By Brian Homewood
BERNE, Dec 9 (Reuters) - The match-fixing threat to football could be greatly reduced by the surprisingly simple expedient of making sure that players are paid on time, experts on the subject say.
Although footballers are generally assumed to be fabulously rich, that is only the case for a select few. The vast majority are ordinary salary earners with only a short career in which to build their financial future.
With many clubs outside the big five leagues of England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy in financial difficulties, it is not uncommon for players to have to wait months to get paid.
"Footballers are the victims of match-fixing," said the international players' union FIFPro in a recent statement. "They are never the initiator. Players are at the bottom of the match-fixing chart.
"To prevent the match-fixers from getting to the players, the entire football world must create a safe environment for the players.
"That should guarantee that the footballers cannot be found in a situation where he can be tempted to get involved with match-fixing."
FIFPro has repeatedly complained that players are paid late, or not at all, especially in Eastern Europe. In August, the union also warned its members to think twice before accepting contracts to play for clubs in Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.
"Far too many players - in Eastern Europe more than 40 percent - are being paid late or not at all and many clubs are struggling financially or go bankrupt," said Bobby Barnes, head of FIFPro's Europe division on Monday. "Football must find a systemic response to this."
Last week the Argentine Players' Union voted that its members would not play in the top flight next year unless outstanding wages were paid by Jan. 4.
FIFPro said that players at Colon, All Boys and Quilmes were all struggling to get paid and that the former had refused to play a match at Atletico Rafaela last month in protest.
FIFPro argues that such problems make players easy pickings for the criminal gangs who make their money from manipulating games and betting on the outcome.
Declan Hill, an investigative journalist who has published two books on match-fixing, pointed out that whereas clubs might dally and delay over paying players, match-fixers could be relied upon to cough up immediately.
"You don't get these guys (to refuse to fix) by appealing to their ethics," he told the Play the Game conference in Aarhus, Denmark.
"When Dan Tan says that he will pay you, he actually will - which is more than can be said for many football officials," added Hill, referring to the Singaporean national also known as Tan Seet Eng who is widely considered as the mastermind behind a global match-fixing organisation and is wanted by Italian police.
Hill said it was also wrong to suggest that young players were more likely to get involved in match fixing.
"Young people are the last people that fix," he said. Often the younger players are left out of the fixing process."
Former Croatian player Mario Cizmek, banned for life for his part in a match-fixing scandal, told the same conference in Denmark how he had become involved.
Cizmek, playing for NK Sesvete at the time, said the players had not been paid for 14 months when they were invited to take part in match-fixing.
"We had no money, and we no longer spoke about training or football, but only about how we were going to survive. Every other day we would ask whether we would be paid," he said.
"This was the situation that was the best for the criminals - they could create their own success on the backs of others."
Once involved, it was impossible to get out, he said.
Football authorities' response to match-fixing has been based on "zero tolerance" for offenders and early warning systems to alert them to unusual betting patterns which could indicate that a match has been manipulated.
They also warn that they are dealing with something outside their control which can only be combated with the help of police and judicial authorities.
"The most serious threat comes from outside the world of football, where organised crime networks are infiltrating the sport in an attempt to corrupt players, referees and officials in order to manipulate matches for betting purposes," said FIFA in a document published in October.
"Court decisions at various national levels have highlighted significant legal loopholes that hamper courts in their attempts to sentence fixers, allowing the latter to operate in a low-risk, high-profit environment without fear of legal sanction."
However, the five-page document, while emphasising that there would be "zero tolerance" for players caught match-fixing, did not at any point mention the financial difficulties that many footballers face.
Emmanuel Medeiros, president of the European Professional Football Leagues association, said the wage problem was being addressed.
"There is a very strong commitment from all members of the European football family to take action to stop this problem," he told Reuters.
"It's not only a problem for the players and for the integrity of the game, it's an issue of loyal competition among the clubs." (Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Justin Palmer)