Spot-Fixing: Football's Dark Underbelly

Spot-fixing is very much back on English football's agenda. Given the opportunity to make a lot of money very quickly and with little effort, Johnny isn't that surprised...

Last Updated: 09/12/13 at 10:23 Post Comment

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This weekend saw stories of corruption in English football at the highest levels, a subject I've always been interested in, so much so that I've actually just written a novel in which one plot line concerns a goalkeeper who may or may not be involved in spot betting.

This was partly inspired by the fact that many years ago I was once told of a player who would, via various friends, place bets on himself to do specific things within the game, usually to score a goal. At the time, no-one was bothered about this. It looked merely like a man backing his own abilities with his own cash. Then he started to put money on getting a yellow card or getting sent off in what was an early form of spot betting.

There was no paper trail to prove that it was his own money being fed through a network of mates and associates, all of whom took a cut of the winnings. He apparently saw this as a fairly foolproof way to supplement his wages. It was illegal then as now and it is a kind of corruption, in that it effects the players' performance, but then, many things can do that. You might argue that much spot-fixing is relatively harmless if it's simply based on number of corners, time of first throw-in or a yellow card. On the scale of human wickedness it seems quite low but it is undoubtedly the thin end of the wedge. As someone says in my novel, 'if you're dodgy in one area of your life, you're almost certainly dodgy in others.'

For my whole life I have always thought English football was, on some level, corrupt. Why? Because it's played by humans and human are corruptible. The idea offered that the English game was immune from it because of some nebulous concept of upstanding British morality that other nations' citizens lacked was naive and silly. Yet when I first wrote about this around 10 years ago, it was widely decried as being something that only happened in Italy or the far east. It was 'their' culture and not 'ours.'

I couldn't understand that at the time, not least because there has always been a deep culture of betting within the game. Spot-fixing is so easy to do and too hard to prove to dissuade every player from doing it, especially players who are not on top money or those who have gambling debts, an expensive divorce or any habit that costs a lot to maintain.

If you're on ten grand a week and someone offers you 70 grand to get a yellow card, why wouldn't you do that? All it takes is a slightly rash tackle, the type of tackle you might do anyway. If you're offered 10 grand to kick the ball out of play within 30 seconds, why wouldn't you? It's harmless enough. You don't have to do it all the time, just in a couple of moments. Does that make you a bad person?

For too long, when it came to corruption, it was match-fixing that had the focus of attention but this was always a distraction to the real corruption at work. Everyone has always known that it's hard to fix a match without fixing all the participants or the officials and even then, a lot can go wrong and the chances of the scam being uncovered would be quite high. However, certain types of spot-fixing are really easy and in an age of instant communication needn't involve many people to arrange.

We have all been to game when we have seen a player do something rash or ridiculous; a mad tackle, or an aimless booting of the ball out of play. We've all seen a refereeing decision that is blatantly wrong and we've all wondered how the referee didn't see something really obvious. Most of the time, it is simply the variables of sport and humanity, but sometimes it certainly isn't.

The problem is, and this is why it really interested me to use as a plot in a novel, is that its so hard to be able to prove that any player's actions in a game are corrupt. In 'Teesside Missed', I placed this problem at the centre of the action. When a goalkeeper brings down a defender for a penalty, its hard to know if he's done it on purpose or if he's just been a bit rubbish. When that same goalkeeper is capable of brilliant saves and also appalling errors, is he just inconsistent or is he corrupt?

My protagonist, Nick Guymer, watches lots of footage of a goalkeeper's mistakes, can see him rolling his hand over the ball to push it into his own net, but can't be sure it was on purpose and you can watch as much YouTube footage as you like and you'll never be able to tell for sure. You can't film someone's intention. Without hard evidence to prove money was taken in order to achieve a set outcome, its all speculation and proving anything is next to impossible. In my book, the goalkeeper is a nice guy and no-one has ever accused him of corruption. He looks innocent, he acts innocent and is outraged by the suggestion he isn't innocent, but maybe he is just a really good liar.

The Premier League will want to make sure their brand isn't stained by rumours of corruption but they face the exact same problem in decontaminating the game that the authorities face in trying to prove corruption in the first place; football is a game of almost infinite variables, proving which ones are the result of corruption and which are the result of mere chance is almost impossible.

But from now on, whenever you're watching a game and you find yourself saying 'how did he miss that?' or 'what the hell did he do that for?' the answer shouldn't discount the possibility that the truth is 'for money'.

Go to to read and buy Johnny's superb new trilogy of crime novels.

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