By Tony Attwood
Once upon a time Italian football was the focus of world attention. Live matches were shown on mainstream British TV and attracted huge amounts of attention. The match preview show from Italy on Channel 4 itself became an issue of major interest in Britain.
And then it all went wrong.
Italian football went downhill for many reasons – reasons which English Premier League clubs have long been aware of, and have long been working to avoid. The grounds were allowed to crumble and the curse of the Ultras lingered in the background. Money came in from the men who owned the club, rather than outside sources, which is always a danger if any of them suddenly lose interest, or their fortunes.
And then along came the match fixing scandal known as Calciopoli in 2006 and that was the final nail.
Club after club was found guilty of arranging the results of matches, Juventus had their titles for 2005 and 2006 removed and were relegated. Clubs went into denial, top players left, and the Premier League, waiting in the wings took up the slack.
Of course the decline wasn’t instant… Italy still had a fair amount to say about the Champions League for a while, but declines are rarely instant and rarely smooth. The old corpse can often have a kick or two left in it.
But does this have anything to do with English football? Surely not because the Premier League marches on relentlessly, and grounds are mostly full, and this coming season sees more money than ever coming in from TV rights. Owners, managers and players might be non-English, but the clubs still feel English. And more and more of them are making money.
But that is where we start to see concerns in a most curious way. 14 out of the 20 Premier League clubs in 2014/15 made a profit, led by Liverpool? who came sixth. The showed a profit of £60m largely because the accounting for the sale of Suarez to Barcelona for £75m came in part into that season.
And that is where the oddities start, because profitability, doesn’t seem to have much to do with position in the league table. Liverpool made the most profit, then Newcastle (15th), then Burnley (relegated), then Leicester (14th). Arsenal with the fifth biggest profit (£25m) were the only one of those five to end up in the top five. Chelsea who won the league made a £34m loss, and were only exceeded by the basket case of QPR.
Numerous clubs had insane levels of wages as compared to their turnover – but with talk of a bumper payday from TV starting in 2016 no one seemed to mind. Swansea spent 80% of their salary on players, Sunderland 76%, WBA 73%, Villa 72%, Southampton 70%, Chelsea 68%, Palace 67%, Hull 67%, Stoke 67%… And there’s a worry, because with that level of cost on salaries, if something goes wrong, it’s going to be a disaster.
But we’ve heard these sorts of warnings before, and surely none apply now, with all the TV money rolling in.
Yes, that is true, and besides money is pouring into stadium building, so we’ve missed out on the Italian model of collapse haven’t we?
If any of the newspapers bothered to cover the story that is pretty much what they would say. However when you lift up the covers, there is something very, very worrying lurking underneath. A whole stream of issues which begin to make those who think more deeply about football, just a little nervous.
For example Leicester have won the Premier League with neither the best attack nor the best defence in the league, something that is lost in the euphoria of the little team doing so well. Not a major point, but still a bit unusual. And there are serious questions about Leicester’s financial situation, which were raised by the Guardian and others. But still, football finances are always odd….
However not only was Leicester’s title not built on goal-scoring nor a strong defence, Leicester won seven matches by a goal to nil, and 14 games by a single goal which all looks a bit Italian, a little more odd…
Of course that is not enough to start your actual alarm bells ringing, but this did come in the season in which Chelsea and Tottenham played a match on 2 May, which was unlike anything we had seen in a long while, far, far worse than the supposed Man U / Arsenal brawl of 1990/1 in which Arsenal were docked two points. In 2015/16 the only punishment handed out was the charge to the clubs of failing to control their players. Hardly a big deterrent in the era of mega money.
Beyond that there has been the on-going suggestion by Untold that referee decisions are getting very wayward indeed. We are used to being sneered at over this, but year after year of evidence from referees and ex-referees suggests something is wrong, and it did our case no harm when recently the Sun did its own analysis and came to the same conclusions. It seems that maybe there is something wrong with refereeing in the Premier League.
Which itself is worrying when the champions win so many games by a single goal margin – the easiest result for a referee to manipulate.
Behind this is also the change in the way the game is being played. A recent article on Untold headlined “In the past it was the clubs lower down the league that fouled most. Now it is the clubs near the top” suggested another change – that clubs are using dubious tackles to fight their way up the league.
That is not just a question of aesthetics, but is also a refereeing issue. As that article pointed out, it uses figures based on the number of fouls given, which may not be all the picture, if, as our referee reviews suggest, referees are only picking up a percentage of fouls, and those they miss are not evenly divided between the teams on the pitch.
But there is still one issue to be explained.
If (and I am only using the conditional tense here, I am not saying it has happened), referees are known to be open to influence, then the key issue is to find a way to influence them without it being apparent on the pitch. Creating a game with a large number of fouls in it, with only a percentage of them being picked up by the ref, is the obvious way forward. If that were the case, what we would see would be teams that are near the top of the league, being the teams that foul the most – as opposed to what we used to see in the early days of the century where the successful teams played better football and so fouled less.
Of course all this is only a possible outcome if referees can be bought, and this can only happen in certain circumstances. You need a particular type of structure of refereeing to allow this to happen. The sort of structure that existed in Italy in 2006. Set up a structure like that, and guess what Calciopoli could happen all over again.
You would also need the compliance of the broadcast media and the silence of the written media to make this happen. The compliance of the broadcast media can be obtained if they pay huge amounts of money to the League for the rights for the game. The silence of the written media is harder to get, although is encouraged by the fact that none of them really want to step out of line unless they have maybe just lost of lot of on-line readership and are now trying to get it back. Like the Sun.
When Untold first started covering match fixing we classified what might happen in various ways, looking at the straight fixing of a game to get a particular result (as happened when Liverpool and Man U fixed a match to ensure Man U wouldn’t be relegated), and at the general influencing of matches “where possible”. In that second case there was no demand for x to win match y, but rather for x to win where arranging this would not make it too obvious that the game was fixed.
And then there was Type III match fixing in which a referee might influence the result of a different team, so as to reduce their chances of that team mounting a serious challenge to the team arranging the fixing. This is the hardest type of match fixing to spot and the hardest to stop.
But Leagues are not stupid – they know about Type III Match Fixing, and they know that to stop it you need a very strong, resolute and open referee organisation acting in particular ways. If you were to have a secretive referee body that acted in the way that the referee organisation in Italy in 2006 was set up, then you could probably get away with match fixing on an industrial scale. The result would probably be a lot of victories by a single goal, and clubs near the top of the league also being picked up for the largest numbers of fouls. And a compliant media.
So, Untold has been looking at the structure of refereeing bodies across the major leagues in Europe, and compared the result with the structure of the refereeing organisation in charge of the Premier League. The PGMO.
What we have found will be revealed in forthcoming articles.
When we publish them, it might be best to sit down.
- Xhaka speaks; he’s a leader, he’s humble, and he came here because of Wenger.
- Ref Review: Sunderland – Arsenal
- Confirmed offer for striker is a hoax, as is Wilshere story, but another deal is imminent
- In the past it was the clubs lower down the league that fouled most. Now it is the clubs near the top.
Untold Arsenal has published five books on Arsenal – all are available as paperback and three are now available on Kindle. The books are
- The Arsenal Yankee by Danny Karbassiyoon with a foreword by Arsene Wenger.
- Arsenal: the long sleep 1953 – 1970; a view from the terrace. By John Sowman with an introduction by Bob Wilson.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football. By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews.
- Making the Arsenal: a novel by Tony Attwood.
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal by Mark Andrews.
You can find details of all five on our new Arsenal Books page