Monday 19 February 2018

Comment - Betting on the League of Ireland in eastern Europe and Asia is a massive industry

Aidan Fitzmaurice

Aidan Fitzmaurice

Any fan of a League of Ireland club who has ended up in a taxi in places like Istanbul, Belgrade or Sofia knows how the conversation goes.

Just mention a background in the much-maligned League of Ireland and you’ll find that your typical taxi driver working the streets there has a more detailed knowledge of the LOI than most punters here in Ireland, not through any great love for the SSE Airtricity League, but because of money.

The LOI’s second tier may get small crowds - Athlone Town’s average gate for their home games this season, according to figures just released by the FAI  is a paltry 244 - but it’s big business when it comes to the bookies.

In eastern Europe and Asia in particular, betting on the LOI is a massive industry.

And that’s why we are where we are now, with the FAI’s investigation into irregular betting patterns, sparked by large bets from the Asian market, in last week’s Division One clash between Longford Town and Athlone Town.

Just 407 paying customers attended that game, the one they call El Clasico in the midlands, but it’s almost certain that multiples of that figure were watching online. And betting.

What has caused concern is the significant number of in-play bets placed in the final 10 minutes of that match, bets on Athlone to concede another goal when they were already 2-1 down. It must be stressed that there is no question of any involvement by Longford Town in the matter.

“UEFA has confirmed that the biggest movements in betting took place on Asian market,” the FAI said last night.

The FAI will head for the midlands next week to find out more, the association confirming last night that they have formally contacted the players, staff and officials of Athlone to arrange interviews for Monday and Tuesday of next week.

Yet the FAI are essentially facilitating that worldwide audience of eager punters with their own four-year sponsorship deal with Austrian-based betting company Trackchamp.

Announced before the start of the 2016 season, Trackchamp show live online footage of LOI games - once the viewers are based outside of Ireland, have a betting account with a Trackchamp affiliate and have that account in credit.

Before this season had begun, FAI official Fran Gavin was asked about the Trackchamp deal, which was criticised by many when it was launched, with fears expressed that the broader audience afforded to the league would only make LOI players more attractive to those outside of Ireland seeking to influence games.

“Trackchamp is still going and that’s working well with the clubs,” FAI man Fran Gavin said last February.

“We are trying to get that footage in to the clubs because all the clubs have video analysis. We are looking at a central exchange so that clubs can get all the footage from every match in the league so they can analyse their next opponents.”

Questionable betting on football is nothing new. In 1915, Dubliner Patrick O’Connell, who went on to manage Barcelona but at the time was a Manchester United player, was part of a major betting scam in a United-Liverpool game.

For decades it was rumoured that some players would augment their wages by betting on their own teams to lose.

And the arrival of the online factor took things to a new level. In recent years, two players from the LOI were found to have breached FAI rules on betting and served suspensions.

The outcome of the FAI investigation will determine if any current players will now be banned but the saga has drawn a most-unwanted focus on the LOI.

The Trackchamp deal has now become a problematic money-spinner for the FAI - and in fairness, the association confirmed at its launch that the profits from the deal, estimated at €10,000 per club per season, would be fed back to those clubs.

“The money from Trackchamp is going into prize money - back to the clubs,” Gavin added.

But the existence of a deal whose only purpose is to show LOI matches to those outside the jurisdiction who have no love for the game, only money, has to be addressed while the FAI will also be called upon to provide more details on the licencing process which cleared Athlone Town FC to compete in the league this season.

A good outcome? Don’t bet on it.

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