Italian soccer has never been short of off-field controversies, including the 1980 Totonero match-fixing scandal and Calciopoli, arguably the biggest scandal in the history of soccer which occurred in 2006 and saw club executives of Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, and Reggina accused of communicating with refereeing authorities to have specific referees officiate their respective fixtures.
The scandal resulted in Juventus being sent down to Serie B with a 30-point penalty and their 2004-05 Serie A title stripped away.
The most recent scandal to hit the headlines, not only in Italy but across the world, has seen over 40 Italian players, including many stars who play in the top-flight Serie A, involved in illegal betting.
This includes players betting on their own matches, which of course is a major offence and puts the integrity of the sport at risk. Italy is a country that has strict rules in place on betting, with athletes banned from betting on their own sports and facing up to a three-year suspension if found guilty.
Many players, including current Newcastle United midfielder Sandro Tonali, have cooperated with the investigation being carried out by the authorities. Tonali has been investigated after he placed bets on AC Milan games during his time at the club.
Several players and their agents have chosen to cooperate closely with their individual investigation in the hope that the authorities will implement a lenient sentence instead of a full three-year ban from playing soccer. Several players like Tonali have admitted to being gambling addicts, according to their agents.
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It was recently confirmed that Tonali has received a 10-month ban which will allow him to play again for Newcastle in August 2024 but ensures he will miss the UEFA Euro 2024 tournament should Italy qualify. Support from Newcastle will include plans for him to participate in gambling rehab.
Back in Italy, another top talent, Juventus midfielder Nicolo Fagioli, has received a seven-month ban for his involvement in breaching betting rules. Like Newcastle, Juventus have offered the player full support which has included developing a therapeutic plan.
Many believe that the bans handed out to the players are far too lenient and consider players betting on their own team’s games to be inexcusable even for a gambling addict.
On the other hand, there is an argument that the sporting authorities should be prioritizing helping these players recover from their addictions, rather than implementing substantial bans which could lead to fewer players in the future speaking out or seeking help regarding a potential gambling problem.
This latest Italian soccer scandal has highlighted what seems a growing trend toward gambling addiction among soccer players, especially youngsters who in many cases do not have proper levels of financial literacy.
Despite Italian soccer having very strict rules around betting, clubs in its top league have not been shy in partnering with companies that operate in the gambling industry. GlobalData’s ‘Business of Serie A 2023-24’ report highlights that there have been 17 such individual deals signed in total, worth a combined $12 million annually.
Currently, the most lucrative team deal in Serie A is Lecce’s contract with Betitaly, which serves as the club’s secondary shirt sponsor, worth $1.5 million annually across a three-year period.
Juventus, the 36-times Italian league champions, have also managed to secure a lucrative deal with a gambling company, partnering with Eurobet.live for an estimated $3.75 million across the three-year duration of the agreement.
As part of the deal, Eurobet.live is serving as Juventus’s official infotainment partner. The league has also considered it necessary to have a gambling company as part of its own sponsorship portfolio.
1XBET has been a sponsor of Serie A since the 2018-19 season and serves as an official partner of the Italian top-flight, having signed a renewed one-year deal worth $4.7 million.
This latest scandal has uncovered in Italian soccer a clear lack of education being provided to young athletes on the dangers of gambling and the severe consequences that can follow from participating in the activity.
Clubs in Italy and England have been happy to offer the support needed to help players during their suspensions to combat their gambling addictions. However, it seems that especially in Italy, not enough has been done to prevent players from gambling and the type of scandal that has occurred.
For years, fan-led campaign groups in the UK have been pushing for an end to clubs being able to partner with gambling firms. This scandal will add further fire to this campaign in the UK and elsewhere.
Many will look at soccer clubs, leagues, and federations and question whether they should be associated with gambling organizations and be comfortable receiving vast sums of money through sponsorship agreements, despite the controversial nature of an industry that can be very harmful, especially to young, vulnerable, or economically disadvantaged people and their families.
With players from top leagues across Europe being investigated for illegal betting in recent years, many would argue that due to the severity of these sporting offences, it is time for governments to step in and put legislation in place to ban sporting properties from associating themselves with gambling firms.
For these objectors, it does not seem right that major soccer properties such as Serie A should receive millions of dollars through sponsorship contracts from gambling brands which include allowing these companies to promote their brands on LED boards and even jerseys.
For soccer to be so intertwined with betting and gambling, but yet be so keen to implement long-term season-ending bans for players, does not seem morally correct or consistent.
In December 2021, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime produced a Global Report on Corruption in Sport. It stated that “numerous examples of involvement of organized crime in sport in Italy exist. These date from the 1980s to more recent times.” Italy’s parliamentary anti-mafia commission and anti-mafia police will certainly be scrutinizing the 2023 scandal for any links to organized crime at home or abroad.
It is imperative that Italian soccer learns major lessons from this scandal which has shaken the sport and takes steps to prevent a situation like this from happening again, where gambling has led players down a dangerous path to addictions and corrupt behaviour.
Globally, soccer leagues and federations must ensure that the relevant gambling prevention and education programs are put in place for all players, especially young ones coming through academies who may be naive to the threats of partaking in betting.
In the US, data and solutions firm Sportradar has launched ‘athlete wellbeing’, a program that aims to tackle the negative effect of sports betting on mental health.
The program was created for sports leagues, teams, federations, and collegiate governing bodies. Programs like this are a clear example of the type of support package that should be offered by leagues globally to ensure that player care is a priority for sports properties.
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