WHERE there is money in football, there is usually corruption. In England, the game turned professional in the late 19th century; by 1915 it had experienced its first major scandal, as the Football Association (FA), the national administrative body, banned seven players who colluded to fix a match between Liverpool and Manchester United. A century later, match-fixing remains a blight upon the sport. It has proved particularly hard to stamp out in Italy, where several clubs were caught bribing referees in 2006: Juventus, the nation’s most successful team, was stripped of two league titles and relegated to the second division. Similar problems were discovered again in May this year.
Fans also know that hosting rights for major tournaments have sometimes been auctioned off to the highest bidder. After years of accusations, an investigation conducted by the FBI revealed in 2015 that senior members of FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, had long been accepting payments in return for votes at World Cup elections. Chuck Blazer, a FIFA official who became an informant for the FBI during its inquiry, admitted in 2013 that he had accepted bribes to vote for South Africa’s successful bid to host the 2010 World Cup, and that he had facilitated a bribe before France won the right to stage the 1998 World Cup.
These concepts—throwing games and rigging votes—are simple, familiar and common to many sports. But a series of undercover investigations conducted by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, the details of which dominated British front pages last week, have cast light on many other types of dodgy footballing deals. The Telegraph’s hidden-camera recordings show a murky world of agents and managers fighting for a piece of the financial value generated by players. Their various schemes are complicated and negotiated in coded language with little context. For fans without a working knowledge of the FA’s regulations, the exact nature of the alleged corruption in the tapings is not always clear.
The footage seems to show three particular types of malpractice. The first is third-party ownership (TPO). Though footballers usually negotiate their contracts directly with clubs, TPO allows a business to buy a player’s economic rights and to sell his labour to a team, sometimes against his will. The FA outlawed this practice in 2009. But the Telegraph published footage on September 26th in which Sam Allardyce, the manager of the English national team, explains how to flout TPO regulations to reporters posing as wealthy businessmen. Mr Allardyce describes the ban as “ridiculous” and points out a loophole: third parties can still seek to control players (and take a cut of any transfer fees) by acquiring sports agencies, which in turn encourage the players that they represent to move to new clubs. The FA did not look kindly upon Mr Allardyce’s comments. He left his post as manager of the English national team on September 27th, just 67 days into his contract.
The second scam mentioned in the headlines last week was the paying of “bungs”: kickbacks that agents give to managers in return for buying specific players. Both parties stand to gain from this practice, since the agent gets a commission—from either the player or the purchasing club, depending on whom he is representing—for any transfer he negotiates, a portion of which he will happily hand to the manager to ensure that it goes through. Such dealings encourage managers to spend club money dishonestly and are banned by the FA. Additionally, such payments are often conducted using cash or through offshore accounts, allowing the recipients to evade tax collectors. The Telegraph has alleged that eight current or recent Premier League managers have enriched themselves through bungs. These are not the first rumours to circulate about English coaches taking illicit payments: Arsenal manager George Graham was sacked in 1995 for doing so. In 2006 the Premier League launched an inquiry into 362 transfers after the BBC accused several managers of taking bungs, one of whom was Mr Allardyce. Lord Stevens, who led the investigation, found no evidence of any irregular payments.
The third corrupt procedure detailed last week involves managers manipulating players for financial gain. Jermaine Pennant, an English player, told the Sun on Sunday on October 1st that when in charge of West Ham United in 2013 Mr Allardyce dropped Ravel Morrison, also an English player, after Mr Morrison refused to sign up with Mark Curtis, Mr Allardyce’s agent. (Both Mr Allardyce and Mr Curtis deny these claims.) Pino Pagliara, one of the agents secretly filmed by the Telegraph, recalled an unnamed manager who offered three players a rise of £2,000 ($2,550) per week on the condition that they give him half of that increase. Mr Pagliara has since claimed that he was lying.
These allegations have been embarrassing for the FA, which has held English football up as an example to the world: it regularly criticised FIFA in the years before the FBI arrests, and banned TPO six years before FIFA did in 2015. The organisation’s next move should be to monitor negotiations between managers and agents more carefully. There is little oversight of the latter. In April 2015 FIFA ended its global licensing system for agents and passed the reponsibility for regulating them to national football associations. The FA’s criteria for becoming an intermediary require only that you stump up £500 and demonstrate that you have no recent criminal convictions or current suspensions from the sport.
When these new rules were introduced, there were 550 registered agents in England. The Association of Football Agents (AFA), an independent organisation which at that time represented around 400 of them, said that this deregulation would “create anarchy”. In the 18 months since, the number of recognised agents in England has tripled (see chart). This increase might reflect a horde of previously unlicensed operators—who used to negotiate deals in the shadows—gaining official documentation. It also shows that virtually anybody can become an intermediary should they wish. With so much money circulating through English football, hucksters are bound to give it a try. Exposing them will not rid football of corruption: managers and players looking to line their pockets dishonestly will find other ways to do so. But it would make a good start.
The AFA spoke out again last week to reiterate “the need for greater transparency and a new regulatory framework”. It will fall to the FA to implement such reforms. We asked on October 4th what changes, if any, the FA plans to make to the current licensing process. At the time of publishing, we had yet to receive a full reply.
If it does wish to improve oversight of agents, it could take inspiration from the Telegraph. Fraudulent negotiations tend to happen out of plain sight. To eliminate them, the FA might have to employ some undercover investigators of its own and set up sting operations to catch out dishonest intermediaries. Doing so might expose the group to a defence of entrapment: the FA would have to show that it was acting in good faith and presenting “an unexceptional opportunity to commit a crime”. But the knowledge that any discussion of corruption could be recorded by hidden cameras would make swindlers think twice about having them.