Betting and sport – they are two activities that go hand in hand, and always have done. In the USA, where the attitude to gambling of any kind has always been on the puritanical side, it has led to controversy, underground betting rings and some great Hollywood moments in movies like The Sting. In the UK, the whole topic has always been treated rather more calmly and matter-of-factly.
There are bookmakers on every high street and at every event. The TV coverage of horse racing is based around the odds, and in the 1970s and 80s, the football scores on a Saturday afternoon were all about checking if you’d had a pools win. Most people who enjoy a horse race, a cricket match or a game of football also enjoy putting a few pounds on it from time to time.
The Barton factor
The problem is that professional footballers undeniably fall into the category of people who enjoy a game of football, and most of them have smartphones and money to burn. Back in the 1970s, it was commonplace for pro sports starts to put money on games. Usually they would back themselves to win, but even if they bet otherwise it was seen as an enormous joke.
With gambling becoming more professional, and bigger money coming into play, the spectre of match fixing appeared and the rules tightened up. In 2014, players in the top eight divisions were banned from placing bets on football matches or any football-related activity, anywhere in the world.
The rules are clear and uncompromising, so when Joey Barton admitted placing bets on more than 1,000 matches, his punishment was inevitable, and he accepted it without argument.
Footballers love a bet
The problem, as far as Barton sees it, is that the uncompromising rules do not alter the fact that footballers are young men who are obsessed with football. They have time on their hands and money in the bank. In other words, they love a wager. The smartphone age makes it easy to bet online without being snapped by the paparazzi. Many are opting for the online version of casino games, using sites like slots info to find the best sites to bet online for real money.
However, there are a huge proportion who cannot resist the lure of betting on the sport they love.
Sports betting is not match fixing
Barton understands as well as anyone what a serious issue match fixing is, and how it can undermine the whole integrity of the sport. This is not something he has been accused of or involved in, and nobody is suggesting he has. Similarly, the 50 percent of footballers that Barton says habitually break the betting rules are also not fixing matches.
Barton describes the new rules as “totalitarian” and many will sympathise. As things stand, a reserve playing for Colchester would face disciplinary action for betting on a Major League Soccer game in the US. The problem with uncompromising rules is that they are ultimately bent by everyone. In this case, it means that anyone involved in real match fixing activities is liable to be lost in a crowd of mostly innocent rule benders.
It is a situation that FIFA would be well advised to address sooner rather than later.