Aiding and abetting

Italian bookmakers stopped taking bets on a recent goal-packed Serie-B match in Bergamo which was watched by Geoff Bradford

Monday December 20 was one of the coldest nights of the year in Bergamo. Despite this, 1,400 hardy souls, me included, turned up for the last Serie B game of the calendar year, AlbinoLeffe v Piacenza. With Piacenza at the foot of the table and AlbinoLeffe perilously close to the relegation zone, an open, entertaining game was not expected. In fact we got a see-saw 3-3 draw.

But there was something strange about the game, and the goals. For a start there was hardly a foul in the first 20 minutes. And then, after AlbinoLeffe had taken an early lead, they let Piacenza come at them until an inevitable equaliser, followed by a second before half-time. The roles were reversed after the interval with AlbinoLeffe camping out in the Piacenza half and soon equalising. All these four goals could justifiably be described as the sort that you see on the training ground.

There followed 20 minutes of nothing until Piacenza’s Kewullay Conteh tripped AlbinoLeffe’s Paolo Grossi for a penalty that was converted. With less than 15 minutes to go, you would have expected the home side to shut up shop and hang on for the three points. Not a bit of it. Back came Piacenza and within two minutes a free header at a corner allowed them to equalise.

Next day the papers announced that in the days preceding the game there had been so much money put on the draw that the bookmakers had stopped taking bets on it. The odds had gone from 3/1 to 2/7. Of course, the clubs denied any wrongdoing, pointing out that they have two of the weakest defences in Serie B. Unless a player comes out with an admission the ongoing inquiry will produce no proof and so neither club is likely to be punished. And it may be that this innocent explanation is also the truth.

But irrespective of whether it was fixed or not, this game illustrates a really serious problem in football. It is not that sometimes we know the result of a match in advance. That often happens at the end of a season when a particular result – nearly always a draw – enables both teams to achieve their objectives. I’ve seen plenty of those games and they neither surprise nor scandalise me. (I feel very differently, though, about teams who have nothing to play for lying down in front of motivated opponents – there’s a lot of that in Italy.)

But here we are not even at the half-way stage of the season and no match is yet a make or break affair. The general opinion is that there is a kind of “grapevine” that spreads the word that a certain result has been agreed. In this case, if that is what happened, it could have been to give both sets of players and fans a reasonably happy ending before the Christmas break.

La Gazzetta dello Sport is investigating the phenomenon, with startling results. Last season there were 20 “suspicious” betting patterns in Serie A and Serie B, and in every case the expected result materialised. There is also a serious, and related, problem in Lega Pro (the third and fourth divisions), especially in the south. It is thought that over half of the clubs at this level have difficulty paying their players. So, it is alleged, the players turn to the camorra and, in return for an agreed result, get a sort of salary.

There are big problems related to betting on individual games and they are not confined to Italy. Almost anywhere in the world now you can bet on any one of hundreds of games on most days of the week. If I’m in Athens and want to know how Histon got on, I don’t need to buy a paper – I just look in a betting shop window. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the credibility of the game is at stake. The authorities could start by postponing any game in which strange betting patterns lead to bets on a particular result being halted. In a sense what is suspected makes the playing of the game just as unreal as playing on a flooded or frozen pitch, so a postponement is justified. They could then inform the two clubs involved that they will be under special observation for their next few matches.

Oh, and Serie B is sponsored by the bookmakers Bwin. Maybe if anything is going to kill football as we know it, it won’t be TV or hooliganism but betting.

From WSC 288 February 2011