Taking a dive, taking a bribe… Football is nothing without integrity

Taking a dive, taking a bribe… Football is nothing without integrity
Simon Wooldridge
by Simon Wooldridge Last updated:

The European Championships are almost upon us! Despite the obvious excitement, there’s always the possibility that it’ll be remembered more for the bad than the good, more for play-acting than goals, more for cheating than plucky upsets, more for dodgy VAR decisions than well-earned victories. But that’s football. It’s these contrasts that often make the game so interesting.

For some of us, though, not even the dread of England going out on penalties is interesting enough. Thanks to the likes of Betfair or BetVictor, it’s easy for us to place bets on all kinds of outcomes. I even know a few fans who are actively betting against their own team!

In short, there’ll be lots of money riding on these games, and this can often be yet another point of contention, especially when it’s the players themselves who are involved…

The usual suspects

Neymar, Mo Salah and Raheem Sterling are all, without question, blessed with skills us mere mortals can only dream of. Sadly, the first thing that comes to mind whenever I hear their names is not their mazy dribbles or goal-scoring records. No, the first thing I think of is diving, and I bet I’m not alone. It may be unfair to single out just these three. After all, it’s not like there’s a paucity of players who indulge in this dark art.

Fools Silva and not-so-white knights

You might recall Ben White’s recent show-stealing performance at the Amex theatre. At around the 50-minute mark, he shoulder-barged Brighton full-back, Pervis Estupinian, who in response waved his hand as if swatting away a fly. A second or two later, White dropped to the ground, clutching his neck as if shot by Lee Harvey Oswald. Luckily, VAR reviewed the incident and no action was taken against Estupinian, but neither was there any taken against White, even though he’d obviously tried to con the officials.

Like most football aficionados, I didn’t watch the Scottish Cup semi-final. However, I did see an online clip of some of the grittiest drama I’ve seen since Platoon. Similar to White, Wolves and soon-to-be Rangers reject, Fabio Silva, seemed to be taken out by another lone gunman. Unlike the White incident, though, there were no opposing players anywhere near him. Also, had he not decided to fall like Willem Dafoe, he himself would’ve been able to shoot… at a near-open goal.

It’s a real shame that some undoubtedly talented players, and Fabio Silva, resort to such ugly, unmanly, unsportsmanlike behaviour. The days of careers ended by leg-breaking tackles are all but behind us, but the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction. Now, you can win a free kick, get a player booked or even sent off by exaggerating contact. Diving is synonymous with the professional game, but we never look upon it favourably, even if our team is the one benefitting from it. Is there any darker art a pro footballer can indulge in?

Match-fixing: the darkest of the dark arts

As off-putting as spectators may find so-called gamesmanship, it pales in comparison to what is arguably football's ultimate sin: throwing games. Conning the officials on the pitch may influence a result, but the result is still unknown until the game is over. When it comes to diving, even though some players have better acting skills than others, overall it’s a level-playing field – can you name any current player who hasn’t resorted to it? 

Match-fixing, on the other hand, takes the ugliness to the next level. Where diving brings the game into disrepute, match-fixing obliterates its integrity entirely.

Samba-style bribery 

You may have heard about the recent stories of match-fixing in Brazil’s Campeonato Serie A. Senator Jorge Kajuru asked the federal police to investigate the claims of Botafogo owner, John Texor, who claimed to have evidence that Palmeiras had bribed 5 players from Sao Paulo – they beat Sao Paulo 5-0. He also claimed to have a recording of a referee admitting to accepting bribes. At the time of writing, the investigation is still ongoing, so these allegations are yet to be proven. That said, match-fixing scandals in South and Central America aren't exactly a rarity.  

Another example is that of Union Magdalena winning promotion to the Liga Dimayor – the Colombian top flight – when they scored two incredibly dodgy goals in stoppage time. Back in 2021, their opponents, Llaneros, were leading 1-nil… until the 90th minute. Footage of the 2 subsequent goals scored by Union Magdalena sparked outrage, as the Llaneros defenders seemed to let the opposing team waltz past them. 

Magdalena’s promotion was suspended pending investigation but said investigation never unearthed proof of foul play. Having seen the footage, I’d say the investigation coming up short at least proves that match-fixing is difficult to prove. It also hints at the level of corruption in the Colombian game.

The UK is far from immune 

We often like to think that bribery and match-fixing only happens elsewhere, and these behaviours are confined to 'Johnny Foreigner' and the non-English-speaking world. They aren’t. 

Bruce Grobelaar was once famous for being a world-class shot-stopper, making his name at then European giants Liverpool. Nowadays, he’s arguably better known for reportedly throwing matches. In the mid-90s, while playing for Southampton, it was alleged by The Sun newspaper that he’d deliberately let in a series of goals. Given his erratic on-pitch persona, at the time, they looked like innocent howlers – the type you’d associate with Andre Onana nowadays. Knowing what we know now, though, re-watching those performances makes for painful viewing indeed.

