MFPA’s reaction to UEFA’s disciplinary decision involving Maltese players in match fixing allegations

MFPA is and has always been, categorically against anything that undermines the integrity of the game. It recognises the gravity of match fixing and agrees that anyone found guilty of being directly involved and of making a profit through match manipulation, should be harshly punished.

This past August the ‘Integrity of Maltese Sports’ bill was announced. Despite the fact that the actual bill was never made public during the consultation period, MFPA presented its own feedback based on the outlined aims of the bill. In its feedback, MFPA declared its agreement on harsher sanctions, but also recognised, that match manipulation is a hugely complex and multifaceted beast, and that punishments and sanctions on their own, will not cure this ailment.

What one must realise is that the instigator of match fixing is not a sports fan nor a football player who wants to win one for his team. It is, in fact, an international sophisticated and far reaching criminal organisation, looking to make a profit or to launder money. The current match fixing situation reminds one of the siege on drug users some 2 decades ago. Harsh punishments on users did little to nothing to mitigate the problem of drug abuse. Tackling the drug distributors and traffickers on the other hand, was much more effective.

Similarly, in dealing with match fixing, much more focus must be put on the organisers and instigators. These, are the ones that create the problem, rope in vulnerable individuals into the operation (by any means necessary) and eventually make the biggest profit out of it. And yet, one rarely hears of any such individuals being brought up to justice. Sanctioning harshly the actors at the lower end of the criminal system will do little to root out the real problem. A concerted effort to root out the big fish in this criminal pond must be made and the Maltese Bill on ‘Integrity of Maltese Sports’ should reflect this, and in particular any sanctions imposed on persons caught out.

In these most recent cases, 4 out of the 6 individuals found guilty by UEFA, were not found guilty of match manipulation, but of failing to report that they had been approached. In essence, these players are being punished despite the fact that they DID NOT agree to manipulate any match. One fully understands that reporting is of utmost importance for the authorities to be able to stop and punish actual match fixers. However, the punishment is far harsher than the omission warrants. After all, the 1 to 2 year suspension, which is already a harsh punishment on its own, is not the only real consequence for these players. One glance at the public outcry will reveal how these players have already been demonized, and labelled traitors. Often, by people who fail to make a distinction between guilty of match fixing and guilty of not reporting that they had been approached. With their reputation in tatters and facing a long suspension, their football career jeopardized.

However, we invite any commentator to think about the following, why would anyone who did not accept a bribe fail to report, knowing that they will be sanctioned? Imagine a 21 year old player, who is approached to manipulate a match. He declines. He thinks about reporting the matter to the authorities but decides not to. Why? The player may have to report fellow teammates, risking exclusion and retaliation, in a small country where everyone knows everyone. Worse still he may have to report someone who approached him who could be a dangerous criminal. It cannot be overstated enough, that players approached to fix matches are approached by a criminal network of dangerous individuals. Reporting to the authorities will subject them to the risk of retribution, intimidation, harassment or violence. Individuals who feel that the authorities will not afford them the needed protection will shy away from reporting for the sake of their and their family’s safety. Is this not understandable?

In these recent cases, one of the players found guilty of not reporting on time, had explicitly asked, whether he will be protected and by whom. He was told no reply could be given. This is inadequate and unacceptable. The MFPA has sought to support players in the past in similar circumstances and the reply was invariably that the Maltese football or State authorities have no system of preventive support or protection. Nor the police can and will offer protection. Players can not be expected to expose themselves and their safety, and that of their loved ones, without being afforded any protection. Adding insult to injury, they are then being severely punished for being victims of this inadequate system. In the past, there have been instances whereby players who did come forward to report have later fallen victims of threats and intimidation.

It is extremely easy to point the finger at a player and to argue that match fixing can only happen if players allow it. It is easy, but also incredibly short sighted. The underground criminal world of match fixing is not only bigger than the player, but bigger than football itself. Failure to realise this and failure to afford those brave enough to come forward protection, or those with good intention a real hope, is unacceptable. Punishing them is unfair to say the least.

All the players involved in these most recent cases, have yet a right of appeal, and it would be premature to draw judgement and conclusions on the individual merits of the case.

We hope that the records can be set right, that more effective preventative and reporting systems be established to prevent match fixing, and our cry commences a process for better and effective protection for those who come forward. MFPA would gladly collaborate with the Maltese Federation and Government authorities in this regard.