recent roundtable organised by The Bribery Centre (see below).

The problem with football is the media spotlight that shines upon it and the mass public interest. Any slight transgression is seen and magnified more than in any other industry. A shady deal in the construction sector will only just make the business page, but the slightest transgression in the world of football moves from the back pages to the front.

Although it sometimes seems to exist in its own autonomous bubble, football is no different to any other business and will always contain, and have to deal with, rogue elements.

What, hopefully, the Bribery Act will do is encourage more self regulation and encourage more whistleblowers. The Act, which affects all companies incorporated in the UK and all foreign companies that do business in the UK, introduces a new corporate offence that means businesses must demonstrate that they have introduced thorough anti-corruption procedures to prevent a person associated with it - such as an employee or a contractor - accepting or offering a bribe to another person.

Under section 7 of the Act, the ONLY defence available is if the organisation, or football club, can show that it had in place adequate procedures designed to prevent employees and others from engaging in such conduct.

So, if there is a large scale criminal prosecution next season or in the near future, it may even originate from a whistleblower within a football club, suggests Peter Burrell, Herbert Smith LLP.

“In the same way as the corporate world, where we have seen companies making self disclosures, we may find that the football world will be forced to monitor what’s going on themselves and to keep their own houses in order … and if they find anything … to self report it. It’s an interesting dimension,” he said.

He said that clubs and organisations that self monitor and report any wrongdoing may be treated more leniently by prosecutors, while those that don’t may have the “proverbial book” thrown at them.

There is hope that the times they are a-changin’ and it’s not merely a case of “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”, as the multilingual Sepp Blatter might say.





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