Monday 20 August 2018

PFAI 'disappointment and shocked' at Athlone betting verdict based on 'such flimsy evidence'

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

Aidan Fitzmaurice

The Professional Footballers Association has expressed its "disappointment and shock" after two Atlone Town players, Igors Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan, were banned from football for a year following an FAI investigation into allegations of irregular betting patterns.

The PFAI released a strong statement a short time ago insisting that there was no evidence the players were guilty of such offence and said it will appeal the decision as far as the Court of Arbitration for Sport if necessary.

"We represent Igor Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan who have been found guilty by a disciplinary panel hand picked by the FAI of breaching three FAI rules, Rule 99: Bringing the Game into Disrepute, Rule 105: Manipulating Matches and Rule 106: Betting/Gambling," read the PFAI statement.

"It was with great disappointment and shock that such a result has occurred from what was a most serious charge with such flimsy evidence.

"To be completely clear, this association and these players find the concept of match manipulation and anything that affects the integrity of this sport completely unacceptable and we believe it should be met with harsh punishment where it is proven with appropriate evidence.

"This is not such a case. In fact no evidence exists that these players were guilty of any such offence. They cooperated fully with the investigation and provided all phone records and any bank accounts that they had to the FAI. None of these records were used at the hearing and no suggestion has been made that they indicated any untoward behaviour."

The players' body also questioned the disciplinary procedure by the FAI.

"Instead, the FAI arbitrarily convened a three man panel to study the footage in conjunction with evidence of irregular betting patterns," the statement continues.

"No rule exists for such a panel but it was nonetheless asked to determine if these players performed in an adequate or illogical manner. Of these three, only two 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"At the hearing, one of these experts did not appear and his opinion was withdrawn while another, who had expressed reservations, changed his view. A further expert was introduced, a sports consultant from Austria, who had never seen a League of Ireland match before and he refused to say whether he felt the actions of the player in question was deliberate or not.

"The players engaged four experts, including three of Ireland's best known broadcasting pundits and another leading coach, all of whom expressed the opinion that there was not enough evidence to find the players guilty of match manipulation and that the errors in the match were typical of that standard of football.

"The decision of the disciplinary panel makes no reference to the substantial expert evidence which contradicts the finding and ignores the fact that in 93.7% of all cases reported by the BFDS betting monitor where irregular betting patterns exist, no sanctions were administered.

"Quite simply, the most serious allegation that can be made against a footballer must be backed up by overwhelming evidence, not half-baked innuendo.

"No player in the history of sport has been found guilty of match fixing on such little evidence. All of the comparative jurisprudence in Europe demonstrates a requirement for substantial proof in the face of such allegations. This case is an outlier."

The PFAI statement goes on to say that sports authorities are obliged to treat players with fairness and protect them against injustices by ensuring proper procedures are in place.

Athlone had been under scrutiny since claims were made about betting patterns during a Division One game last April, and a full investigation by the FAI's Disciplinary Committee was initiated, with a statement from the FAI today concluding: "The Football Association of Ireland can confirm that an Independent Disciplinary Committee has found two Athlone Town AFC players to be in breach of FAI rules.

"Following the Committee's findings both players have been banned from all football-related activities for 12 months."

The game in question was a league loss to Longford Town and while the FAI probe did initially include other games, the focus remained on that match.

"On May 3, an investigation was launched following a UEFA Betting Fraud Detection System report demonstrated 'clear and overwhelming betting evidence that the course or result of' Athlone Town's game against Longford Town in the SSE Airtricity League First Division on April 29 'was unduly influenced with a view to gaining corrupt betting profits'," the FAI statement said.

"The investigation was then widened on May 5 to take a closer look at two other games involving the club. However, the investigators found that there was insufficient evidence around those games to bring any charges, so the investigation focused solely on the game that took place on April 29.

"Upon receipt of the UEFA BFDS report, the FAI conducted a full investigation which included conducting interviews with relevant personnel, reviewing match footage and obtaining the opinions of football experts -   a final report was prepared and charges were issued.

"The Independent Disciplinary Committee met on Monday, September 4 and ruled that Athlone Town AFC players Igors Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan were in breach of three FAI rules: Following the Committee's findings both players have been banned from all football-related activities for 12 months."

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