Football association: changes needed to whistleblower law to tackle match-fixing

Malta Football Association sees need of whistleblower act amendments to fight corruption in football

MFA Integrity Officer Franz Tabone: The major problem is providing evidence
MFA Integrity Officer Franz Tabone: The major problem is providing evidence

The anti-corruption task force set up by the Malta Football Association will be asking lawmakers to widen the scope of the whistleblower act in order to fight corruption in sport.

In recent weeks, the world of sports has been rocked by a number of scandals, including the corruption allegations against the international football federation FIFA, and closer to home, the demotion of Nadur Youngsters Football Club from the Gozitan top flight after a former official was found guilty of attempting to bribe players. 

This week, a debate on sports integrity organised by the European Parliament office in Malta brought all stakeholders together, including MFA vice-president Chris Bonnett who insisted that the existing tools to fight corruption are not sufficient. 

“The tools at our disposal are not enough because unfortunately our country does not have the sporting tradition of other countries and is more exposed to the manipulation of sports competitions,” Bonnet said.

He added that low wages, the lack of professional athletes and the low profile of sports competitions make Malta an easier target for international criminal rings involved in match-fixing. 

“We’re also worried by the surge of foreign owners in Maltese football, especially when they claim that they do not expect anything in return for their investments,” Bonnet said.

Last month, a number of officials and a manager involved in local football were arrested in connection with an international illegal football betting syndicate that was busted by Italian police.

“The manipulation of games is about organised crime. Sports is used as another vehicle by criminal syndicates to make more money,” Bonnett said. 

The MFA vice-president noted that the task force – which includes government, opposition, police and the gaming authority representatives – is set to draft an action plan which will include proposals such as widening the scope of the whistleblower act.

Currently, the legislation introduced in 2013 grants employees in both the private sector and the public administration the right to disclose information regarding improper practices.

But in effect athletes and officials are not granted protection if they raise the alarm on bribery cases involving other clubs.

While stressing the need to enhance education and governance, Bonnett said the country needs to review its legislation to address new factors such as cross-border betting, and grant new investigative powers to prosecutors, such as phone tapping and the introduction of anonymous testimony.

In comments to MaltaToday, the MFA’s Integrity Officer, Franz Tabone, confirmed that the MFA does receive reports and information about corruption in football, however he admitted that the major problem is in providing evidence.

“It’s not easy for a witness to come forward and tell you ‘Mr X offered me money to play badly’. It’s very difficult. Witnesses only come forward if they’re really angry or done in by somebody else.”

Tabone explained that footballers who expose cases of corruption are considered as traitors by the tightly-knit football community, “when in reality the real traitors are those who fix games”.

Since 2012, the MFA has been using Swiss surveillance specialists Sportradar’s live betting analysis software to flag suspicious betting patterns. The MFA says that 32 out of 300 Premier League and Division One games were flagged as suspicious in the 2012-13 season, falling to 12 in the following season after the FA conducted its ‘Say No to Match Fixing’ campaign.

Some €50 million and €20 million in legal bets were placed on Premier League and First Division games, respectively. The MFA suspects that the same amount of money is played on the Maltese league illegally.

During the debate on sports integrity, Tabone expressed disappointment at the lack of cooperation shown by betting companies based in Malta.

In reaction, Corrine Gatt from the Malta Gaming Authority admitted that while only a few companies based in Malta take bets on local football, the authority needs to “educate” the companies on sharing information with the MFA and the police. 

On his part, assistant police commissioner Antoine Casha said that the police cannot prosecute people unless they have enough evidence.

He also expressed agreement with the MFA’s calls for tougher legislation and enhanced investigative tools similar to those granted to the police in cases of financial crimes. 


Gaming industry tug of war 

During the roundtable debate, the Council of Europe’s Stanislas Frossard gave an overview of the convention on the manipulation of sports competitions, which Malta voted against, having found itself in a political tug of war regarding the multi-million online betting industry.

Frossard said that the council is attempting to get non-European countries to sign the convention but the US and China “are difficult partners” because they fear it could interfere in their national betting industries. 

The council’s convention on the manipulation of sports competitions is a wide-ranging treaty which commits countries to raise their efforts in the fight against match-fixing in order to protect the integrity of sport and sports ethics in accordance with the principle of the autonomy of sport.

Frossard explained that individual countries are committed to fight the manipulation of sports competitions by adopting a number of measures in the fields of prevention, criminal law and information sharing and cooperation between public authorities, sports organisations and betting operators, nationally as well as internationally. 

Noting that around 60 cases of sports competition manipulation are reported every year, Frossard said “the international nature of these illegal operations make it harder to investigate and prosecute”.

In voting against the convention, Malta argued that the gaming industry is a service like any other and should be regulated under the EU’s freedom of movement rules. But other EU countries are attempting to lure back companies which have relocated to Malta.

However, Frossard strayed away from the political minefield by insisting that the Council of Europe remained “neutral” and “the convention is about the integrity of sport and it did not intend to play a role in opening or closing the market.”