“A hammer blow for the image of Maltese football” is how MFA general secretary Angelo Chetcuti described the decision by Uefa to ban six U-21 national team players for match-fixing offences. The case was connected to home qualifying matches against Montenegro and Czech Republic two years ago.

Kyle Cesare and Emanuel Briffa were both handed life bans after being found guilty of acting in a manner to influence the result of the matches.

Luke Montebello, Llywelyn Cremona, Ryan Camenzuli and Samir Arab were suspended between one and two years for failing to report the case to the Union of European Football Associations.

All six, it should be borne in mind, are budding footballers looking ahead to a career and they evidently were quite promising for, otherwise, they would not have been selected for the national squad.

Though what they were sanctioned for remains wrong however you look at it, a distinction would still need to be made between players who were accomplices and others who did not report the matter to football authorities as they are bound to do by regulations.

Match fixing is a malaise that is slowly but surely tarnishing the image of football and it is evident those who stand to benefit financially from such malpractices are trying to ‘get them young’.

In the circumstances, all should pause and reflect deeply on whether enough is being done by stakeholders to keep criminals away from football pitches, training grounds, nurseries and clubs.

International match-fixing ploys are usually masterminded by criminals who stop at nothing to achieve their aim. There were instances when players were even killed after divulging information on football bribery.

Thus, the football authorities – local, European and global – need to ensure adequate protection is extended to those who come forward with such information.

On the home front, one is justified in wondering how effective the police can be in this regard, especially in view of the ensuing controversy about a former official of the government’s anti-money laundering unit who fears for his life and is even carrying a gun to protect himself.

Indeed, it emerged in the U-21 players’ case that one of them could not be assured by the police that he will be given protection if he blew the whistle.

The Malta Football Association, through its integrity officer, Franz Tabone, and the Malta Football Players Association are striving to fight this problem through educational campaigns and other initiatives. However, the State authorities must be four-square behind them and give them all necessary support and tools if they are to succeed.

A task force against corruption was set up about two years ago and a law contemplating stiffer penalties for match-fixing is in the pipeline. One hopes that protection to whistle-blowers will be provided for too.

Football is undoubtedly the most favourite sport on the island with hundreds of children dreaming of becoming professional players one day. They deserve to be assured of a clean environment.

Match fixing is often and widely condemned but talk is easy and, therefore, a more concerted effort by all those involved is needed if corruption in sport is to be challenged head-on.

It is the responsibility of all stakeholders to ensure that criminals are shown the red card and that, truly, the best team wins in football.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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