For the love of football | Angelo Chetcuti

From corruption to unfortunate comparisons with Iceland, the Malta Football Association’s new secretary-general, Angelo Chetcuti, outlines the challenges facing the beautiful game

Angelo Chetcuti, new secretary general of the Malta Football Association (Photo: Chris Mangion/MediaToday)
Angelo Chetcuti, new secretary general of the Malta Football Association (Photo: Chris Mangion/MediaToday)

Maltese football is going through some turbulence at the moment. Admittedly, in terms of national performance Malta never really had a Golden Age to look back on. Despite occasional ‘positive displays’ – which usually take the form of draws or narrow defeats – and much rarer victories along the way, the traditional script always dictated heavy losses for the national team.

The recent 5-1 defeat to Scotland at Ta’ Qali seemed on the surface to be a continuation of that tradition; even if staunch defenders of the national team will point towards questionable referee decisions that cost Malta two players. Elsewhere, statistics appear to confirm that Malta’s overall performance in international competitions has never really shifted a gear from the mediocre. 

This is particularly dispiriting for local supporters, as other comparable countries such as Iceland both qualify and impress in the European Cup: causing local fans to question what the Icelanders have that we don’t (apart from their Viking clapping chant, naturally).

Meanwhile, the local sport has been rocked by recent match-fixing allegations. Last March, the police opened an investigation into suggestions that a UEFA Under-21 Championship qualifying game between Malta and Montenegro was rigged. Montegro won the game 1-0. 

This is hardly the first time such suspicions were raised; but it does signal a new direction for sport-related corruption. Players claimed that they didn’t report the Asian syndicate which approached them because they feared for their life. In brief, it seems as though the level of corruption associated with local football has risen far beyond the standards of the actual game itself.

It is against this backdrop that Angelo Chetcuti, sports lawyer and vice-president of Birzebbugia FC, was elected to replace Bjorn Vassallo as MFA secretary, after the latter resigned to take up the position of director of European member associations at FIFA.

“In my case, and I’d like to stress this, it’s about being loyal to the game,” he begins when I ask him what prompted this career decision precisely now. “I come from a small club myself – Birzebbugia – and that was what first gave me the opportunity to have an administrative role in the sport. At that level, I was representing a club: but I have always felt there should also be a level of responsibility to take care of the game as a whole.

“It may sound ‘holier than thou’ to others, and I’ll understand that reaction. But I still feel that responsibility. One of the valid criticisms we receive as football administrators is that we tend to focus so much on the stakeholders we represent – which is most often the club – that we don’t see the bigger picture. There are a lot of basic questions that need to be asked. How many children are playing football? How many of them keep playing? What structures exist to help them maximise their talents: first and foremost for their own personal development, but even so that we, as a football association, have the best possible players for the national team?”  

These are questions asked by other local football aficionados... especially when comparing to other small European countries. Iceland is the most immediate comparison: having a slightly smaller population that ours, yet somehow managing to compete more successfully at higher levels. How does Chetcuti himself account for the enormous difference in standards, between two broadly similar countries?

“It is true that Iceland has a comparable population, but there are many other differences. Iceland has a much larger proportion of players in foreign leagues than Malta, for instance. These are aspects that are often overlooked when people assess the performance of players on the pitch. You need to have a sense of perspective when comparing: not in order to justify your own side’s shortcomings, but to ensure that your assessment is based on reality...”

The reality, he goes on, involves more than just purely national statistics. “The reasons for Malta’s failure to emulate the success of Iceland are broad and complex. There is more to it than just pointing fingers at the national team itself, or the coach... these are all links, but the whole chain starts much further back. Forget football for a moment: how many of our children do any physical activity at all? If we’re going to make these comparisons, we have to bear in mind that in places like Iceland or Holland there is a cultural mindset that favours physical activity. Certain basic motor skills and sporting disciplines are compulsory in their education systems; there is a structural framework – for all sports, not just football – that is already there and very strong.

“On top of that, there is a whole list of other things we have to look at; things we should be doing, or aiming towards. I would say the first thing we’d need to look at is our attitude: not to be defeatist. God forbid we stop believing that we can improve our level. But there is a whole chain of other factors. Very often we concentrate only on one or two areas. Even if we succeed in those areas, it would still be a hotchpotch approach…”

Could corruption itself be part of the reason? The Malta-Macedonia U21 game points in this direction... as does the even more infamous (though never technically proven) case of Malta’s 12-1 defeat against Spain in a 1982 World Cup Qualifier. Has corruption poisoned the game to this extent?

“It saddens me a lot that, when the subject turns to football, the first thing we always seem to talk about is corruption. I don’t blame you for asking; corruption is what makes the most noise, and people are right to be concerned about it... But it’s very, very sad all the same, because ultimately, this is a game...”

Chetcuti however admits that the fight against corruption has to take priority. “Football does not exist in isolation; it is part of society. It isn’t exempt from all the other problems we associate with society. But with football in particular, there has always been a shadow of corruption. This in itself hasn’t changed; what has changed in recent times is the nature and scale of the corruption. For instance: where, a few years ago, it would be a case of ‘Team A’ approaching ‘Team B’ and arranging things to win a match... not that that was acceptable, but today it’s a completely different ballgame. Both are wrong, obviously. But the magnitude of today’s corruption is now enormous. There are studies that compare the turnover from global match fixing, to the turnover from the international drug trafficking or arms trade. Society needs to grasp the scale of the problem...”

