Over the next few weeks in Brussels there is an important debate taking place on the future of gambling in Europe. On one side are the private gambling companies: some of them the big British bookmakers like William Hill, Ladbrokes and Paddy Power, some of them based on the internet like Betfair. On the other side are the national sports lotteries owned or at least run for, the governments of many European countries. They are both lobbying legislators hard to vote their way.
At the moment, in many countries the only way a bettor can place a bet legally is with one of these national lotteries. The private gambling companies say, in effect, “Hang on! We are in a common market. The whole idea is that companies from one country are supposed to operate freely in another country. And you are stopping us from operating.”
The national lotteries on the other side have been lobbying politicians hard saying, “Ah yes, but gambling is different. Gambling, at least the way the private companies practice it, leads to high rates of addiction, corruption and match-fixing. To protect the sport you must stop them from entering your countries.”
Who is right?
Well, like most hard-fought arguments, they are both, to some degree, right. The private companies are being restricted from practicing their trade. On the other hand, the more gambling that is available, the more gambling addiction there will be. What is more complicated is the role of match-fixing in this whole debate.
Here are a couple of facts. No self-respecting match-fixer ever tried to fix a game using a national sports lottery. There are two stages in fixing a match: the first is the actual bribing of the referee or the players; the second is the fixing of the gambling market a little like perpetrating a stock market fraud. The ‘stock market’ of a European national sports lottery is simply too restricted to allow any fixer to use them.
However, the claim that match-fixing would not exist without the private gambling companies is an overstatement. Bernard Tapie and Luciano Moggi were attempting to fix matches, without any connection to private gambling companies. The great South African cricket player Hansie Cronje said much the same thing in his confession after he was caught working with an Indian bookie to fix matches, “As long as there is gambling on sporting events — legal or otherwise — players will continue to be approached, pressured and tempted.”
The key phrase in Cronje confession is, of course, “legal or otherwise”. The bookmakers where most of the fixers place their bets are in the illegal Asian gambling market. This betting market is far, far larger than any legal gambling market in the world. There a fixer can place large sums of money on almost any game, almost always anonymously. Until we get proper oversight on this market, then the fixing of European football matches will continue, regardless of all the talk in Brussels.