When Torino goalkeeper Jean-Francois Gillet recently received a 43 month ban from the game for his involvement in match-fixing while at Bari, it not only marked his first appearance in the headlines, but more than likely his last, as it effectively ended his football career.
Gillet was the ‘big’ name of another surprisingly large group who received bans this summer. The punishments have come out so regularly in recent time, they no longer raises eyebrows, rolling eyes instead.
Match-fixing, it seems, remains rife across Italy. The continuing stream of revelation and retribution leads one to wonder whether the country will ever shake off its spectre and be able to play matches that are beyond question.
Italy has long had a problem with those involved in football feeling they operate above the law when it comes to match-fixing. Let it not be forgotten that 1982’s World Cup hero Paolo Rossi had only just returned to the Azzurri after a two-year suspension from the game for match-fixing.
Bari found themselves deducted five points (of a total of seven) for their involvement in the Calcioscommesse case, and they shared a division with Ascoli and Varese (one point), Modena, Crotone, Reggina (two points), Novara (three points) and Grosseto (six points) last season.
They also saw Lecce forcibly demoted to Lega Pro after their appeal was dismissed.
It is clear that the footballing authorities in Italy treat match-fixing as a serious offence and it is equally clear that their thoughts are mirrored by police.
Punishments to individuals are becoming more and more draconian – often career ending, as with Cristiano Doni of Atalanta.
Despite that, more and more sanctions seem to be being doled out to individuals and it is becoming rare for a season to begin, at any level, without at least one team having been implicated for incidents that took place a few years previously, and punished with a points deduction.
What remains difficult to ascertain, however, is whether the punishments are working. With more than 50 arrests in the peninsula since 2011, the police seem to be helping the league’s cause, but seemingly each time one case is finished, it brings another to light; and the whole process begins again.
Currently, Lazio, Genoa and Lecce (again) are in court hearing the result in a case that may see all three docked points and may well result in Lazio captain Stefano Mauri receiving a hefty ban; the maximum ban available is 54 months which, if enforced, with Mauri being 33, would likely see an end to his career.
The charges in that case relate to only two games which took place more than two years ago, yet the numbers of people involved reaches double figures and reach farther as, because the cases take some time to come to court, players have often moved on to new clubs.
In some ways, that increased scope is a result of the intention of punishing not just those directly involved, but those (as Antonio Conte) who fail to report wrong-doing when they are made aware of it.
As time progresses, a number of similarities become apparent in the proliferation of match-fixing cases and the recent cases of doping that emerged in cycling and baseball. For example, initially, the whole situation horrifies press and public alike, even though it reportedly affects very few people, seeming barely plausible.
As investigations continue, more and more people are known to be involved and it quickly gets to a stage where nobody remains above suspicion.
Eventually (or at least, in cycling, and in baseball) the sport reaches a point where it can no longer be viewed as credible. After descending to a point where even fairly minor events are viewed with raised eyebrows, a semblance of competition begins to return and, slowly, from the wreckage, emerges a new, cleaner model – often figureheads,either in positions of power, or competitors are replaced. Finally, the new future comes into view with flawed champions losing crowns and their records being expunged.
Italian football remains a long way from getting to that point. Juventus may have been stripped of Scudetti recently, and Inter awarded them in their stead, but the delay between offences taking place and punishment means that impact lower down divisions is often lost. As long and as harshly as Macbeth scrubbed, he could not get King Duncan’s blood from his hands.
It stand to reason that teams agree to fix matches is for a short-term gain, be it to their balancing of the books or on the pitch. As such, Lazio (if proven guilty) have already long-since reaped the benefits of their actions, and any sanctions would be able to be absorbed by a club of their stature.
Punishing a team, three years down the line, an amount of points that will be set before the season kicks off means that everybody knows what the effect will be before a ball is kicked in anger. Any eventual failure can be attributed to the point deficit and nobody at the club would really lose out as a result.
In that situation, it is almost possible to argue that Lazio will only be negligibly worse off even if found guilty. If a fine is imposed, it won’t affect them too greatly (the highest club fine of Calcioscommese was AlbinoLeffe’s €90,000) and losing six points would be an amount that, in last season’s table, would have seen the Biancocelesti drop from seventh position to eighth.
It is fair to say Lazio would barely notice that punishment, yet it might represent the most serious that could be given to them – certainly, few teams have suffered more stringent punishments. Yet any financial penalty that would be levied on Bari, as their €80,000 fine in the Calcioscommese scandal, could be catastrophic – as it arguably should be, given the nature of the offences.
Indeed, imposing points penalties in the lower leagues, where teams are generally more evenly matched has a far greater impact than in Serie A, where there is a greater disparity of both wealth and talent and points differences are often larger.
That disparity makes ensuring equal punishment over clubs at different levels difficult. Financially speaking, it would probably be more even to mete out fines on a proportional scale; for example, a club could be fined a percentage of their monthly income rather than a set figure.
Given the end result of the match-fixing, maybe a fine would be more meaningful if it represented the amount of money a club earned by finishing in their final position in the season the incident took place.
What is for sure is that things are moving in the right direction – the fact that cases of match-fixing are being brought to light may seem to be negative at the current time, but it should mean that those involved know to act more responsibly in the future.
The problem the authorities have is that their punishments are not severe enough to act as a deterrent for people involved in the game from fixing it. Until that is changed, until individuals see their opportunity for making a livelihood completely extinguished, or clubs see their futures (and past) re-written to misery, then the temptation to make a quick buck will always prove too great for some of those involved.
Jean-Francois Gillet will miss out on over three years of playing wages that would have helped him close his career, but when his ban is over, he could play football again or he could coach a team. Arguably, by participating in match-fixing, an act which makes a mockery of the nature of sport, he should forfeit any right to make money from participating in sport in the future. Forty-three months may seem a long time in the context of a footballer’s active career, but it is not a large percentage of a working life.
Until the punishments are strong enough, and immediate enough, to completely discourage match-fixing from happening, it is likely we will keep seeing cases coming to light and, as long as cases are coming to light, Italian football will always be viewed, from the outside, with an amount of scepticism.
The shadow of match-fixing has loomed large over the game in Italy for decades, and though the culture is changing, the game is not yet ready to step into the light.