One aspect concerns the nature of the crime itself, which as Checuti points out, is nearly impossible to ever prove. 

“There are plenty of instruments and tools to detect corruption and show that it exists. However, proving it in a court of law is another matter. Let me give you an example: betting data. Sometimes the betting patterns around a certain match may be suspicious. After the game, you realise that a disproportionate number would have bet on a certain result, or some other outcome of the game. In those cases, you can almost scientifically say that the match was in some way ‘manipulated’. But how are you going to identify – precisely and incontrovertibly, as demanded by the law – the method used to fix it? You can watch the game as many times as you like, to see who slipped or who let the ball pass him by. But how can you prove it? This is part of what makes match fixing, by its very nature, very attractive to criminal organisations. Football is simply their medium.”

Isn’t there a money trail that can be followed? As I recall, that was how they nailed Al Capone in the end...

“Yes, but there is a limit to how far you can investigate. In today’s betting markets, there are licensed and unlicensed agencies. You can trace large cash movements of one, but much less in the case of the other. In this context, there is very little a football association can do about it in its own capacity. Only the proper authorities have the powers to investigate on a criminal level. All the same, the MFA is still trying to be a driving force. One of the first things I participated in while shadowing the outgoing general secretary was a meeting of the anti-corruption task force, which brings around the same table government and opposition as well as key stakeholders such as the Malta Gaming Authority, the Police, and Sport Malta.”

Speaking of ‘gaming’: is it a coincidence that the scale of football corruption has skyrocketed, over a period which also saw legal betting companies setting up shop all over Malta? 

“I don’t think there is any direct correlation, because match fixing is not limited to Malta, nor to countries where betting agencies are based. On the contrary, it is a worldwide phenomenon. Some time ago I did some research to see if there was any correlation between corruption in football and the size of the country... whether it was related to the culture of ‘everyone knowing everybody’... and also whether there was a connection with the local betting industry. On both counts, there seems to be no direct link.”

There are, however, sometimes correlations with a country’s economic conditions, insofar as they affect the sport’s professional structures. 

“We see this in other countries, not just Malta. Financial instability can make players more vulnerable: if they are not paid on time, or not enough. But again: I don’t think that that, alone, can account for the existence or extent of corruption in football...”

This raises the question of what can be done about such a seemingly insoluble problem. Chetcuti has already pointed out that the MFA is limited in its ability to take action. This is true of judicial scenarios, where the MFA has no legal authority. But within the structures of the game itself, it does have internal mechanisms of its own – bans, suspensions, fines, etc – to deal with infringements. To what extent can the MFA, as Malta’s governing body, take action?

“The MFA does take action, often. If anything, ‘sporting justice’ is much more straightforward than criminal justice. A lot of people have received ‘life sentences’ – in the form of bans – over corruption and other issues...”

Chetcuti suggests it is more a question that the legal sentencing policy needs to catch up with the rules of the game.

“The first necessity is to drastically increase the penalties for match fixing, and preferably to eliminate suspended sentences. We hope to have new legislation – and the parties are with us on this – that will be tougher on corruption in sport. And we’re getting there, it’s not an easy process. As I said before, the scenario has changed since our current laws were drawn up. We have to look at ‘corruption in sport’ through a different lens than before: it is no longer a case of small money changing hands at low levels. It is now a global organised crime phenomenon; as such, it has to be treated as part of a broader picture of economic crime. It goes beyond sport...”

And yet, the law comes down very heavily on other forms of corruption (in the broader sense). The penalties for fraud and money laundering are positively draconian, compared to those for match fixing. Is it a case that the law doesn’t see corruption in sport as part of the same phenomenon?

“Absolutely. Even the fines, for example. They are enormous in money laundering. The laws on match fixing are however based on an earlier form of corruption: bribing a goalie to wwin a cup in a small league. I don’t want to minimise that sort of crime; but objectively, it is a minor form of corruption than someone who is pocketing hundreds of thousands because he knows the outcome of a match. And there is also an element of public frustration. People get annoyed, when they see something they are passionate about is being taken away from them, so that some people can earn a quick buck at the expense of the game...”

This, he confesses, is what worries Angelo Chetcuti the most: corruption tarnishes what should be football’s most beautiful aspect: its humanity.

“It’s a love of the game. And it can be irrational. I consider myself to be a reasonably practical, rational person; but football is one of the most irrational activities known to man. How can you explain the fact that one is so loyal and dedicated to a team... especially when there is no direct connection? In my case there is another ‘irrationality’ involved. Often I ask myself: why do I invest so much time and energy – not just administratively, but reading... researching... following... what is ultimately just a game?

“The nice thing about it is that I can’t answer that question. It’s a passion that cannot be explained. To some it may appear frivolous... which it may be. Here we are chatting about football, when in America they’ve just elected Donald Trump. But at the end of the day, that’s also what makes it such a beautiful game. It brings people together. It creates a lot of emotion. So it’s worth preserving... and I would say developing and nurturing as well. And that is my worry: people who are genuinely passionate about the game are losing their enthusiasm, because of all the things that are going on...”