[WATCH] There is football, and there is outright criminality... | Franz Tabone

Recent match-fixing revelations have seemingly confirmed widespread perceptions of a ‘culture of corruption’ in local sport, especially football. FRANZ TABONE, the Malta Football Association’s Integrity Office, admits that the scale of the problem is large, and growing... but denies perceptions that nothing is being done about it

Franz Tabone
Franz Tabone

Football is often described as ‘the beautiful game’, and in Malta it is by far the most popular and beloved sport. Yet at present, there seems to be a dark cloud hanging over it. There have been cases of match-fixing, and there also seems to be an embedded perception of corruption. How true is that perception, and how seriously is it impacting the game?

You mention that our football is ‘under a cloud’ right now. But the perception that football matches are manipulated has been there a long time We are not talking about anything that is new, or only happening now. However, technology and instant communication have enlarged the situation: everybody is aware of it, so obviously we think it’s bigger. Is it bigger? Well, if you have a base for something that will grow... probably, that is the situation of our football. If you go back in history – you can research the Encyclopaedia of Maltese football, especially – there were already cases going back 50, 60 years. Our rules have contemplated match-fixing and corruption for a long time. Our law against corruption in sport has been in existence since 1976. Probably we are the first European country that enacted such a law...

So before 1976, there were no international laws against corruption in sport?

Only a few. When I attend international conferences in Europe, they are trying to enact a new law now... we have had that in place for 50 years.

Unfortunately, one way to interpret that fact is that the problem is so rife locally that we needed to legislate long before other countries...

It is big. Then, obviously, perceptions, comments and rumours make it bigger. But... does it exist? I would say, we wouldn’t have enacted a law 50 years ago if it didn’t...

Meanwhile, much has changed since in Maltese football the 1970s. There is – or is rumoured to be – a lot more money in the game today. Is that a fact, and does it impact the corruption scenario?

That’s what they say. The provenance of all this money is often very difficult to pinpoint. Not just in Malta, but across the football world. You get ‘big guys’ going into clubs... you don’t know what their background is, you don’t know what their objective is. If you go into football, there is supposedly a financial fair-play system in force; but obviously there are loopholes, and it is by-passed over and over again... different contracts for different players; and if the big players get big money, it goes down the line. The smaller players will ask for more money. So it grows: the financial background of the game itself has grown... not only internationally, but even locally. [...] It’s about competition, ultimately. If you are in a club, a team, a football organisation.... competition will lead to higher objectives. You need more cash if you want to achieve success. Success, in itself, attracts more money... competition attracts more money... and the money aspect has grown disproportionately in the meantime.

But football is big business, not just a sport. Independently of sports legislation, there is already international legislation regulating financial transactions, money transfers, etc. We see this in news and current events that have nothing to do with football: here are ongoing probes into corruption and money-laundering involving banks, governments, and so on. Is football subjected to the same levels of scrutiny as, for instance, banks or financial institutions?

It hasn't helped. It's an added temptation. Those people who want to take advantage of legal betting by manipulating a local match.. the rewards are much higher. To tempt somebody on the pitch, on that green rectangle, with big money... it's very easy

Is there scrutiny of bank transfers, though?

Probably not enough, granted...

Let me put it this way, when we talk about ‘corruption in sport’... we’re not talking about ‘sport’. We are talking about corruption, about outright criminality. Sometimes the onus is on us, as a football association, and on myself, as the MFA’s integrity officer... some people think that it is our total responsibility to control, investigate, and prosecute a criminal. That is the situation. But it is not about football. As a football association we have done our part.

But surely it is the job of the police, not the MFA, to investigate crime.

That is something else. We have good collaboration with the police. When I started seven years ago, it was at a certain level... today, I am satisfied: there is more collaboration, though obviously I keep asking... naturally, I understand the priorities, the resources... but with the information I have passed onto the police... there is enough information for them to at least act, in certain cases...

The implication there is that they are not acting, or not as much as you would expect from the information given...

They do act; but I would like to see them act much quicker. If I had a warrant, and the equipment and technology that might be accessible to the police, probably I would move faster.

Do you know of individual cases where the police have not acted, despite having the information to do so?

No: each case I know of, in which I am in possession of information – and my intelligence on this matter is quite extensive: I have informers, naturally, because that’s the way it works. But I am very discreet and confidential. I have people coming to me with information, but I weigh everything: unless I have the right background, unless the information is solid... I will not move. It would not be fair on the informer, or on the situation itself. But when I did have solid information... I moved.

As you said earlier, there is big money in football, and this obviously attracts criminality. Have you ever been threatened?

Well... you mention ‘big money’, but the reality is that football manipulation goes right across the board. It’s not just top divisions; not just global divisions, either. It could be outside any divisions or any league. It could be anywhere. So the amounts vary, depending on the level, where the match is played and so on. But it’s there all the same...

Much as I hate to bring this up, but I remember cases of ‘corruption’ even in school football...

[Shrugs] It is part of our football culture, unfortunately. That’s the situation [...] so when I speak about it, people may doubt, or may want me to shut up...

Has this ever extended to actual threats, though?

Yes. The thing is: you might be threatened directly; you might hear of what is being said about [you] in the background... but now I’ve crossed that line, and I won’t go back. I won’t give up.

Coming back to the cases you have reported: what are your realistic expectations?

