The French Second Division is not exactly a hotbed of betting activity, nor is it – in fairness - likely to attract major investors. In France, Ligue 1 has a monopolistic hold over the media’s attention. TV rights, media coverage – everything is centred around the big clubs: Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Monaco, with Bordeaux, Lille and Saint-Etienne battling amongst themselves to get their teams in the limelight when Paris Saint-Germain isn’t the feature game of the week.
But last week’s revelations about alleged match-fixing arrangements between Nimes Olympique and other clubs have shaken the French footballing world to its core.
Nimes’ major shareholder Serge Kasparian, and Club President Jean-Marc Conrad were among seven Ligue 2 club officials interviewed by police from the Central Service of Racing and Gaming (SCCJ) last week, and although they will be freed at the end of their interviewing procedure, they will still have to appear in court in Paris over the affair if the evidence is deemed substantial enough to conduct a court case. A decision is due to be taken this Thursday as to whether or not criminal charges are to be brought against the suspects. Also amongst those questioned were one of Kasparian’s sons, the President of Stade Malherbe de Caen, Jean-François Fortin, an employee of the club, and two potential agents, one of which is Michel Moulin (former director of Paris Saint-Germain and Le Mans). An eighth person, Olivier Dall’Oglio, manager of Dijon, was freed without charge. A court injunction prevents any of those named in the allegations from contacting each other during the course of the investigations.
The crux of the allegations concerns alleged attempts by relegation-haunted Nîmes to safeguard their status in the French second tier at the end of last season. The consequences of Nîmes being relegated to National (French 3rd Division) would have had a severe financial impact on the club, not least with Kasparian just about to become a new major shareholder – and he would almost certainly have not made a significant investment in the club if they had been playing semi-professional football this season.
Kasparian was originally under kept under surveillance, held and interviewed in October, relating to another investigation into a gambling ring, which he was the ringleader of. Recordings of telephone conversations involving Kasparian led police to a whole new line of enquiry, a fact confirmed by a police source to the AFP (French Press Agency). During his custody, Kasparian acknowledged the contents of the phone conversations, relating to matches involving Nîmes’ matches against Caen, CA Bastia and Dijon. CA Bastia denied any attempt by Nîmes to ask them to “throw” the match. According to the Corsican club, they had merely had a standard meal between the two sides (a common practice ahead of a game)
The main focus of the enquiry surrounds a match between Nîmes and Stade Malherbe de Caen on 13th May. A draw was the ideal result for both sides. Caen needed the point to ensure promotion to Ligue 1, Nîmes to ensure safety from relegation.
Caen swiftly moved to deny any wrongdoing whatsoever, and were outraged that the club be accused of playing any part in a match-fixing scandal. The club’s lawyer, interviewed on the Regional TV Channel France 3 Normandie, indicated that the club’s president was “totally dumbfounded” and that he was “committed to showing that he was totally innocent.”
According to the satirical weekly newspaper “Le Canard Enchaîné” - which has much the same status in France as “Private Eye” has in the UK in terms of political comment – the following conversation was recorded between the two club presidents of Nîmes and Caen:
Fortin (Caen President): “So you need a point as well?”
Conrad (Nîmes President): “Yes, we need a point…That’s about the measure of things”
Fortin: “So then, that means that if we aren’t too stupid….eh???”
Conrad (became President a month before this phone conversation) “Let’s just say that the new president… he’s not that stupid… He is even an improvement, and has brought a present for everyone”
The “Canard Enchaîné” further alleged that 24 cases of 12 bottles of wine were placed outside the Caen dressing room.
The two main footballing bodies in France, the FFF (French Football Federation) and the LFP (French Professional Football League), moved swiftly to act on the allegations.
Conrad and Fortin were banned from any football-related activities, and Conrad duly resigned, with his lawyer citing that his client “had not been forced” (to resign), but was doing it “to protect the interests of the club.” He also insisted that Conrad would be using all his forces to fight the accusations which he described as “unfair as they are unfounded.” His reaction was also classic in the sense that he underlined his “faith in the legal system.” Fortin has had to pass on the reins to former Watford striker Xavier Gravelaine, more commonly known in France as a footballing pundit since hanging up his boots in 2004. He became General Manager at Caen in July this year, but it’s doubtful he would have imagined having to take overall control of the club in those circumstances, something which may now be considered a bit of a “poisoned chalice.”
So what’s likely to happen to the teams cited in the inquest?
Nîmes are the main culprits, and there is a precendent in terms of punishment. The episode brought back memories of a match-fixing scandal involving Marseille and Valenciennes in 1993. Marseille had several directors stripped of their duties, and their title was expunged from the records. Marseille were also relegated into the Second Division (Ligue 2), so Nîmes – whose two main shareholders are directly implicated - may have an even have to face more severe repercussions.
The LFP has, within their power, the right to take measures varying from “severely reprimand” up to the “dissolution of the club”, or merely “demote within the division”, or “relegate” them. Given the gravity of the “crime”, the best that Nîmes could hope for, would be to start next season in National (the 3rd Division.)
So what of the other clubs?
Going back to the ill-fated 1993 scandal, Valenciennes’ punishment was purely having their points from the Marseille match deducted, which was sufficient to condemn them to relegation. In the current case, Caen were the only team who - allegedly – went along with the “pact”, and the deduction of the point would have been the difference between promotion to Ligue 1, where they are currently plying their trade, and staying in Ligue 2. As the LFP cannot alter a classification after the new season has started, both Nîmes and Caen can expect heavy sanctions to be imposed for next season, in the form of point deductions and fines. If Caen were to be relegated - from a sporting perspective - at the end of the current 2014-2015 season (in terms of number of points gained) they would face starting life in Ligue 2 with a negative points tally. Any clubs who are negatively impacted by the wrongdoings will be paid damages by the LFP.
At a time when current and former Marseille directors were also being investigated over fraudulent transfers, this was the last thing which French football needed. After a decent World Cup performance in Brazil, and after several years of public mistrust in its national team, there were finally signs that the country was getting behind Les Bleus once more as they prepare to host the European Championships in 2016. The French Federation will be hoping against hope that this proves to be a minor hiccup in the grand scheme of things…