Last month the Daily Telegraph revealed that members of an alleged betting syndicate had been arrested on suspicion of fixing games in English football. Since then yet more have followed after the National Crime Agency acted on information passed on by the Sun on Sunday.
A Whitehall summit with five leading British sports and representatives from the Premier League, the Football League and the Gambling Commission was called yesterday. The FA has indicated it would consider signing up to a cross-sport anti-corruption body. A debate is being had. How can the integrity of the game be better protected?
It was while reading about and listening to the various proposals that my mind turned to Simone Farina. You probably should have heard of him by now. If not then that tells its own story: his actions haven’t got the coverage they deserve.
Farina is 31. He was born in Rome in 1982, the year Italy won the World Cup with goals from, among others, Paolo Rossi. Pablito, as he became known after his heroics in Spain, had made a stunning return to the Azzurri following the two-year suspension he had served for his part in the Totonero betting scandal in 1980.
Over three decades later, another one would send shockwaves through the game in Italy, Operazione Last Bet. Farina would be caught up in it and emerge a hero. He was a modest no-name footballer, a centre-back who spent nearly all his career marshalling the defences of clubs in the lower tiers of the Italian game.
Two years ago almost to the week that the Telegraph broke its story about match rigging in England, Farina had been preparing for Gubbio’s fourth round Coppa Italia tie with Cesena when he started to receive text messages from an unknown number. “How you doing?” they asked. “It’s Zampe’.” At first Farina chose to ignore them but they were persistent. He finished training one day to find a series of missed calls.
They were from Alessandro Zamperini, a former teammate of his with whom he’d played in Roma’s academy. Zamperini claimed to be on his way to Gubbio to sell his car and wondered if Farina fancied a catch-up while he was in town. It seemed innocent enough. Why not? So they arranged to meet for a coffee one morning at a local patisserie. Once there, however, Farina soon realised the reunion was a ruse.
He was offered €200,000 to split between himself, his team’s goalkeeper and two defenders to guarantee a Gubbio defeat by an ‘over’ scoreline. For a player in the lower divisions of any country, not just Italy’s where wages are low and not always paid on time or in full, the temptation was obvious. But Farina flat out refused. Zamperini was undeterred. Do him this favour and it could be returned. He asked to be put in touch with Gubbio’s director of sport. If the club risked relegation at the end of the season and required a result to stay up, then that could be arranged.
Farina had heard enough. He made his excuses pretending he had an urgent appointment and left. As he did Zamperini raised his finger to his lips. The inference was clear: Don’t talk about this to anybody. But Farina wasn’t about to let himself be intimidated. He went to the authorities that afternoon and told them everything. Another player, Fabio Pisacane had done so earlier in the year after he had been approached to help fix a game between former club Lumezzane and Ravenna. No one else did. They were the exceptions.
Giancarlo Abete, the president of the Italian Football Federation, the FIGC, thanked them but added: “We mustn’t commit the mistake of making a normal act pass for an extraordinary act.” Absolutely, but what Farina and Pisacane did wasn’t normal. The ‘done thing’ would have been to look the other way, seek refuge behind the wall of omerta, forget about it and pretend nothing happened. That would have been the easy thing to do. What they did was a lot harder than you might think.
While Farina insisted: “I haven’t done anything special,” it was certainly recognised as such. “Farina and Pisacane are role models for young people,” tweeted FIFA president Sepp Blatter. “Courage in denouncing match-fixing is an example for all.” He would stand beside Farina at the 2012 Ballon d’Or ceremony as he named him a Hope ambassador.
Cesare Prandelli also made the grand gesture of inviting Farina and Pisacane to Italy’s Coverciano training camp as the team prepared for Euro 2012. “It’s an invitation to show our solidarity, our support and our gratitude,” he said. “Simone did his duty, but at times doing so takes courage and runs risks. Farina has shown great inner strength. His example is a message of hope. Today everyone is saying so but in a few months’ time Simone might find himself alone again.”
Prandelli’s words were prophetic. Before the beginning of last season, Gubbio released a statement to communicate that Farina’s contract had been rescinded by mutual agreement. Even though he insisted “there’s nothing dark behind the termination of my contract,” the suspicion was that he was being made an outcast. There was talk of an offer from Ascoli. But nothing came of it.
“I find it incredible that a player of only 30 who has had a dignified career in the Lega Pro and played some games in Serie B last season can’t even find a team on a free transfer and the minimum wage,” said FIGC vice-president Demetrio Albertini.
It reminded La Repubblica’s columnist Gianni Mura of the treatment of Jacques Glassmann, the former Valenciennes defender and recipient of a FIFA fair-play award, who blew the whistle on Marseille offering money to go easy on them ahead of their European Cup final against Milan and Ligue 1 title decider against Paris Saint-Germain in May 1993. His contract at Valenciennes wasn’t renewed. And so Glassmann went on to play for amateur club US Mauberge before finishing his playing days on the distant island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. “I hope that it’s not like this,” Mura wrote.
Farina went to England instead. In September last year Aston Villa made him a community coach. He works with kids between eight and 12. Ron Noble, a friend of Villa’s owner Randy Lerner and secretary general of Interpol, the organisation that awarded Farina a Commemorative Medal for his contribution to crime prevention and law enforcement said: “Simone is a football defender both on and off the pitch. He showed integrity and courage by turning down and reporting to the police an attempted bribe to corrupt the outcome of a match.
“He needs to become just as important a role model for our youth like stars such as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Corruption in sport is a very complex problem for which there is no quick fix. In addition to strong enforcement efforts, all those linked to the ‘beautiful game’ must place a great emphasis on prevention.”
If I were the Premier League or the Football League, I’d consider giving Farina a call. Why not involve him in their efforts? The FIGC recently made him an advisor within their youth sector, maybe the FA should too. He’s got something to teach. His experience is useful and the values he upholds are those everyone in the game should aspire to keep. Farina can be an educator of the next generation. He’s right under our noses. You just hope he gets noticed and isn’t forgotten about.