It seems at the moment that barely a week goes by without another sport inadvertently unveiling its soft underbelly of drugs and/or match-fixing.
Cycling has for a long time had a history of doping, but the revelation of Lance Armstrong’s doping, combined with the conviction of Eufemiano Fuentes for supplying blood transfusions to professional cyclists, has reconfirmed the widespread nature of cheating within the sport.
In light of these developments, Andy Murray came out in the press to call for greater levels of testing in tennis. The very suggestion of Murray’s words asked whether or not tennis was clean. Many players spoke out about the poor level of testing, including Novak Djokovic, and despite the assurances of many on the tour, these complaints would not exist if there weren’t a grain of doubt to trigger them. Cricket too has stepped up its drug testing, and in the last 2 weeks, racing’s Godolphin stable has been found to be a veritable factory of doped horses. And let’s not start on Eastern European shot-putters…
All of these revelations in other sports forced me to ask myself, “is football straight?” Not only in regards to drugs, but to all cheating. When Augusto Cesar Lendoiro, the president of Deportivo La Coruna, came out last week and claimed “almost all” games at the end of 2010-11, when Deportivo were relegated, were “fixed”. This comes after European police revealed that they were investigating worldwide case of matchfixing involving 680 matches, and for the first time, a Champions League game on English soil. As English supporters we look down upon match-fixing as something that happens in Italy or Spain, but to have it happen on our very own patch, now it begins to feel real.
How corrupt is English football? We’ve all seen the films and Panoramas on dodgy transfers, avaricious agents securing mammoth fees, and the real-life versions of the football hooligans of Green Street (who again reared their ugly, shaven heads at Wembley not so long ago), but never before have we imagined Indonesian businessmen controlling the results of our own games. It is somewhat terrifying. To think that Djibril Cisse might actually be a decent player, who is just playing to order, or that Fernando Torres deliberately skied the ball into the Stretford End so famously, makes one shudder. To consider that Gareth Bale may not be all Welsh rarebit and Southampton training sessions is inconceivable.
But that is the reality we may be faced with. There is so much money in the game now that if players have the opportunity to dope, they would almost be foolish not to. It’s all very well to say that they are regularly drug-tested, but the cheats will almost always be one step ahead of the curve, as cycling proved. I’m not sure English football could cope. We have run out of people to trust in this country – lawyers, journalists, politicians, 80s TV presenters, even most footballers – but football itself retains its integrity. In the end, when the two teams walk out onto the pitch, it is still 11 vs 11 (unless you’re Sunderland, in which case Lee Cattermole swiftly upsets the balance) and when you watch Swansea v Fulham on the final day of the season, I hope that at no point your mind will wonder to how much money might be wagered on the result, and who stands to benefit from allowing it to happen.