The way it works is... I collaborate, I pass on information; and then it is not up to me. I won’t push, or whatever. They know how to deal with it... and I am 100% sure that they do deal with it, at their own pace. When you go to the police headquarters, you can see the amount of work that they have...

... and how understaffed they are...

Yes. Lately, there was a conference where somebody asked whether we should have a specific unit [dedicated to corruption in sports]. The answer is yes, but we should have a specific unit for every crime. Where does ‘football’ – even though it’s not ‘football’, as I said before – feature in the programme? In the – how shall I put it – the list of priorities of how police deal with cases? Where do we put it: up at the top, with drugs? I don’t think so. So where else? Money laundering? Domestic violence? I can keep on going. Where do they fit it? This is not about football: it’s about a lot of other things. Especially money-laundering. The police understand this, because I have trained some of them myself...

There is a tendency with organised crime to have a hand in all sorts of different criminal activities. You mentioned drugs, for instance: in the criminal underworld, it often goes hand in hand with prostitution, etc. Do you see any similar correlation between football manipulation and other crimes?

Well, though earlier I said it’s about criminality, not football... let’s not forget that part of it is about football as well. The first objective will be manipulating a match for sporting advantage... to get the result you want. Or for another team’s benefit... there’s a whole array of different
reasons to want to fix a match...

It’s not just about money, then?

Of course not. The money is an added incentive. Betting – probably you’re going to mention betting, obviously... is another added incentive to what used to happen...

Yes, in fact I was going to mention betting. Another change between the 1970s and today is that gambling, in this sense, is now legal. There are betting agencies in every town and village. Has legal betting had any discernible impact on the match-fixing situation?

We’re not saying that, in the past, there was no betting. There was: it was illegal, probably on a smaller scale than now... but what is happening now, internationally, is that technology has made betting so accessible, 24/7... you wake up in the middle of the night, and if you want to place a bet on a match anywhere in the world... you can do it, if you have a betting account. That’s how it works.  Obviously, it hasn’t helped the situation. It hasn’t helped. It’s an added temptation. Those people
who want to take advantage of
legal betting by manipulating a local match... the rewards are much higher. To tempt somebody on the pitch, on that green rectangle, with big money... it’s very easy...

A successfully fixed match happens on the pitch. It doesn't happen on the streets; it doesn't happen in the betting shops; it doesn't happen on the stadium terraces. The collaboration has to be on the pitch... between the players, the officials

Hasn’t it changed the playing field in other ways, though. To give a hypothetical example: someone in Asia, who doesn’t know anything about Maltese football, might be tempted to place a bet on a local match... and it doesn’t have to be about winning or losing. It could be about how many goals are scored in the first half, etc. For all we know, thousands such bets might be placed every day... which also means that the amount of money riding on even a low-level local game might be astronomical...

You’re talking as though every football match is always fixed. That’s not the case at all...

Fair enough. But every match is fixable...

Look: the biggest scourge, or danger, we are facing on the betting scene are the unregulated markets. These add up to roughly 80%, if not more, of all bets being placed on sport. The regulated market is just 20%. So with 80%, you don’t know where the money is coming from; you don’t know where it’s going... who is behind the betting ‘company’, supposedly, that is operating from China, but controlled from Europe... but that’s a bigger story. The thing is this: people ask me, but why are there so many bets placed on Maltese football? The reality is that they are nothing abnormal. They are exactly the same as what happens in every league. If you go on the betting market lists, you will find matches across the world, at any level. It could be Honolulu, sixth division. So you place a bet there. I know what you’re trying to say: ours is a smaller league, so if someone wants to manipulate a match, it’s cheaper...

Yes, quite frankly. Big money is a bigger temptation to small league players...

Unfortunately, that is true...

And perhaps not just the players... are there other ways to arrange the outcome of a game higher up the ladder?

Let me make this clear: a successfully fixed match happens on the pitch. It doesn’t happen on the streets; it doesn’t happen in the betting shops; it doesn’t happen on the stadium terraces. The collaboration has to be on the pitch... between the players, or the officials. Those are the people who determine what happens during a match. You can have a top criminal in the stadium, watching... but he cannot control what happens there. He might, with his joystick, move things... but the response has to be on the pitch. That is the situation.

[...] This leaves us with the question of what can be done about it. Beyond prosecuting individual cases when information arises... is there any form of long-term strategy to address the culture of corruption in Maltese football?

The strongest weapon I have is education. But education means you can talk, you can educate... it still depends on whether the
recipient wants to listen. I have just gone around all the clubs in Malta – all 53 of them – in what I call the ‘MFA Integrity Tour’. This was the second edition. I explained the law; the rules; the psychology of it all... how the fixers operate, the situation players may find themselves in; I also explain the mentality of people running our football within the clubs. It was also thanks to us that the task-force was formed: in 2015, I issued a newsletter [...] that sparked everybody into action. It found its way to Parliament, and there was an uproar. Because I was very blunt in that newsletter. The result was a task-force comprising government, Opposition, gaming authorities, Sport Malta, and the police. That’s where the new law, strengthening the 1976 legislation, came from. I say this because... I hurt when people say the MFA is not doing anything. The MFA is doing the most about match-fixing; but now, we have brought everybody on board... the next step is to have a national platform [...] where people can refer for assistance. Because as things stand today... there’s just me.

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