Pitchside

Spot-fixing athletes cost fans more than just money

Pitchside Europe

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Sam Sodje stands accused of spot fixing

The news that several moderately well-known footballers who ply their trade in Britain have been arrested in connection with probes into spot-fixing has triggered the expected reactions from most fans.

You know: the shock, the outrage, the moral crusading. And this isn’t to say that it’s unjustified, either.

If any sportsman exploits their fame and status to corrupt a game that is supposed to be a safe haven from the murkiness of normal life, and all in return for a quick payday on top of already-above-average earnings, they deserve the total disdain of society.

There is, however, a wave of emotion that hits many fans after any given instance of spot-fixing comes to the fore – especially when it comes to something followed as militantly as football.

That feeling is pretty much exclusive to those fans who have spent a reasonable amount of time taking an active interest in a player who seemingly goes on to be caught in the act of corruption.

It’s not very easy putting this feeling into words, but after Monday’s revelations I am going to try.

Among the names implicated are brothers Sam, Akpo and Steven Sodje. The situation looks most grim for Sam who was caught on camera apparently bragging about his ability to pick up a well-timed yellow or red card.

Because of this, I now know first-hand how a supporter feels it turns out that a player they have watched week-in - a player supposed striving to bring their club a better future with wins, successes, promotions, trophies - actually had something else in mind the whole time.

Allow me to set the scene. Before I arrived at Yahoo!-Eurosport, I travelled up and down the country, covering football matches for a multitude of newspapers and websites. My longest-running assignment, by far, was reporting on Charlton and Millwall for South London publications.

As a Charlton fan, however, it was impossible not to feel whisked along for the rollercoaster ride with the players and staff I had to speak to every week and the fans with whom I shared trains, cabs and supporter coaches, whenever I was assigned an Addicks game.

This period of my career coincided with one of the darkest spells in the club’s history: consigned to the third tier by their second relegation in three years with enough debts to make re-investment impossible and a host of rival teams eager to take the ‘scalp’ of a former Premier League side. Those who followed the club along with me endured three years of such despair, a despair that will be all too familiar to even bigger armies of fans from clubs such as Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United, to name but a few.

Yes, you’d want to fume at your own players whenever they slumped to defeat at that level; but you also found yourself empathising with the men on the pitch, even when you were livid at their performance.

After all, they were playing at that level for a reason too. A renaissance for the club also represents a personal bounce-back for these players, who have either similarly fallen from the top flight or who fear their dreams of playing on the big stages will never come to pass.

Every goal means more when a team is in that situation. Every one conceded hurts extra. Every yellow and red card, every premature substitution, every injury: it all feels like the club’s future depends on it.

If I felt this way, you can be damn sure the feeling was magnified among the real fans, the ones not there because it was their job but because they had spent their hard-earned cash to make the journey.

Eventually, for most fanbases, that light at the end of the tunnel arrives and the club finds themselves stable, sometimes even thriving. Look at Southampton.

And then you find out that during those tough times, some of those players wearing the colours and the badge you will wear to the grave may well have deliberately been getting themselves booked or sent off for a quick extra payday, one that may have cost an entire football club – your club – millions…

Well, that’s where the feeling of moral outrage climbs to a whole new level.

Sam Sodje picked up three first-half red cards during Charlton Athletic’s worst period in three decades. At the time it seemed only as if his passion and desire to help the side were boiling over in an unfortunate manner.

Brother Akpo, meanwhile, was a polarising figure during his time at The Valley. One minute he was a last-gasp match-winner; the next he was doing the team's cause more harm than good. We could never work out why.

Suddenly, you find yourself doubting everything you saw. Maybe even what you continue to see. It makes you constantly ask: who else? Who’s next to be arrested?

Sam represented Stevenage, Brentford, Reading, West Brom, Leeds, Notts County, Portsmouth and others. Akpo played for Huddersfield, Darlington, Port Vale, Sheffield Wednesday, Hibernian, Preston, Scunthorpe, Tranmere and more. That's a lot of fans who'll be recalling their times at their club and questioning their commitment.

I can only express what I went through as a Charlton supporter. I imagine the fans of all the above clubs and more are having similar reactions.

Followers of teams such as Portsmouth and Darlington will feel particularly sick – their clubs have been through enough already as it is thanks to poor decisions and selfishness of those entrusted to do better.

Every time a sportsman sells their integrity for a top-up on their considerable (sometimes much more than considerable) earnings, they spit in the face of anyone who made an emotional investment in something that is supposed to inspire generations, not render them jaded and cynical.

They may view it as a victimless crime, but I doubt any athlete who participates in match-fixing realises that when they enter such a dark world, they’re dragging legions of football fans down there with them.

Liam Happe | Follow on Twitter

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