Do they mean us?

Steve McClaren's agent claimed that English football is the most corrupt in Europe, but from abroad it's all a matter of perception, as Gabriele Marcotti of Corriere dello Sport explains

“Who the fuck is Charles Collymore?” That’s what a well known European agent, one who has done dozens of deals in the English game, said to me shortly after 10pm on the night of the BBC’s Panorama documentary. His take, echoed by others, is that, if proved, the latest round of “bung revelations” are destined to fry a whole bunch of smaller fish, while allowing the major players to escape unscathed.

The view from abroad depends on who you speak to. Those who have had dealings with English clubs are generally unsurprised. In the Middle East, they call it “baksheesh” – the cost of doing business, a little bit of grease for the transfer wheel. It’s taken as a given that, when dealing with certain English clubs, you need to budget a bit extra, usually to pay a “bagman” who then funnels the money back to those who make the decisions. The main difference between England and elsewhere is that the money goes to managers, not chief executives or sporting directors.

“It’s not an insignificant difference,” the above agent told me. “When you have administrators [chief executives or sporting directors] doing the transfers, there is usually some kind of internal debate on their part, because they’ll want to sign a player who suits the coach, otherwise he’ll be unhappy and bitch to his friends in the press, saying he didn’t want certain players. That makes it more difficult to offload a bad player on a club. But when it’s one guy, the coach or manager or whatever you want to call him, who makes all the decisions, well, he can afford to have a couple of passengers in his squad, if that means he’ll get a nice little backhander. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at the wealthier, more professionally run clubs in England the manager does not negotiate transfer deals. Look at Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United.”

On the other hand, the perception among the rank and file is that the English game remains cleaner than on the continent – contrary to the comments made by Steve McClaren’s agent Colin Gordon, who believes football here to be “the worst in Europe” for corruption. Part of it has to do with the age-old stereotypes of English sportsmanship and fair play, part of it is merely a function of the “grass is always greener” mentality that leads certain nations – particularly Spain and Italy – to look automatically to the English model of football governance as some kind of utopia.

In Italy, we assume that everyone is on the take unless they prove they are clean. In England, it’s often the opposite. And that may be precisely why the FA and the Premier League have been dragging their feet. Eleven years on, we are still meant to believe that George Graham is the only person who has ever taken a bung. Tom Bower’s award-winning investigation into football corruption, Broken Dreams, came and went without a single inquiry being launched. Why? Because perception counts for more than reality. And the perception abroad, certainly, is that the English game is on the cleaner end of the scale.

Whether or not that perception is borne out by reality is a different matter.

From WSC 237 November 2006. What was happening this month