Tuesday 21 November 2017

Athlone players 'shocked' at allegations of match-fixing

'There is nothing against this player. There is no evidence. It is trial by media'

TROUBLED CLUB: The town of Athlone, where players at the football club find themselves in the eye of a storm about match-fixing and irregular betting
TROUBLED CLUB: The town of Athlone, where players at the football club find themselves in the eye of a storm about match-fixing and irregular betting
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The players at the centre of the match-fixing investigation in Athlone Town FC are "shocked" and "surprised" at allegations of irregular betting on a League of Ireland match last weekend.

Stephen McGuinness, of the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland (PFAI), was speaking after meeting the players last Friday, including the club's Latvian goalkeeper, Igors Labuts, who is at the centre of the speculation.

Reports last week claimed that Labuts and two other Athlone players had previously played in a number of games that were "escalated" or scrutinised by UEFA, the European footballing body, for irregularities in betting patterns. McGuinness, who is general secretary of the PFAI, said all three players were unaware of this and had never been contacted by UEFA.

"I think the players are surprised and shocked by what has come out over the last few days," he said. "Each player was given the UEFA report. Each player has read the report, in particular the three players who are said have escalated games by UEFA."

He continued: "They had shared with us their surprise in relation to the amount of games that have been escalated. They said they had never been spoken to by UEFA. They said they have been contacted by another Federation. They said they are unaware of these games that are marked against them as escalated."

Read More: FAI steps up probe into more Athlone matches

He said that there was "no evidence" against any of the players as regards last weekend's League of Ireland game that saw Athlone defeated by Longford 3-1.

"We have contacted the FAI to provide us with the information about these escalated games and the FAI have informed us that we must contact UEFA to get that information," said McGuinness.

"This has been thrown out to the media. The players are saying to us when we met them that they are unaware these games were escalated. They say they never have been contacted… never been questioned, never been asked about these games."

McGuinness pointed out that the goalkeeper had been in Ireland for some time, having trained with Drogheda before signing to Athlone Town FC and has family in North Dublin.

"There is nothing against this player. There is no evidence that I see. There is no evidence against the man. It is trial by media," he said.

Investigators from the Football Association of Ireland will interview players and staff tomorrow and Tuesday to find out who knew what about match-fixing at Athlone Town FC while the Garda's fraud bureau considers whether to launch a formal investigation.

Suspicions that Asian gamblers bet hundreds of thousands on the performance of a provincial midlands club in a League of Ireland match has astonished fans of the troubled club which has been dogged by financial woes and infighting in recent years.

The chairman of Athlone Town, John Hayden, met coaches and board members at his home last Friday. Earlier, the board issued a statement saying they were shocked at the allegations.

The controversy erupted days after the SSE Airtricity League of Ireland First Division match between Athlone and neighbouring Longford Town last weekend. While the match was in play, UEFA detected unusual betting patterns, in particular a spike in betting activity around two goals close to half time and the final whistle.

UEFA sent a detailed report to the FAI last week outlining "clear and overwhelming betting evidence" that the match result was "unduly influenced with a view to gaining corrupt betting profits". The FAI announced last Friday night that it had extended its investigation to include two other matches.

The crisis overshadows the financial woes that have dogged Athlone Town FC for years. Last year, the players refused to play a fixture against Waterford because they hadn't been paid for five weeks. The FAI fined Athlone FC €5,000 for failing to field a team. Shortly after that the manager, Alan Mathews, and several key players resigned.

Earlier this year, the local media reported that a wealthy Portuguese investor was to invest in the club. Fans speculated that the investor was a Chinese businessman called Eric Mao, also known as Eric Xiaogdong, who is based in Portugal.

According to reports, Mao was involved in a Portuguese club, Atletico Clube de Portugal, which Igors Labuts once played for. That club was reportedly the subject of match-fixing investigations in 2014.

The investor remains a mystery this weekend with the FAI and Athlone Town FC refusing to reveal his identity.

The FAI has in recent years agreed a deal to allow Premier matches to be live-streamed in certain betting outlets which opens them up to gambling.

McGuinness said this weekend that match-fixers were "piranhas" who scoured the internet to "hook" in players on social media.

In a statement last week, the FAI said it has been monitoring Athlone Town FC since before the start of the 2017 season.

Sunday Independent

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