Football cleanup won’t hit goal with fans offside

Yet another scandal is shaking up European football. Italian authorities are investigating 41 clubs on suspicion of tax fraud and money laundering. The case highlights the sport’s poor governance and questionable integrity. Unfortunately supporters may not care that much.

European soccer faces yet another scandal. Italian tax police are investigating 41 clubs – including all but two of the Serie A teams – on suspicion of money laundering and tax evasion in the transfers of players. Investigators searched the clubs, and seized potential evidence.

The investigation is the fourth major scandal hitting football this year. In January, Bayern Munich’s president Ulrich Hoeness confessed to German tax authorities that he held a secret Swiss bank account and had withheld millions of euros in taxes. A month later, Europol cracked a match-fixing syndicate accused of having manipulated 380 games between 2011 and 2013. In April, FIFA’s honorary president Joao Havelange resigned after being found guilty of having accepted multi-million dollar bribes in the 1990s.

All those cases highlight a dark side of the beautiful game, based on a reality: as in the financial industry, self-regulation doesn’t work. Professional soccer also suffers from poor governance and is prone to corruption. The game’s high stakes make fraud more attractive than in other industries. Manipulation on the pitch is hard to detect because games hinge on chance and individual mistakes.

Homemade weaknesses exacerbate the problems. Top executives are usually recruited from the pool of retired players or trainers, creating an inbred mentality based on cosy relationships between the clubs and their supposed supervisors. There is also a skills mismatch: a top goal scorer needs different qualifications than a successful general manager.

Financial misconduct and manipulations are almost as old as the beautiful game itself. In 1930, for instance, the German club FC Schalke 04 was caught paying key players more money than the league’s rules allowed – 20 reichsmark instead of 5. The club was temporarily expelled from the league, and its treasurer committed suicide. In 1964, the English league was rocked by a match-rigging and betting scandal. Eight professional players ended up behind bars. In 2006 and 2010, the Italian league saw similar fraud. Juventus Turin was stripped of two league titles and forcefully relegated.

All this turpitude neither destroyed the individual clubs, nor the public’s enthusiasm. History is repeating itself in Italy this time. The credibility of the clubs that may be ultimately convicted will then take a temporary hit, and some key characters may be found guilty. But team supporters won’t bother for too long. Success on the pitch is more important to them than financial integrity

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