A few weeks ago, things seemed to be going perfectly for Newcastle United and their new star midfielder Sandro Tonali.
The club’s 55 million pound ($67m) signing had scored minutes into his Premier League debut against Aston Villa. The 23-year-old Italian also featured in the Champions League against his former club Milan, helping the Magpies pick up a point at the historic San Siro stadium.
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But earlier this month, news broke that Tonali was being investigated by Italian prosecutors over illegal gambling, and on Thursday, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) announced that Tonali would be banned from football for 10 months for breaching rules on betting on matches in Italy.
That means he will likely miss the rest of the club season for Newcastle United, as well as Euro 2024 should Italy qualify.
Tonali is just the highest-profile player in a wider betting scandal that is rocking Italian football.
The scandal broke on October 11 when the Italian media reported that Juventus’s Nicolo Fagioli, a 22-year-old midfielder, was being investigated by prosecutors in Turin for using illegal betting platforms to gamble on football matches.
On October 13, Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that Tonali and Nicolo Zaniolo, on loan at Aston Villa from Turkish club Galatasaray, were questioned by police the day before in relation to illegal betting. The duo had to leave Italy’s training camp for Euro 2024 qualifiers against Malta and England.
Fagioli later said in a deposition to federal prosecutors that Tonali had introduced him to an illegal betting platform. During his hearing, Fagioli also said he had been suffering from a gambling addiction for about a year and that he had debts of about three million euros ($3.18m), but said he had never gambled on Juventus games.
The Bianconeri player accepted a seven-month ban in a settlement with the FIGC in which he will also undergo at least six months of therapy and will pay a fine of 12,500 euros ($13,240).
Tonali meanwhile has admitted to betting on Milan and Brescia games during his stints at those clubs, which has brought stiffer sanctions, and has said he has a gambling addiction.
Zaniolo, who played for Roma at the time in question, has maintained that he has never bet on football illegally and will appear in front of prosecutors on Friday.
Italian football commentator David Ferrini, speaking to Al Jazeera before the Tonali ban, said a fine and a seven-month ban for Fagioli were warranted.
“Something needed to be done and precedents must be set in order to encourage those with similar conditions to stop immediately,” Ferrini said. “Betting by professional athletes is ruining sport, affecting the outcomes of matches. Seeing as though the reward for betting is financial, the punishment should also be financial.”
But he said it was right that Juventus would continue to pay his wages and allow him full access to their training facilities so that Fagioli feels supported in his recovery.
“He’s so young and the punishment shouldn’t be so harsh as to dissuade him from playing or pushing him over the edge mentally,” he said.
The scandal may be set to spread amid accusations that other players at Serie A clubs have also been involved in illegal gambling, but this is far from a problem afflicting just Italian football.
Recent scandals are also renewing criticism about football’s failure to address the problem or care for young players with gambling problems, as well as its hypocrisy around gambling, especially as the sport is now swollen with advertising money from betting companies.
Football’s gambling problem
Many high-profile footballers have spoken out about the deep gambling culture in football and many have spoken about their own struggles with gambling. Organisations such as the Professional Footballers’ Association said they have seen an increase in players seeking help with gambling.
Meanwhile, gambling companies have become an increasingly prevalent and aggressive presence in the sport in recent decades.
Shirts and stadiums are often plastered with gambling adverts, which also feature heavily in media coverage of football.
Last season, eight out of 20 Premier League teams had betting companies as front-of-shirt sponsors, worth a collective 60 million pounds ($73m) a year, including Tonali’s new club, Newcastle United – although they now have a new, non-gambling sponsor this season.
Brentford renewed their partnership with a betting sponsor some weeks after their striker Ivan Toney was diagnosed with a gambling addiction and suspended for eight months in May for breaching FA betting rules.
Two other teams also had gambling sponsorship on their shirtsleeves last season.
Zaniolo’s team, Aston Villa, announced a front-of-shirt gambling sponsor in advance of this season.
Serie A meanwhile has long lobbied against a ban on gambling-related advertising introduced by the government at the end of 2018, when Serie A clubs had 15 sponsorship deals with betting companies, arguing that it is depriving the league of essential revenue.
But loopholes still allow clubs to team up with betting companies. Fagioli’s club, Juventus, has signed several sponsorship deals with betting companies, including one in August.
Nima Tavallaey Roodsari, an Italian football journalist, pundit and co-host of the Italian football podcast, believes Serie A should not accept advertising or sponsorship from gambling companies.
“I do think it is hypocritical that the league promotes betting … and then loses its mind over betting when certain people do it,” she said.
“I understand there’s always limitations and if you are in finance, you can’t bet on the information you have on the stock market. At the same time, if they’re taking the money and with the explosion of this addiction all over [European football], it seems very irresponsible. They should stay away from betting money altogether.”
While the Premier League has announced that front-of-shirt betting sponsorship will end by the 2026/27 season, it is arguable whether the move will change much. Clubs could still feature betting sponsorship on sleeves and training tops.
Some have criticised the punishments given to footballers breaking gambling rules and argued for more understanding of gambling addiction.
“Footballers are human and if they are suffering from addiction they deserve empathy and support, not lengthy bans,” Gambling With Lives, a charity based in the UK, told the PA news agency.
“Sending someone addicted to gambling into this environment is like sending an alcoholic to work in a pub. If you force young footballers to endorse addictive products then don’t be surprised if they use them.
“Ending all gambling advertising and sponsorship in football, including all parts of the shirt and in every stadium, will help to prevent harm to those on and off the pitch.”
‘We sympathise with Tonali’
While Tonali’s absence will be a huge blow for Newcastle United, as well as personally, club boss Eddie Howe says the club fully supports him.
“We will throw our arms around Sandro and protect him and try to give him the love and support he needs to find solutions to the problems he’s had,” Howe said last week. “We see him being part of our team for many years. We are committed to him long term.”
Jacque Talbot, a football journalist and a Newcastle United fan, said that Magpies fans are also generally supportive of the midfielder and his struggles with gambling addiction might be relatable to some.
“There is no ill will on our part about what he’s done. We look forward to having Tonali back for next season and it seems fans are going out their way to lend him support any chance they get,” Talbot said.
“I think there is a huge gambling culture in the UK and a lot of people will know someone who’s been sucked into it and become addicted. It’s probably why we sympathise with Tonali and what he’s going through.”
Talbot said a ban on Tonali was right but said there is “huge hypocrisy” in football regarding the gambling industry and called for empathy for players facing addiction.
“Though some will say he’s rich and being greedy, I’d argue that no one in their right mind typically does something like this when the ramifications could be career-destroying,” he said. “It sounds like an addiction to me.”
Tonali must also attend treatment sessions for problematic gambling and give a series of talks about his experience over a further eight-month period as part of a deal with the FIGC.
Ferrini, meanwhile, believed that there needed to be an in-depth investigation in Italy into how the gambling industry has widely penetrated sports in general.
“I remember a time when cigarette brands sponsored teams and then we moved away from that,” he said. “Without totally sanitising football, there needs to be further investigation into the true nature of professional sportspeople and illegal gambling overall in sport, not just football.”
Roodsari believes football is unlikely to fully turn its back on lucrative partnerships with gambling companies, even after the latest revelations.
“I don’t think anything will come from it,” she said. “Because the people in charge won’t let it happen.”
Source: Al Jazeera