Didi Hamann is the latest high-profile footballer to confess to a serious gambling problem, admitting that he realised his addiction had got out of hand when he bet – and lost – a quarter of a million pounds on a game of cricket being played halfway across the world.
The former Germany international eventually realised he was ruining his life, as did Stoke City winger Matthew Etherington who confessed to having lost around £1.5million over the years on horses, dogs, cards and pretty much anything that moved. Etherington admitted his wages would sometimes be gone by the time he got off the team coach, after playing cards with his team-mates. He is not alone – there are many household names who have been in the same position, and we should prepare ourselves for many more stories of overpaid footballers blowing their vast fortunes in ‘the bookies.’
Paul Merson summed up the hopeless gambler’s lot best when he described the worst depths of his addiction during his Arsenal days, when he would sit up late at night in his hotel room before games, betting on any sport that was on TV, not even knowing the rules or who the teams were. Like many gamblers, Merson said if there were two flies crawling up a pane of glass he would want to bet on which one reached the top first. He also admitted gambling was the biggest problem he had when he memorably went public with his drink, drugs and betting addictions in 1994.
Astonishingly, after almost losing his house in recent years because of gambling debts, he was signed up by bookmakers Betfair for a PR campaign.
And therein lies a huge problem for football, and sport in general. Sport has dangerously close ties with gambling, relying heavily on the money it brings in through sponsorship and advertising, and in turn providing the events that create hundreds of betting markets for bookmakers, whether legal or illegal, throughout the world.
It is a relationship that borders on the unhealthy, and the circumstances are ripe for corruption, as we have seen so many times. Football may not have as big a problem with corruption as cricket, for example, but nobody really knows the extent of it. And it would be foolish to assume that it is only widespread in the Far East or Eastern Europe – corruption in football is on our doorstep.
So what do we do about it? Try to limit the amount of gambling in sport, put a block on betting companies sponsoring sporting events, the way cigarettes and alcohol have been barred?
No, football has decided to do the opposite, and welcome the bookmakers in with open arms. A daily sports business bulletin dropped into my inbox the other day. One story expressed FIFA’s grave concerns about gambling and corruption, the next story celebrated a bookmaker’s sponsorship of the FA Cup – the most revered and treasured trophy in football. Can you imagine a cigarette company sponsoring the proposed new royal yacht?
And next to Hamann’s shocking revelations about his gambling habits was that particular newspaper’s daily betting column, happily exhorting readers to spend their money at the bookies.
It is difficult to follow sport without being bombarded by messages urging you to gamble away your money. There would be a national outcry if children’s TV programmes were to be sponsored bookmakers or had gambling adverts in every break, yet that is precisely what happens with sports TV and radio programming, which is hugely popular with children (as I know only too well).
Are we making it too easy for our children to grow up believing that gambling is acceptable? Parents and teachers warn against the dangers of drink and drugs, but do we do anything to warn kids or each other off the dangers of gambling. I know from bitter personal experience that a gambling addiction can be far more destructive than a drink or drug habit, having had an employee bring our company and a dozen or so livelihoods to the brink of extinction with his actions. Police and lawyers have told me that it is ‘worryingly common’ for people with access to company funds to have gambling addictions. After all, it is so easy to place a bet now.
But the hard part is paying for it. All my working life I have known people who were penniless within hours of being paid, whether they worked in advertising, the media, or on a building site. Now we know footballers come into that category, too, even if they are earning more in a week than many people earn in a year.
I think the stories we hear are the tip of an iceberg, and football is lurching towards a disaster of Titanic proportions. I hope I am wrong.
Gerry Cox is one of England’s leading football writers and former Chairman of the Football Writers’ Association. He has covered well over 1000 matches including four World Cups and four European Championships. He currently runs the Hayters Sports reporting agency and writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.
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