Sunday 22 October 2017

Comment: Another fine mess for the FAI as match-fixing suspensions send shockwaves around League

Dragos Sfrijan and (inset) Igors Labuts
Dragos Sfrijan and (inset) Igors Labuts
Aidan Fitzmaurice

Aidan Fitzmaurice

As if the senior international team's all-but-inevitable exit from the World Cup was not bad enough, the FAI have been dragged into an unmitigated domestic disaster, all on the back of a League of Ireland First Division game played out in front of 407 punters.

And the saga over claims of match-fixing in the football graveyard that is the LOI's second tier is about to nag away at the FAI, with two stinging statements issued by players' body, the PFAI, and Athlone Town last night in response to the FAI's decision to hand down a one-year ban from "all football activity" to two Athlone players over allegations of match-manipulation and betting.

Fearful of what comes in the wake of criticising Abbotstown, LOI clubs remain at heel and stay quiet in times of crisis but Athlone's official statement last night, where they attacked the FAI with words like "outrageous findings, perverse determinations, flawed process", sent shockwaves around the League of Ireland.

And beyond, as this sorry affair has damaged the FAI and LOI - and with the players' representatives taking their case to Europe, it's not going away.

The League of Ireland careers of Athlone Town players, Igors Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan, are over after the pair were last night given a 12-month ban by the FAI for match-fixing.

Following a probe sparked by concerns expressed by UEFA over irregular betting patterns during the Longford Town-Athlone Town game in April (the one watched by 407 punters), the FAI concluded that Latvian 'keeper Labuts and Romanian defender Sfrijan were guilty.

Pat Dolan. Photo: Sportsfile
Pat Dolan. Photo: Sportsfile

According to an FAI statement, they broke three FAI rules:

- Rule 99: Bringing the Game into Disrepute.

- Rule 105: Manipulating Matches.

- Rule 106: Betting / Gambling.

How did the FAI come to their decision?

That's the core of the matter from now on in, possibly all the way to the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) in Lausanne and a case that the FAI will hate to engage in, as the players, and those on their side such as the club and the PFAI, maintain that there is no evidence, no paper trail, no emails or text messages, to back up any possible suggestion that the players benefited financially from the outcome of the game, and the bets placed on that outcome.

Interviews with the FAI's investigating team began in July, and the PFAI claim that those involved offered up all information requested, including access to phone and banking records.

No physical or digital evidence was mentioned by the FAI in their statement confirming the ban. So unless the FAI release a more detailed statement, with physical evidence, it all comes down to the video.

The FAI selected a three-man panel of "experts" from within the game to analyse footage of the Longford-Athlone game and then make a determination. Former managers Damien Richardson and Don O'Riordan, along with ex-UCD player Tony McDonnell, took up those roles. But even before the trio had a cup of tea, there was a problem as the PFAI maintain that such a sub-committee was irregular.

"The FAI arbitrarily convened a three-man panel to study the footage in conjunction with evidence of irregular betting patterns. No rule exists for such a panel," the PFAI said in their statement.

The FAI have not detailed how the three-man panel came to their decision that the two Athlone players were guilty, but the PFAI insist that the process was flawed.

"Asked to determine if these players performed in an adequate or illogical manner, only two [of the three-man panel] reached an opinion that they had while a third, though expressing reservations, said he felt there was not enough evidence. At the hearing, one of these experts did not appear and his opinion was withdrawn while another, who had expressed reservations, changed his view," the PFAI claimed. If the three-man panel opt to go public and back this up, it would be disastrous, with potentially career-costing consequences, for the FAI.

Athlone, meanwhile said "it has been our strong belief the FAI's findings had been predetermined, and have little to do what was presented before those hearing the case".

The players' body assembled a viewing panel of their own, made up of four ex-players, three of whom now work in the media, including ex-international Richard Sadlier and former manager Pat Dolan. One of the 'PFAI four' reportedly said that 27-year-old Labuts, who played for clubs in his native Latvia and Portugal before the move here, was possibly not a very good goalkeeper but there was no evidence to suggest he was crooked. Athlone have pointed out that the other player, Sfrijan, was playing with an injury in the game in question.

What has also puzzled some is that the FAI claimed in their statement last night to have "a zero-tolerance policy to match-fixing" but yet the bans issued to the pair were for 12 months only. If guilty, why not a lifetime ban?

In the background, Athlone struggle on. They recently conceded 14 goals in two games and have not won a league game since May. Labuts and Sfrijan are unable to even train with the club under the terms of the ban.

But future pain belongs to the FAI for a new, unholy mess.

Irish Independent

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