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.

Postscript

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

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