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Integrity breaches in Italian football need to be handled with care

A wide-ranging investigation into the gambling-related activities of several Italian footballers has become the second high-profile betting integrity story to dominate the sport’s headlines so far this year, but while the authorities are seemingly being quick to act upon any breaches of regulations, there also needs to be a balance in terms of the support network made available to all involved.

Sandro Tonali of Newcastle United is currently cooperating with an investigation led by the Italian Prosecutor’s Office and the Italian football federation (FIGC) and Aston Villa’s Nicolo Zaniolo last week joined him in withdrawing from the Italy squad due to the same inquiries, while Juventus midfielder Nicolo Fagioli has this week received a seven-month FIGC ban for breaching their betting regulations. It all comes six months after the English Football Association issued an eight-month ban and £50,000 fine to Brentford and England forward Ivan Toney for 232 breaches of their betting rules.

Michelle Evans, EPIC’s senior sports partnerships manager, hails from a background in player welfare and communications in professional sport, so she has countless first-hand experiences of seeing the athlete behind the headline.

Here, she explains why rehabilitation has to co-exist with the retribution for any offences, and also shares her hopes for an increased level of preventative education to keep future recurrences to the absolute minimum.

The stories in recent days regarding betting irregularities among a number of Italian players are not headlines we wish to see, but before we pass judgment on the rights and wrongs of any offences that may have been committed, we also have to look beyond the alleged breaches and consider the circumstances that may have led to them taking place.

The most important factor here is the wellbeing of the players involved. We can’t stress enough the importance of having strong networks, both professionally and personally, around the players or anyone experiencing gambling harm.

Before the findings of the investigations have even concluded, the media exposure of the case means that all the players cited have already faced an incredibly challenging period, whether or not the likes of Sandro Tonali and Nicolo Zaniolo are found to have contravened the well-known rules around betting within football.

As with Ivan Toney, if they do get found guilty, there is the likelihood of lengthy bans for both players and it is crucial the football family wraps its arms around both players giving them the best, and most appropriate, support to steer them through this tumultuous period.

In the case of Tonali, his agent has intimated that the player is in the grips of a gambling addiction for which he is currently seeking professional help, and Italy’s famous pink sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport have claimed that certification confirming he has a gambling disorder has been submitted to prosecutors as a mitigating factor for consideration if any charges are forthcoming.

What we need to remember in cases such as these is that footballers are people, they are vulnerable human beings who make mistakes. When this happens they, like the rest of us, need empathy, support and guidance. Instead they are often held up to public scrutiny and face a de facto trial in the media above and beyond any action that they face from the relevant authorities. We may never know the finer details of these current cases, but there will forever be an asterix against every player’s career and the stigma that comes with it, whether or not their actions merited sanctions.

The question that many people will ask in the case of successful footballers at the peak of their profession is why gambling is an attraction for them when their career could or should be providing every adrenaline rush or personal achievement that life could throw at them?

Research tells us that athletes are six times more likely than the general population to experience gambling harm or disorder – with our own programme facilitators who have been in this situation suggesting numerous factors like natural risk-taking natures, competitive spirit, excess free time or a need to fill a void during periods of injury – so the question we should be asking is ‘how do we protect them?’.

As more cases involving footballers come to the fore, it is clear there needs to be a greater understanding of gambling harm and its repercussions. A comprehensive awareness and education programme rolled out across all levels of sport, not just football, is required to prevent these cases becoming regular occurrences. We need to be proactive rather than reactive in our approach with an education programme rolled out not only to athletes and coaches, but also to those at administration and executive level within clubs as well as across national governing bodies, equipping them with the knowledge to protect themselves and make informed decisions.

These were conclusions drawn by a panel of experienced sports professionals in the release of our inaugural white paper, released this year with the guidance of our Pro Sport Advisory Board. The ‘Gambling Harm Prevention in Sport Review’ is essential reading for leaders in the world of sport who want to protect the biggest assets in their organisation – their people – and it is available now for those who wish to stay on the front foot with an issue that is always likely to co-exist with professional sport, but with the right level of prevention and guidance, can be mitigated before it escalates to the level that the current high-profile cases in professional football may reach.

Michelle Evans

Senior Sports Partnerships Manager

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