We have lost count of the number of meetings in the last few weeks held ostensibly to tackle corruption in football, which has suddenly become the number one national problem. It may always have been an issue, but for years everyone was content to turn a blind eye. Now, after allegations made by the president of Omonia football club about the bribing of refs and players, match-fixing and underworld involvement in betting it has been widely acknowledged that all is not well with the Cyprus game and it must be cleaned up.
There have been meetings involving the police, the Cyprus Football Association, the parties, ministers and referees while Uefa officials have been brought in to advise on how to stop the rot. Ten days ago, there was a big meeting at the presidential palace under President Anastasiades, who proposed the establishment of a deputy ministry for sport, an independent committee on ethics and protection of sport as well as a sports tribunal. A law passed in 2017 aimed at clamping down on corruption in sport has proved difficult to enforce because evidence that would stand up in court was very difficult to come by, the president said.
A point made by Anastasiades and repeated several times by Justice Minister Giorgos Savvides was the need for a law on telephone surveillance, which the president sent back to the House because MPs’ amendments had weakened its provisions. If the police could listen in on telephone conversations, they would be able to corroborate a case of corruption, is the official government line. Surely the crooks would simply stop using their phones to fix matches and offer money to referees and players, but that is another matter.
Another big meeting was held on Thursday, this time chaired by Savvides, who said he was encouraged by the flow of information and urged anyone who knew of shady dealings and corrupt practices in football to contact the police. The public could help the battle against corruption, he said, buoyed by the tip-off earlier in the week that led to remand of a referee and second division club chairman, whose team was awarded a 97th minute penalty by the former after he had also sent off three players of the opposing team. Whether the police will be able to build a case against the two is a moot point that indicates the authorities might be going about tackling corruption the wrong way.
If the political will to fight corruption existed, a task force to carry out audits of the football clubs should be set up because that is where causes of corruption are. For instance, how does a lowly first division club with home crowds of 100 people per game pay its players, coaching staff and running expenses? They earn some money from television rights and receive assistance from the Cyprus Sports Federation, but this is nowhere near enough to cover the monthly costs of a small club with a big payroll. The majority of first division clubs employ foreigners that do not play for the minimum wage, especially now that Cyta has drastically cut back on the millions it was spending on football. How do they cover their deficits? Is it from betting on matches they fix or from being bribed by bigger clubs to throw matches?
Savvides, speaking on radio on Friday morning, said the Uefa experts that were recently in Cyprus were astonished by the large amounts of money spent on bets on lower league matches. Were Cypriots betting on lower division matches because these were exciting leagues? In the last few years Uefa has sent red notices, for some 80 matches for suspicious betting activity, but the authorities have done nothing about it, the police claiming they could not find any evidence for a criminal case. Peculiarly, nobody has ever thought of looking into the finances of the football clubs to establish where their revenue comes from and if it is accounted for. This is probably too much to expect, considering football clubs have always enjoyed special treatment by the state. Huge debts by clubs to the Social Insurance Fund were eventually covered by the taxpayer. If a business was guilty of such an offence, the owner would be thrown into prison and all company assets sold to pay off the debts.
Allowing the clubs to operate outside the law in this way merely encouraged dubious practices to cover the increased costs of running a football club. The country’s small population – the majority of clubs have a tiny fan-base – and the size of the economy cannot sustain the clubs’ big payrolls such as the large number of foreign footballers. While this has raised the standard and quality of the game, it has made the majority of clubs financially unviable and in need of new revenue sources. Paradoxically, the corruption that has become our number one problem, which everyone now wants to tackle, is the main reason for the improved quality of Cyprus football. If the clubs were operating within their means the standard would probably be much lower.