Match fixing in football is a strange beast. Only the truly naive would fail to admit that it has a significant hold on the sport, but at the same time, fans, no matter how cynical, tend to brush it aside. Match fixing is a problem, sure, but it happens in the leagues we don't care about. Why does it matter if lower league teams in Canada are the target of fixers? We have more important things to worry about than what's happening somewhere out there. Let's make a joke about Italy and move on with our lives.
That's unlikely to change with the news that the UK's National Crime Agency has arrested six members of an alleged betting syndicate that stands accused of rigging lower-league games in Britain, but it probably should. The Telegraph have published an extended piece on the arrests, and some of the quotes are chilling. Their interview with a Manchester-based fixer will not make pleasant reading for the FA:
In England the cost is very high … usually for the players it is £70,000. So I talk to them. Double confirm. I also tell them, I tell … this [is] what I want … Because simple, I commit myself and they commit. So you tell me how many goals … Give me at least five … either 3-2, 4-0 or zero, … for me four is enough.
This is my team. I know what they’re going to do.
I know because they all tell me every time. Because sometimes I have extra money, I just send them some money … because sometimes they need money or they call me so I just leave them some pocket money.
We're treated to a lurid picture of players sending signals via the referee that they'll be participating in a fix (a booking inside five minutes does the trick, apparently) and of teams deliberately conceding for a payout. It's a worrying signal for the English game, which has so far been spared the worst of the recent spate of fixing and has developed an unhealthy arrogance about the prospect of being targeted as a result.
To be clear, this obviously isn't happening in the Premier League or the Championship. The money is simply too low for it to be worthwhile for the players to put themselves at risk of a lifetime ban. But for the underpaid majority, a match-fixing windfall might let them live like their colleagues from a little way up the pyramid. Money talks, and there's nothing about English footballers that makes them morally superior to anyone else. That clubs closer to the top are so wealthy is probably the only thing shielding the upper echelons of the game from fixers.
But just because we're not going to see direct effects on the top leagues doesn't mean that there aren't any effects at all. Every little perturbation in the lower leagues can have a major effect down the line. Imagine if, three seasons ago, Southampton had failed to secure promotion from League One because a rival side had a series of games against teams being paid to lose.
Or, if you're in a darker mood, imagine that there was money working in the Saints' favour. It's a fanciful scenario, of course, but Southampton's rise illustrates better than anything else that everything in English football is connected, and if there's rot somewhere the whole pyramid is corrupted.
So now the FA are just like everyone else, trying to weed out match fixing rather than rather illogically hoping it wouldn't be able to establish itself. It's no longer someone else's problem and it can't be talked about as such. It was nice while it lasted.