A level playing field is one of those phrases bandied about frequently in business. But in sport itself, more specifically Czech sport, how level is the playing field there and what are the main flaws that can be found in its operations and functioning?
Transparency International’s local Czech branch decided to put the spotlight Tuesday on the Czech sports sector and in particular on the financing of local sports associations and clubs. The move accompanied the publication by the parent worldwide organization of its Global Corruption Report on Sport. Not surprisingly a lot of that report focused on the so-called beautiful game, football, which does not look quite so beautiful any more.
The Czech Republic hardly features at all in that global report, but many of the flaws of international and national sports associations that have so publicly been highlighted in the last year or two can find a local echo. The main global failings cover three areas: shadowy details about subsidies and grants to sporting clubs and associations; the lack of open and transparent decision making in many international, national, and local clubs and associations; and the reluctance to involve local people in many big decisions affecting them.
So let’s start with football and the fact that many players, even for top Czech league clubs not to mention those in lower divisions, have a precarious existence. Markéta Haindlová is chairwoman of the Czech Association of Football Players.
“Czech professional football players don’t have the status of employees, they are so-called self employed. As a consequence of this, there are no CBA’s. There are no pension funds or career funds so the basic social security for professionals such as these are not implemented within the Czech Republic.”
By the way, CBA’s stands for collective bargaining agreements. Many football clubs say they would like to offer better conditions but their finances are so fragile that they cannot afford to.
“Czech football players when they are at the end of their career they are going to the lower divisions in Austria or Germany.”
Perhaps even more surprising is that the Czech Republic and Slovakia appear alone in Europe to have rules on transfer payments which appear in conflict with the more than 20 year along Bosman ruling which revolutionized European football by saying that clubs and national associations could no longer hamper the free movement of players.
The 1995 ruling of the European Court of Justice set out some rules for compensating clubs that trained players. They were mainly intended for young players but the Czech rules sets no age limit for such payments and load other transfer payments on top which seriously limit players’ mobility if they are not among the big stars. Markéta Haindlová again:
“Even when the contract for the professional football players expire, still the new club has to pay to the former club a sort of training compensation which is unlimited by age. So that means and with the new regulations for transfers that will be applicable for the new season that we will have two types of training compensation.”
She says the Czech Football Association in its latest proposed change of rules has said it is willing to abolish transfer payments for player older than 33, but most outfield players, perhaps not goalkeepers, careers are already mostly over by that age. The Czech rules result in a rather strange situation, not so dissimilar from the Communist era, when players were allowed to cash in in the West but only in the twilight of their careers.
“The outcome of this situation is that we have many players coming from Eastern European countries that are basically coming for free and then the Czech football players when they are at the end of their career they are going to the lower divisions in Austria or Germany.“
Haindlová says the transfer demands apply, except of course when Czech clubs agree between themselves that they can be waived.
“Your know, it’s a cult of anti-trust. I would say that some of the clubs have a sort of cooperation which is like everywhere. They don’t ask for between themselves for this so-called training compensation but on the other hand when the player has a problem with the club or the club is from another group then they are asking for the training compensation. This is why we put this also to the Czech competition authorities because I think it is in clear conflict with the competition law.”
The players’ association is currently challenging the working of the Czech transfer fees at the local competition office. The complaint has been studied for over the last year. Meanwhile, over to the Czech Football Association. While some of its internal rules might look a bit shaky, it is proud of one thing and that’s the fight against match fixing and sports fixing where criminal groups try to fix not just the final results but details like the timing of goals scored and conceded and yellow and red cards delivered.
In fact, the Czech association teamed up with what amounts to a massive Swiss number crunching operation, first put at the service of betting companies, which pinpoints anomalies in betting trends and the sporting encounters themselves. Martin Synecký is the Security and Integrity Officer at the Czech Football Association.
“In the Czech Football Association we have quite a unique system, it was founded in 2008. We have signed a contract with the Swiss sports company, Sportradar, and that monitors all the matches of the first, premier league, the second league, and the women’s league as well as the Czech FA Cup and the matches of the national team. In case there are some suspicious matches or some suspicious consequences of the match they inform us immediately and in the case that it is match information we can, for example, change the referees or delegates. If it is afterwards, we can go and investigate the suspicious match.”
“In case there are some suspicious matches or some suspicious consequences of the match they inform us immediately.”
The system highlighted a suspected betting syndicate in 2013 with the result that 13 people were detained by police and are now facing charges. Since then, the suspicious activity has died down.
“In the last two years there have been a very low number of hits and in case of some hit, it is not in the first league or second league but in the junior league which is very problematic because you have very young players and they can be involved very easily. They could be half paid and half blackmailed.”
A similar cooperation with Sportradar is now being looked at by the Czech Ice Hockey Association.
The main manipulators are likely to be the massive betting rings operating out of Asia, for whom even the not very headline making Czech sports market could be a source of illicit gains. Martin Synecký again:
“Normally we have reliable information that the organisers are coming from Asia and the betting companies responsible for this are not in Europe because Europe has very strict rules for betting and all these companies are from Asia, Asian betting companies.”
The local branch of Transparency International takes a broader view of the Czech sports scene. It says local sporting associations, the same as international ones, have long resisted anyone telling them what to do, often insisting that they will sort out any issues “within the family.” The result is pretty clear, or rather pretty opaque. Radim Bureš is the programme director of TI’s local branch:
“The main problem is the general lack of transparency of the who sporting sector and the misuse of funds, either state funds or generally public funds but also the fund to some extent received from parents of young players. Corruption is only a small part of this but the lack of transparency and the lack of a clear legal framework is the main problem as we see it.”
But there are now demands for the sporting clubs and associations to be more accountable, especially from some of their key sources of funding such as the Ministry of Education. This year Czech state funding of sport is likely to total 4 billion crowns and is set to rise to 6 billion crowns in 2017. One of the things that the ministry is demanding is a register of how many member Czech sporting associations actually have so that funds can be better allocated accordingly.
The Czech Football Association, which has gone along with the demands, says that electronic registration of club members has resulted in a drop of around a third in the overall members claimed in the recent past by clubs. More members usually meant more funds, with the dead and half dead sometimes listed as active players.
Radim Bureš says things are going in the right direction but the pace of change will not likely be setting any records.
“Well the changes are there but they are rather slow. It is difficult to change the internal sports environment because it is even more resistant than other sectors. We welcome the activities of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. I think the registry of the active professional or semi-professional sportsmen is very important. The increased supervision and sound control of public money going to sport that has been declared by the ministry is also an important step.”
One area where Transparency International wants to focus this year is on funding of sport by major cities and Czech regions. Past figures put such funding at twice the level of central state payouts to sporting clubs and associations though figures for the last year or two are lacking.
“It is difficult to change the internal sports environment because it is even more resistant than other sectors.”
And Radim Bureš believes there are suggestions that a fair deal of corruption could be present at the local level.
“First of all, there are big difference between the cities and regions in the transparency of providing local subsidies. There have been several cases of city councilors who take some advantage of the offers provided by the clubs such as being taken to important matches abroad and we would like to look at this issue as well because there are high suspicions that those who participate in these nice missions abroad would be more willing to increase the relevant amount for the club or group.”