Sport weekly: Sandro Tonali and football’s gambling problem

Newcastle United star banned for 10 months over illegal betting, but critics point to football’s ‘hypocritical’ relationship with gambling.

Sandrio Tonali claps while wearing a Newcastle United kit
Tonali is set to miss the rest of the season and Euro 2024 over illegal betting while playing in Italy [File: Antonio Calanni/AP Photo]

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There are many reasons why footballers struggle with gambling problems, but playing in stadiums and in shirts plastered with betting company logos hardly helps.

“Sending someone addicted to gambling into this environment is like sending an alcoholic to work in a pub,” The Big Step campaign, part of the Gambling With Lives charity, said this week, calling for an end to all gambling advertising and sponsorship in the game.

“If you force young footballers to endorse addictive products then don’t be surprised if they use them.”

That statement, given to the PA news agency, came after Newcastle United’s star midfielder Sandro Tonali was banned from football for 10 months for illegal betting in Italy.

The 23-year-old, who played with such distinction in AC Milan’s run to the Champions League semifinal last season, became the most expensive Italian transfer of all time when he joined Newcastle in July. He was a huge signing for a club on the rise and playing in the Champions League for the first time in two decades.

Now he looks set to miss the rest of the season, as well as Euro 2024, should Italy qualify.

Tonali is just the highest profile player to admit to gambling addiction and illegal betting in a growing scandal in Italy and beyond.

Juventus midfielder Nicolo Fagioli is now serving a seven-month ban for using illegal betting platforms. Nicolo Zaniolo, on loan at Aston Villa from Turkish club Galatasaray, is also accused of illegal betting while playing at Roma – although he maintains his innocence.

The problem is hardly limited to Italian football. Numerous former Premier League players have spoken about their problems with gambling.

Brentford and England striker Ivan Toney was diagnosed with a gambling addiction and was banned from football for eight months in May over 232 breaches of the English Football Association’s betting rules.

But how much suffering must happen before football properly reckons with its hypocrisy around gambling?

Fagioli’s club, Juventus, has signed several sponsorship deals with betting companies, mostly in August.

Last season, eight out of 20 Premier League shirts were sponsored on the front of their shirts by gambling companies, including Newcastle – although this season the Saudi-owned club is enjoying the fruits of Saudi sponsorship.

Brentford even renewed their partnership with a betting sponsor after Toney’s addiction came to light. Zaniolo’s team, Aston Villa, announced a front-of-shirt gambling sponsor before this season.

Premier League clubs have agreed to withdraw gambling sponsorship from the front of match-day shirts – from 2026-27.

But while it is great that players will no longer be forced to be such obvious human billboards to their addictions, they may still wear gambling sponsors on their sleeves as well as face a bombardment of other exhortations to gamble.

Football could also establish other preventive strategies and a more enlightened system of support.

While Toney could rely on Brentford’s support, the FA banned him from training with his club for several months – cutting him off from his teammates and coaches when he needed them most.

“The whole football community is big on mental health and then the FA are going to do this and push me away,” he told The Diary Of A CEO podcast in August. “When I am around the boys, it will get a bit easier.”

Tonali and Fagioli’s bans are reductions from the typical minimum of three years after plea bargains, even so, such punishments may still be unnecessarily punitive.

“Footballers are human and if they are suffering from addiction they deserve empathy and support, not lengthy bans,” the Big Step said.

On Wednesday, Tonali got a warm response from Newcastle fans when he came off the bench against Borussia Dortmund, and many supporters seem to feel for him.

“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,” Jacque Talbot, a football journalist and Newcastle United fan, told Al Jazeera. “It’s probably why we sympathise with Tonali and what he’s going through.”

Newcastle manager Eddie Howe has said the club will support Tonali as he recovers and said they are committed to him in the long term.

“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 Friday.

Tonali will also receive rehabilitation and will be obliged to give talks about his experiences. Hopefully, he will not receive the Toney-treatment and be exiled from his club by the FA.

But when Tonali returns to football, with his best years still ahead of him, he will likely do so in an environment in which he is constantly, aggressively urged to bet.

Elsewhere this week:

  • India drives cricket’s Olympic inclusion, but minnows hope to hitch a ride.
  • ‘MMA brought me closer to God’: Biaggio Ali Walsh talks to Al Jazeera about his meteoric journey, the power of mixed martial arts, and being Muhammad Ali’s grandson.
  • Celtic fans continue to defy their club by waving thousands of Palestine flags.
Source: Al Jazeera