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PFAI claim Athlone ruling based on 'half-baked innuendo', club brands it 'outrageous'

It was announced earlier today that Igors Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan would face 12-month bans for ‘manipulating matches’.

Igors Labuts is one of the players banned for 'manipulating matches'.
Igors Labuts is one of the players banned for 'manipulating matches'.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Updated at 17.20

THE PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALLERS’ Association of Ireland has expressed its “disappointment and shock” after two Athlone players were handed 12-month bans from all football-related activities earlier today.

An Independent Disciplinary Committee found Igors Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan guilty of the following charges:

  • Rule 99: Bringing the Game into Disrepute
  • Rule 105: Manipulating Matches
  • Rule 106: Betting / Gambling

In reaction to the news, the PFAI have released a statement suggesting the ruling is unfair and describing the claim that the players in question are guilty as “half-baked innuendo.

Part of the statement, which reveals some details about how the investigation was conducted, reads as follows:

“It was with great disappointment and shock that such a result has occurred from what was a most serious charge with such flimsy evidence.

To be completely clear, this association and these players find the concept of match manipulation and anything that affects the integrity of this sport completely unacceptable and we believe it should be met with harsh punishment where it is proven with appropriate evidence.

“This is not such a case. In fact no evidence exists that these players were guilty of any such offence. They cooperated fully with the investigation and provided all phone records and any bank accounts that they had to the FAI. None of these records were used at the hearing and no suggestion has been made that they indicated any untoward behaviour.

Instead, the FAI arbitrarily convened a three-man panel to study the footage in conjunction with evidence of irregular betting patterns. No rule exists for such a panel but it was nonetheless asked to determine if these players performed in an adequate or illogical manner. Of these three, only two reached an opinion that they had while a third, though expressing reservations, said he felt there was not enough evidence. At the hearing, one of these experts did not appear and his opinion was withdrawn while another, who had expressed reservations, changed his view. A further expert was introduced, a sports consultant from Austria, who had never seen a League of Ireland match before and he refused to say whether he felt the actions of the player in question was deliberate or not.

“The players engaged four experts, including three of Ireland’s best known broadcasting pundits and another leading coach, all of whom expressed the opinion that there was not enough evidence to find the players guilty of match manipulation and that the errors in the match were typical of that standard of football.

The decision of the disciplinary panel makes no reference to the substantial expert evidence which contradicts the finding and ignores the fact that in 93.7% of all cases reported by the BFDS betting monitor where irregular betting patterns exist, no sanctions were administered.

“Quite simply, the most serious allegation that can be made against a footballer must be backed up by overwhelming evidence, not half-baked innuendo.

No player in the history of sport has been found guilty of match fixing on such little evidence. All of the comparative jurisprudence in Europe demonstrates a requirement for substantial proof in the face of such allegations. This case is an outlier.

“There is an obligation on sports authorities to treat players with fairness and not seek to scapegoat them in order to gain cheap wins in what is a serious global problem. Players must be protected against injustice by ensuring that proper procedures, fairness and natural justice applies in all matters of this nature. Although both have received a year-long ban, the effect of such a finding is of a lifetime ban as the stain of this allegation is career ending. The damage already done to these players is irreversible but they will fight to reclaim what is left of their good names.

We will appeal this decision and will take this as far as the Court of Arbitration for Sport if necessary.”

Meanwhile, the club has this evening rejected the FAI’s findings — branding them “outrageous” — and says it will support the players in their appeal.

“While the club is extremely disappointed, it is not surprised, by the decisions,” Athlone’s statement reads.

“Our position is that today’s determinations fly in the face of the evidence presented before the disciplinary committee, and are perverse.

“The club is left with the conclusion that the outcome was predetermined and reflects a face saving exercise for certain people within the game rather any forum where truth or justice could prevail.

The club would advise people to be slow to reach judgment about the players following such a flawed process.

“The scepticism expressed by the club in the ability of the “independent” disciplinary committee to apply a legal standard of proof has unfortunately come to pass.

“At this stage the club supports the player’s appeal against the findings and any avenues taken by the two, who strongly deny the charges, aimed at overturning these decisions.”

It goes on to say that the Athlone had hoped to get a fair hearing, but instead found the investigation “flimsy” and “based on opinion only”.

The statement adds: “In relation to Dragos Sfrijan who was found to have attempted to manipulate matches amounted to nothing more than a missed kick.

“Yet he has been found him guilty of manipulating the outcome of a game despite the fact he was carrying a significant and serious injury [dislocated shoulder] at the time.

“Another complaint was that no evidence of any betting profits was tendered or offered, and the amount supposedly bet on the game against Longford Town is unknown to the investigators.

“Those in the media who quote six figure sums being involved either know something UEFA and FAI say is unknown to them or have been given misleading information in a further attempt to blacken the club’s name. No evidence of a conspiracy exists.

“There was no evidence of profits been made by players or anybody related to the players notwithstanding the fact that complete disclosure have been made no such evidence existed.

It is extraordinary that the players were convicted on no more than opinion evidence that could never come close to standing up in a Court of law or any truly independent investigatory forum. Indeed no real effort was made by the FAI to involve the Gardaí in a criminal investigation.

“If they stand fully behind the verdicts and have confidence in them then we call for the immediate intervention of the Gardaí and or Europol and Interpol.

“It also appears extraordinary to use that while the FAI say it has a zero tolerance policy to match fixing that the penalty deemed to be appropriate for match fixing and manipulating the outcome of games is one of 12 months ban. To us it seems like saying that somebody is only a little bit pregnant.

“The sanctions are nonsensical, and reinforce our position that in truth no evidence exists that the players were involved in match fixing. We believe that this decision has now set a very dangerous precedent not only for football but for all sports.”

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Paul Fennessy

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