Bribes, kickbacks and bad business: Will football ever clean up its act?
It's a victimless crime. Or, alternatively, the cost of doing business.
That's how a fair chunk of football folk -- though they would never admit it -- view bribes and kickbacks. As for the other stakeholders -- owners, fans, media, federations, FIFA -- I'm not sure to what degree people care.
The Daily Telegraph's revelations trumpet the fact that eight Premier League managers are accused taking "bungs" -- essentially, demanding an under-the-table payment to approve a player transfer or contract renewal. They are based on covertly filmed conversations with three agents who happily named names when it came to the state of the transfer business. The Telegraph redacted the names but offered enough detail that football insiders could probably work out at least a couple of the accused.
The thing about these allegations is that if you've covered football for even a short while, they're all things you've heard before. It's stuff often discussed quite liberally when talking to agents and club executives. Sometimes, folks will share personal experiences: I can count a half-dozen people in football who told me they were either asked to pay a bung or offered a bung to conduct a transfer.
Appetite for doing something about it has waxed and waned over the years. But the fact is that every decade or so it moves back into the public eye. You wonder if this occasion will be different. History doesn't bode well -- it's been happening for a long time.
Alan Sugar -- now Lord Sugar -- is a successful businessman, former Tottenham Hotspur owner and these days, host of the BBC's version of "The Apprentice." In 1993, he testified under oath in a court of law that his former manager, Terry Venables, had told him that Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough wanted a bung to complete a transfer, suggesting he might take it in cash at a highway rest stop. Venables and Clough vehemently denied this. Despite this testimony, Venables became England manager a year later, while Clough retired and is hailed as one of England's greatest bosses to this day.
Then in 1994, George Graham, then-Arsenal manager, was banned for a year for signing two players and then receiving an "unsolicited gift" (which the FA considered a bung) of some $600,000 from the agent who did the deal.
This is not to rehash old ground. It's simply to underscore how it's been part of the fabric of the game -- or at least some quarters of the game -- for a very long time. By and large, nothing has been done about it. Even the language used -- "bung" -- makes it sound almost harmless, at least relative to what it really is, namely bribery and extortion.
It's not something that gets talked about much because frankly, it's in nobody's interest to talk about it. Nobody wants to kill the Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs and proving any of it is exceptionally difficult. But to think that it would have all gone away is simply silly.
Part of the problem is that football associations are not equipped to police this, especially as the methods of making and receiving illegal payments have grown more sophisticated.
An excellent article in The Independent Thursday outlined this well.
Following a BBC documentary in 2006, the Premier League hired Lord Stevens, a former police chief, to conduct an investigation of 362 transfers. His investigative tools consisted of forensic accountants, personal interviews and questionnaires sent to agents and managers. In hindsight, it was akin to crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat. As one agent told me at the time, "They don't have police powers, they can't access offshore accounts, if someone makes a payment from offshore to offshore, how are they ever going to find out?"
Still, Lord Stevens identified 17 transfers as "suspicious."
The Premier League passed on their findings to the FA. Not much happened. The FA decided they did not have the investigative infrastructure to scrutinize this further and so they kicked it up to FIFA, since many of the deals were cross-border transactions. FIFA could not do much other than write letters to various FAs asking for help and information. Eventually, they passed it back to the FA, indicating that too much time had passed and they could not deal with the problem.
It's too easy to blame the FA or FIFA on this. Yes, they are responsible, but the simple fact is they don't have subpoena powers and when it comes to banking secrecy, all they can do is ask for cooperation. Not to mention that both were severely underfunded in these departments at the time -- and still are today.
There's also a fundamental question of who really has an interest in policing this. Corruption isn't nice, but from the perspective of the FA and the Premier League, a few months after the Stevens Report and the BBC documentary, everybody had forgotten about it and it was business as usual. Nobody had an interest in bringing it up again.
You would have thought that owners would have taken an interest: After all, they were the ones picking up the tab. And, indeed, some did, freezing out guys they considered corrupt: It's not a coincidence that the same folks tend to work with the same clubs over and over again. But many preferred to operate on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis. They saw it as the cost of doing business.
If you're an owner or chief executive who's told that you need to cut in an extra intermediary at the last minute in order to complete the signing of a $10 million player, you may well see it as a necessary expense of doing business even if you suspect he's nothing more than a "bag man." An additional $50,000 on a $10m purchase may well be worth paying, especially if your manager says it's a player you desperately need, the fans are murmuring and the media are hammering you for not getting deals done.
So who's going to stop it?
In the end, ironically perhaps, just as the IRS brought down Al Capone it's probably the tax people who have the best shot. They have the powers to access bank accounts and because this money is generally undeclared, it amounts to tax evasion. But even then, it's hugely difficult. Setting up an offshore slush fund in a place with iron-cast banking secrecy is fairly straight-forward. What's more, tax authorities are usually preoccupied with folks who evade tens of millions -- not tens of thousands -- in taxes.
Depressed? You should be.
But I'll leave you on a hopeful note. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. A huge step forward would be making all deals -- transfer fees, commissions paid, salaries paid, contract details -- public. The FIFA Transfer Matching System already collects this information for international transfers, so they at least know what money goes where and in what amounts, though they only share that information with FAs and law enforcement if requested. That's a first step. And when the same folks show up time and again with the same commissions, maybe you can start to dig a bit and begin to follow the money.
It's not easy though because once things move offshore, it gets tricky. Even the IRS, backed by the most powerful country in the world, has trouble getting tax havens to lift their banking secrecy, let alone smaller countries or even FAs. But at least it would be a deterrent.
The counterarguments to this involve privacy concerns and the fact that this is commercially sensitive information. But it may well be a price worth paying to clean up the game because fans aren't stupid. They may not have the exact numbers but they see screwy transfers and the same guys with the same agents moving between the same clubs time and time again. They hear the same stories of corruption, time and again.
At that point, when owners realize getting ripped off by their employees and those with whom they do business is no longer worth their while, then maybe we'll see real reform and transparency. And the crooks will be frozen out for good.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.