If you’ve been watching Championship football over the past few seasons, you might think Sheffield Wednesday being a disgrace is quite a new phenomenon. Nope. Back in 1962, three of their players, David Layne, Peter Swan and Tony Kay, all conspired to throw a game against Ipswich Town. Former Scotland youth international and match-fixing enthusiast, Jimmy Gauld, had approached them beforehand, identifying the fixture as an easy one to throw – Wednesday were the underdogs. 

The conspirators all bet on Ipswich to win. In the end, however, the on-pitch cheats didn’t need to do all that much. In fact, Kay even won Man of the Match. Despite his performance, though, Ipswich ran out 2-0 winners. 

When news of Gauld’s match-fixing syndicate hit the front pages a couple of years later, he, Layne, Swan, Kay and 7 other players were all tried and found guilty. The 10 of them were sentenced to between 6 months and 4 years in prison. On top of that, they all received lifetime bans from the game. This meant they weren't allowed to attend a football match. The FA wouldn’t even allow them to watch their kids play on Sundays!

The FA lifted the bans in 1972. Some of the players even went on to achieve some moderate success, but overall their best days were behind them. Swann later revealed that many other players had confessed to him that before the scandal, they’d also placed bets on their opponents to win. It seems Gauld and co were the only ones who’d got caught. Their extreme punishments should’ve at least served as a deterrent for future would-be match-fixers.  

Do money and football mix?

For all the good money has legally done for the modern game, whether that be increasing players’ rights and wages or providing us with the opportunity to watch league games on TV, it has at times muddied the waters. The financial disparities that have grown between clubs have resulted in competitions becoming more predictable and big clubs hoarding large proportions of the talent pool.

There’s also the legal gambling dimension. Having an accumulator ruined by a late goal is bad enough, but when the players themselves are involved in betting – not match-fixing – it can leave an even more sour taste in your mouth. 

The Premier League’s Ivan Toney and Sandro Tonali have both recently been banned for questionable betting behaviour. Tonali, for instance, bet on games he was involved in, but unlike the Wednesday players, he bet on his own team to win. Ivan Toney, on the other hand, was caught betting against his own team, but only when he wasn’t playing.

I understand why footballers are forbidden from betting on football, as it reduces the chances of match-fixing and increases the chances of anyone being caught if and when it does take place. That said, I see the behaviour of Toney and Tonali as more dodgy than reprehensible.

Owen, Rooney and Balotelli are other footballers associated with both football and gambling. All three are reputed to have lost eye-watering sums, but at the end of the day, it was their money, so although we can maybe frown on such behaviour, we can’t really say it affects what happens on the pitch – they weren’t betting on anything they had any control over.

Footballing philanthropists

All of this aside, there are countless examples of footballers using their money for good. Sunderland and Man City legend, Niall Quinn, was the first ever player to donate the proceeds from his testimonial game to charity. If it hadn’t been for the donations of wizard winger Wilfried Zaha, the Crystal Palace women’s team could very well have gone under. During the 2008-09 season, when at Luton, Scottish journeyman, Don Hutchison, refused to take his last two pay cheques so as to give cash-strapped Luton a bit of breathing space. On top of that, he sponsored two youth-team players. Even Mario Balotelli – why always him? – is said to have given a thousand pounds to a homeless person, admittedly after having spent the previous night gambling.

In the UK especially, there are far more stories of footballers and football clubs putting their money behind philanthropic projects. It’s all enough to bring a tear to your eye, much like the moving performances of Fabio Silva, Ben White and Neymar. Sadly, most of these stories go under the radar, as they don’t sell the same number of newspapers or generate the same number of clicks. 

Putting the pride back into the pride of the nation

We’re home to the oldest football cup, the oldest football competition. It’s our national sport, not to mention a huge part of the UK economy. As the game’s evolved over two centuries, we’ve got rid of the violence, both on and off the pitch, and we’ve made the game more accessible to all walks of life. We should be proud of our footballing heritage.

Nevertheless, we can’t rest on our laurels. Do we really want to see our kids mimicking Oscar nominees like Neymar, Salah and Sterling?  Do we want to let the spectre of money and power cast doubt on the results of matches?

Steps should be taken to punish those who attempt to pervert the course of justice on the pitch. We should also strive to keep the reprehensible behaviour of Gauld, Swan, Grobelaar and others relegated to the past. After all, what is our national sport without integrity?

Enjoy the Euros!

Simon Wooldridge
by Simon Wooldridge Last updated:

Simon’s long-term fascination with slots started with teasing 40p worth of change from the skilful spinning of 10p coins into a fruit machine in the last century. This has grown recently to a solid appreciation for the often dazzling artistry, imagination and mechanics of modern online slots.