2016 had barely begun before the issue of sporting integrity once again came under the spotlight. This time the light dimmed upon tennis, as news broke earlier this month of a large group of repeat offenders involved in suspicious betting patterns. Tennis Ireland CEO Des Allen has been quick to express his confidence of Irish player’s innocence.
The fixation of sport enthusiasts on their chosen source of entertainment is driven largely by one universal sporting element; the unpredictability of the game. Throngs in their hundreds line the golf course monthly, thousands fill stadiums weekly, and millions view sport daily; fascination is maintained by the ever present reality that one cannot guarantee what the outcome of the sporting event will be.
But, what if this unpredictability, the foundation upon which sport’s beauty lies, is removed? Rumours of match-fixing have unfortunately become a scandal that echoes news bulletins with a worrying sense of familiarity.
Emerging sporting scandals have brought stories from leading European football nations, Indian cricket, US basketball, and more. Irish sport, unfortunately, has not remained untouched.
One Irish sport in particular, which has regained its popularity of late, is soccer, thanks to qualification by Martin O’Neill’s side for the 2016 European Championships. Soccer enthusiasts would hope that this reignited interest will filter through the national leagues in Ireland.
The highest level of soccer available to view in Ireland is, for men’s soccer, the Airtricity League, and for women’s soccer, the Continental Tyres Women’s National League. The latter is yet too new to allow for bets to be placed, however the Airtricity League provides numerous options for gambling interaction. Despite shortfalls in attendance at Airtricity League matches, allegations of match fixing in recent years within the league have highlighted the fact that lack of spectatorship does not equal lack of match fixing potential.
Murmurs of match-fixing within Irish soccer simmered in 2011 and 2012. A fourth round FAI Cup tie in 2011 caused concern when non-league side Sheriff Youth Club beat Shelbourne Football Club by three goals to two, after trailing by two goals. Irregular betting patterns showed a large number of bets being placed on the non-league side to win. In 2012, the Airtricity League contacted UEFA to communicate a concern of irregular betting patterns involving the probability of a penalty being awarded in a league match. The subsequent signal of a penalty to Monaghan United at Tolka Park sparked alert. In 2013, a Longford Town player was suspended amidst match-fixing allegations.
That same year, UK investigations into their lower division football leagues removed any notion of Irish invincibility to sporting financial malpractice. Investigations revealed that Ireland was amongst a list of countries that the group in question regularly targeted. Such revelations sparked emergency talks between the FAI and government ministers, as the NGB sought to guarantee Irish football’s safety.
The reality is that betting in soccer is no longer a case of placing money on win or loss. The options are vast, and growing, such as betting on when a team receives a penalty, who will receive the first yellow or red card. It is an area that a player can easily manipulate and thus an area where the law must be vigilant.
There are no definitive laws in Ireland aimed at match-fixing in sport. However, legislative provisions do exist which allow for prosecution when individuals are found guilty of this act. The Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001 dictates the outstanding law as related to fraud in Ireland. Section 6 (1) states that “a person who dishonestly, with the intention of making a gain for himself or herself or another, or of causing loss to another, by any deception induces another to do or refrain from doing an act is guilty of an offence”. This offence is punishable by fine or a maximum prison sentence of five years.
Match-fixing is often strategized by a group of individuals, and thus can be contested in court as a type of organised crime. Section 70 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, as amended by Section 3 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment Act) 2009 outlines what a criminal organisation constitutes: a criminal organisation means a “structured group, however organised, that has as its main purpose or activity the commission or facilitation of a serious offence”, with a structured group meaning “a group of 3 or more persons, which is not randomly formed for the immediate commission of a single offence, and the involvement in which by 2 or more of those persons is with a view to their acting in concert”. As per Section 3(b) of the 2009 Act, a structured group can still exist, even if the following are not found to be present within the group: (a) formal rules, roles or membership, (b) a leadership structure or (c) continuity of involvement by persons in the group.
Section 73 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, as amended by Section 10 of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009, outlines the punishment for those who commit crime as part of such an organisation. If found guilty of committing an offence “for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with” a criminal organisation, punishment may arise via fine or imprisonment of a term not exceeding fifteen years. This is an increase of five years from the previous Act.
Therefore, the risks incurred to the individual when becoming involved in match-fixing are serious, including imprisonment, fines and lifetime bans from the sport. The risk incurred to the sport in question is also serious. If the unpredictability of the game is removed… the unique gift of sport is simultaneously lost.
Sport is a business, of that there is no doubt. But to encroach upon the integrity of the game will eradicate the need for this commercial element. Put simply, without integrity, there will be no sport to support.
Ruth Fahy & Katie Nugent