With the new season just around the corner, how much do you remember about last season's Premier League. Oh, well then you're going to do badly...
It has been a year in which the dark underbelly of English football has been almost continuously targeted and censured. The Hillsborough findings revealed collusion at the highest levels within organisations we had been taught to trust, whilst the majesty and spirit of the Olympics trained the critical eye to examine the behaviour of the players and supporters of our national game. Football did not compare favourably.
However, despite the condemnation (much of which is deserved), we can take light in the fact that the grass is not always greener. Last week, Serie A side Napoli were docked two points and fined £57,000 after former goalkeeper Matteo Gianello admitted trying to fix a game in 2010, whilst captain Paolo Cannavaro was banned for six months for failing to report the incident. Whilst Napoli have declared an intention to appeal, it is a further unsavoury incident on a matter the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) are well-rehearsed in dealing with. Since May 2011, there have been 39 incidents of Italian clubs receiving points deductions or relegations for match-fixing incidents, and 116 players or club officials have been banned from the game for various periods of time. Some were also jailed.
Moreover, these shocking statistics come just six years after the Calciopoli scandal, when the Italian police intercepted telephone calls to discover collusion on the outcome of matches between club officials and referees. Juventus were relegated and deducted nine points, Milan deducted a total of 38 points, and Lazio, Fiorentina and Reggina also received lesser punishments. The most salient fact is that Napoli's two-point punishment last week took the total number of points deducted for match-fixing or illegal betting in Italy during the last 35 years to 175. In England, that figure stands at 0.
Match-fixing is the bottom of the footballing barrel, because it irrevocably alters the fabric of the game. Football is both addictive and glorious because of its unpredictability. It is this sense of the unknown that generates emotions such as hope, disappointment, surprise, anger and joy that surrounds each of our relationships with the fortunes of our club. Take this unpredictability away, and football becomes nothing more than a soap opera, the match-fixers akin to the scriptwriters, plotting a course that we can do nothing to alter. There is little point investing emotionally into a match if its result is pre-determined.
Such incidents may have affected a minute percentage of games in Italy, but from the moment doubt is introduced to our psyche, it develops into near-constant cynicism. Every time Juventus are awarded a controversial last-minute penalty, a flash of doubt crosses my mind as to whether I am being led down a pre-planned route, and that angers me. There are a vast number of honest professionals in Italy, but suspicion and distrust cannot be easily forgotten.
Whilst Italy is not alone (last year clubs were found guilty of illegal practices in Turkey and Finland, and in 2004/5 South Africa, Brazil and Germany likewise), it is clear that they have developed an inherent problem. Since the Totonero scandals of 1980 and 1986, the Italian game is now a completely different entity. There are new officials, new players, new referees and new coaches, and yet the issue continues to arise. And this is not the fringe element, but the biggest clubs, players and coaches. It is a deep-rooted problem that has sadly almost become inherent in the footballing culture.
But whilst Italy may suffer most, are we being blind to suggest that our own game is immune? In 2009, UEFA announced that it was investigating 40 Champions League and Europa League matches, and a year earlier four Accrington Stanley players were banned for betting on their own side to lose against Bury. With the estimation that the Asian illegal gambling industry is worth $450billion a year, it would be madness not to think that we are, at best, at risk. Has the Italian game simply discovered more malpractice because investigations have dug deeper after recent scandals?
In July, we received the most worrying news to date, when former Southampton defender Claus Lundekvam revealed the extent of spot-betting during his time in England:
"I bet on my own matches. There were often several players who put money in the pot - several hundred pounds each, sometimes a thousand each. We would then give the money to one of the staff who would put the money on for us, so we didn't have to do it ourselves and so create suspicion. We could make deals with the opposing captain in relating to betting on the first throw, the first corner, who started with the ball, a yellow card, a penalty."
The claims have been largely left uninvestigated, and the trail seems to have gone rather quiet in recent months. Whilst clearly Lundekvam's quotes have not been validated, Matt Le Tissier made similar references in his autobiography. An ignorance of the situation cannot be considered bliss and burying heads in sand does little to help, but is that what we are doing? And if incidents are discovered, would the Premier League want to keep such information under wraps for fear of losing the validity and relative purity of their product?
That the Premier League is the richest league with the highest audience and the greatest popularity amongst the Asian market simply means the most is at stake. When the stakes are raised the ideal breeding ground for illegal betting and match-fixing is created. I'm just desperately hoping that in three years' time we're not all fondly remembering players refusing to shake hands as bygone, halcyon days.
Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter