Sam Allardyce, corruption allegations and the not so beautiful game

27th September 2016

In a post-truth world Sam Allardyce has always fitted in curiously well. He is football’s version of Donald Trump; rough and ready, populist and at times unconcerned about offending people. In football’s culture of deal-making and ‘ask no questions’ swagger Allardyce has made a good career for himself.  Whether he has done so in a way that football should be proud of is another matter.

Following England’s successful (if rather dour) start to the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign against Slovakia, thoughts should be turning to the next round of matches against Malta and Slovenia. Instead, Sam Allardyce, the new(ish) England manager, is having to defend himself against accusations of corruption.

Whilst a club manager Allardyce was widely known, and in many quarters widely admired, for being able to play the transfer market. At Bolton Wanderers, for example, a club that Allardyce managed between 1999 and 2007, he managed to persuade global high-fliers Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria), Youri Djorkaeff (France) and Ivan Campo (Spain) to come and spend time in one of the less fashionable parts of Greater Manchester. At both West Ham United and Sunderland he was also never scared to pull a metaphorical rabbit out of the transfer hat.

But there have been always been rumours about his methods. Back in 2006 claims were made that no less than 18 present or former managers of premier league clubs had taken ‘bungs’ to help make transfers happen. Allardyce was explicitly name-checked. Questions about Allardyce’s relationship with Peter Harrison, a players’ agent, and his own son Craig (at the time also an agent) were also raised. Indeed, the Panorama programme that sparked that particular round of accusations blatantly alleged that Craig was paid inappropriately on three Bolton deals, the signings of Tal Ben-Haim, Hide Nakata and Ali Al Habsi. Ultimately, an inquiry in to the matter found no evidence of irregular payments, but it did note that there may well have been conflicts of interest in play.

The ‘Bung’ Culture

So what is it that Allardyce has allegedly done now? In short, there is video evidence of Allardyce explaining that he knows how to get around the rules relating to transfers and the roles that agents, players and managers play in them. Allardyce makes particular reference to the issue of ‘third party ownership’ – something that Michel Platini once referred to as akin to ‘modern slavery‘ – of players. The FA outlawed this back in 2008 (to stop abusive ‘owners’ of players from taking advantage of them), but Allardyce is heard claiming that you can get round these rules if you know how. Whether Allardyce is telling undercover reporters that he will help them do that or is simply stating that he knows that that still happens is unclear.  It’s on that issue that ‘Big Sam’s’ future as England manager may well turn.

As of now, Allardyce (just about) has a clean record. Indeed, nothing has ever come of the accusations made back in 2006 or indeed of others that have been made since then. But it is hard for the Football Association (FA) to look away when a high-profile employee is seen to be crowing about how easy it is get around their own rules. The FA has no choice but to agree to look in to the matter.

Cultures of Corruption

It’ll never be clear just how much corruption exists in contemporary football. We know that FIFA, the organisation that heads up the game at the global level, has faced serious corruption allegations, just as we know clubs big and small alike have faced, and pleaded guilty to, an array of match-fixing charges. Nottingham Forest fans, for example, still flinch at the thought of their 1984 UEFA Cup Semi-Final against Anderlecht being rigged when their Belgian opponents bought off the referee. Supporters of Juventus have been forced to acknowledge that their club was involved in (and punished for) fixing an Italian championship. Similar incidents have happened across the length and breadth of the football world.

Behind the scenes, the sheer amount of money involved in ownership battles, player transfers and wages, marketing and advertising deals means that there is a lot up for grabs. In an environment such as this transparency and clarity of procedure are vital. Football has always paid lip service to that, but in practice it has (nearly) always been found wanting.

Corruption analysts increasingly stress the importance of institutional settings in shaping ‘appropriate’ answers. In a ‘clean’ environment, then an appropriate response will be to abide by the letter and importantly the spirit of the rules. In an environment where rules are there to shape action only when there is no way of getting round them, expect to find plenty of people for whom sailing close to the wind is simply part of the game.

Once that rot has set in, you have a problem. You can change the rules, you can increase the penalties for being caught and you can threaten all sorts of ills on perpetrators. But that won’t in and of itself change the way people think. If, as in professional football, the savvy old soul who gets around rules tends to be viewed with admiration rather than scorn, then simply changing the rules won’t be enough.

Sam Allardyce has sailed close to the wind before. And he’s got away with it. It’d be a brave person who’d expect this time to be any different.


Professional gamblers will tell you that there is little point betting on favourites.  If the bookies are offering short odds, look somewhere else to make your money.  A savvy gambler – unlike a professional academic – might have taken a punt on Big Sam’s future and put some hard cash on him being forced out.  That’s why gamblers survive.

Sam Allardyce’s resignation on the evening of Tuesday 27th September ended the shortest reign of any permanent England football manager in history.  It’s not for this blog to offer a running commentary on the reasons for that; there’s plenty of good journalism out there (see here for example) that is already on that particular case.

From an anti-corruption perspective, however, the Football Association’s swift action is interesting.  One of the key things that we have learned about tackling corruption in deeply corrupt settings – and make no mistake about it, professional football in England can be talked about in that context – is the tone from the top.

At the time of writing it is still not clear what the difference is between being a silly buffoon and a corrupt fixer – we need more details of what was said and promised and we need to hear evidence from all parties before we can be clearer on that.  But the FA has clearly decided that it cannot have a manager who is both prone to say offensive things (‘Woy’) to those he doesn’t know well and who sails close to the wind in terms of acting in ways that are appropriate to his job.

Anti-corruption is a manifold beast.  But the tone from the top has to be clear.  Behaviour that even looks like it might be bad isn’t good enough.  Getting rid of Sam Allardyce won’t clean football up overnight, but critical junctures are important in changing directions of travel.  Whether the FA did enough due diligence beforehand (it wouldn’t, after all, have been hard to discover Allardyce’s colourful past) is one issue here, but if the message that gets sent out is that managers and those who hang around them don’t have high standards of integrity, they could easily get in to a lot of trouble.

It may be that times are already changing. We await more exposes from the Telegraph (and they are promised for later in the week) before we hear whether it’s yesterday’s men who are being accused of corruption or whether it is people in the here and now.  If it’s men who have largely moved on, then the message may already be hitting home.  Allardyce really could simply be a dinosaur.  But it’ll be a while before we can know for sure.


Dan Hough

University of Sussex

Electoral Fraud hits China. Again.

Imagine a situation where 45 British MPs were kicked out of the House of Commons for indulging in electoral bribery. Or one where a majority of parliamentarians in Scotland or assembly members in Wales or Northern Ireland were booted out for committing the same offence. There would, to put it mildly, be a little bit of controversy. Precisely that has happened in China. And political life is going on much as normal.

China might not appear to be the type of polity where you’d find electoral bribery. After all, the People’s Republic doesn’t have popular elections. But elections of a sort do take place behind closed doors. Their processes are clouded in secrecy, but just occasionally news filters out about how they work.

The background to these elections is both simple and complicated. It is simple in that China basically has six administrative levels. The national level is centred around the party and the government in Beijing. Below that China has 34 provinces and below that 334 prefectures. There are then 2,852 counties, 40,466 townships, and (apparently) 704,386 villages. Representatives at each level are tasked with electing some of their own to the level above. This pyramid structure works right from the village level (where some genuine elections do take place, although they are heavily supervised by the Communist Party) up to the very top of Chinese government. On paper, all clear enough.

The process of gaining support

In practice, there are two real issues with how the system works. First, people regularly get parachuted in to these bodies. As the Hong Kong Standard noted on 13 September, in practice the system can be “highly opaque and exceptions are common”. Paper and practice can often seem to be a long way apart.

Second, quite how representatives go about winning these contests is, to the outsider at least, anything but clear. We’re certainly not talking about systems of open elections. The winners generally ‘emerge’ and are subsequently nominated, often after a prolonged process of politicking in the background. That politicking may well involve paying money to influential power brokers to get your name put forward.

The legislatures at all of these levels have little genuine power – that is reserved for the Communist Party’s committees – but they can still be prestigious places to be. It’s not so much that you can necessarily do much in terms of public service, more that you can be seen to be making progress in your career and to be mixing (and having access to) the rich and powerful.

Mass sackings

It’s for that reason that representatives will often try very hard to get themselves nominated. Indeed, sometimes too hard. In 2013 in Hengyang, a city in Hunan Province, 518 out of 527 representatives of the legislature were unceremoniously sacked from their positions after it became clear that they had bribed their way in to them. The total amount of bribes paid exceeded RMB110m (around £15m).  Quite how the (decidedly exceptional) 9 who weren’t found to be doing a bit of bribing got in to their positions is not clear.

Similar forms of skulduggery were revealed in early September 2016 when no less than 523 deputies to the Liaoning Provincial People’s Congress (the official name of the legislature) found themselves implicated in electoral fraud. The details of what precisely this fraud entailed have not been revealed, but it is very likely that these officials will have been involved in buying their way up the pyramid. All of them have now either resigned or simply been disqualified from serving in these posts (which they have had since the last election in 2013). 45 Liaoningers have also been sacked from the national parliament in Beijing, all of whom were implicated in the vote-buying scandal.

Liaoning, the southern most province in Manchuria in China’s North-East, now finds itself without a government as no less than 38 of the 62 members of what was previously the government are amongst the 523 who are no longer in parliament. In words that show that understatement is not just a preserve of the English, Xinhua, the official state news agency of China, was quoted as saying that the situation was unprecedented in China and “warrants a creative institutional arrangement”. Indeed.

When what’s expected can be what gets you in to trouble

This, however, is not a simple case of bribery on steroids. In China, the process of making financial contributions to get yourself nominated to higher positions is common. The details are often sketchy and the transactions are done away from the (not so) prying eyes of the press. But they are done nonetheless. And it is commonly known that they are done and indeed that that’s the way you have to behave to make progress.

That the informal norms are widely understood doesn’t mean that they are in line with Chinese law. They aren’t. Hence members of these bodies in China are in an odd position. They are at once expected to bribe and expected not to bribe. If they ‘play the game’ then it won’t be long before they have to get their metaphorical chequebooks out, but by doing that they leave themselves open to accusations of corruption. In Xi Jinping’s China, where many tens of thousands have been prosecuted for corruption offences, that can be a dangerous place to be.

The point is not to defend those implicated in this case. For one thing, the actual details of what happened are hazy. But it is worth acknowledging that Xi’s anti-corruption drive is making a big play of rooting out bad apples. And it is Xi and his close circle of friends who do the defining of terms. The notion that Xi’s system of looking after and furnishing his orchard may be the problem that produces so many bad apples is not, however, something that is up for discussion.


Dan Hough

SCSC Director


Global corruption is like smoking; here’s how to quit

Last week, the Danish newspaper Politiken reported that the Danish government will pay £1million to obtain secret financial information on its citizens that was gathered as part of the ‘Panama Papers’ scoop.

The information will help them uncover corruption, tax evasion and money laundering – surely in the interests of justice? Yet the move was controversial. The information had originally been stolen from a major offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca. Is it ever acceptable for a government to buy stolen goods, some asked?

One thing is for sure: the Panama Papers have focused worldwide attention on the problem of global corruption. They revealed that corrupt practices are not just a dirty habit of poor countries, but are widely practiced in wealthy countries too – and by their wealthiest members. It is not somebody else’s problem; it is all of ours.

In my teaching, I often compare corruption to tobacco. For many years, it was common knowledge that smoking caused cancer: the US Surgeon General publicly said so in 1964. And yet smoking remained fashionable, people continued to take it up in great numbers, governments failed to legislate, and companies did not change their practices.

Growing up in the 1980s, I cast around for explanations. Maybe the addictive properties of tobacco were to blame. Maybe human nature was too weak to resist. Perhaps governments had a vested interest in tobacco tax revenues. Or the tobacco lobby was simply too powerful?

The same kinds of explanations are often given for why corruption persists: Human nature? Culture? Vested interests?

But on tobacco, huge progress has been made. In many countries, governments have legislated against smoking in public places, fewer individuals take up smoking, and smokers are stigmatised rather than admired. Admittedly, laws are not always implemented and tobacco companies still see some developing countries as growth markets. But the trend, as my children grow up, looks radically different.

What are the lessons for the fight against corruption, or for achieving social and political change more broadly?

For the anti-smoking lobby, an important shift occurred when they started to highlight the effects of passive smoking. No longer was smoking just the problem of smokers; it was harming innocents – children, co-workers, even other patients in hospitals.

The world is beginning to wake up to the fact that corruption too is not a victimless crime. But anti-corruption campaigners must keep demonstrating the myriad harms that corruption causes. At the macro level, these are about retarding growth, exacerbating inequality, undermining the rule of law. For individual victims, corruption means being denied access to jobs or school places, watching your business collapse because you don’t have the right connections, or being unjustly punished for a crime you didn’t commit.

Anti-corruption campaigners also need to build constituencies. In the case of smoking, framing the problem as passive smoking meant that healthcare workers got involved, as did employees of bars and restaurants, so too parents – adding their voices to those of more obvious victims. This in turn motivated some employers to ban smoking, and forced governments to accept their responsibilities to protect vulnerable groups.

To fight corruption, too, we must involve as many stakeholders as possible. Force lawyers and real estate agents to admit their complicity in corruption – when they facilitate or turn a blind eye to money laundering. Remind people that the costs fall on them too: through soaring London house prices as corrupt tycoons buy up property, or shoddy public services as corrupt companies win contracts. And urge people to use their power to challenge corruption wherever they see it.

The Panama Papers investigation was a remarkable piece of journalism, but it was also a pioneering work of global political activism. Its effects are only just starting to be felt…

Liz David-Barrett