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Fight against match-fixing pandemic is just beginning

A colleague who was covering an international match in Montenegro tells a great story about his surprise at coming down for breakfast one morning to be greeted by an excited night porter who only wished to speak of the previous night's Airtricity League First Division results.

Another friend tells a similar story about an equally unusual chat with a taxi driver in Cyprus who had strong views on the vagaries of Irish part-time outfits.

Betting has brought the League of Ireland to an audience far beyond its usual remit but it has also exposed the domestic game to a world of potential problems.

There was a time when betting on local matches was restricted to accumulators involving two or more games – or another sport – but those days are long gone. Now, punters can bet individually on every League of Ireland match, in addition to junior games in the Leinster Senior League, Munster Senior League and other amateur competitions.

We are already in a situation where players at lower levels who earn little or nothing for lining out can potentially earn a lot more by having an innocent punt on their own team to win, even though it is against the rules.

Allegations of match-fixing – which have been aimed at an unnamed Longford Town player this week – are a different kettle of fish altogether.

It is important to stress that the probe is at an early stage and Longford have emphasised that suspending the player in question does not imply that he is guilty of the allegation. But the flashpoint has again opened up a general debate on gambling matters.

Earlier this year, Europol suggested that match-fixing was pandemic at the upper echelons of the game, with a number of high-level encounters across Europe being investigated as part of a lengthy undercover operation.

When multi-millionaire professionals are potentially in the dock, it is hardly surprising that there is speculation surrounding low-paid players who aren't even earning a living from the game, but are in a position to influence it.

Since taking over the stewardship of the league, the FAI have struck up relationships with leading bookmakers, a memorandum of understanding which means that the association are informed if there are irregular betting patterns surrounding a fixture under their remit.

It is not a perfect solution, but it's a start and concerns about three games have been flagged in recent years. The innuendo generally revolves around dead-rubber fixtures at the end of the season, although the range of bets now available present added complications; in one instance, there was a flurry of money on a penalty being awarded in a fixture rather than the actual outcome.

Flag

The Longford case is different, however, in the sense that the red flag was raised by the club. They took action against a player as part of an internal investigation – there was no input from bookmakers – and do not believe that any games this season have been affected by the allegations.

Indeed, by going public they have taken a proactive response by highlighting a possible offence when it might have been easier to try and brush it under the carpet while the investigation continued.

The players union (PFAI) believe that further education is required to inform players of the dangers of gambling, and in a league where incomes are low and the temptations are great, it is clear that strong direction is required.

It would be naive to brush off an isolated event as just that; in reality this is a battle that is only just beginning.

Irish Independent