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Innovation | LaLiga’s leading role

This article was produced in association with LaLiga

LaLiga’s reputation as a hotbed of supreme footballing talent is recognised worldwide.

However, the organisation that represents the top two divisions of Spanish football is now also taking a leading role in the battle to protect the integrity of the sport – both in Spain and globally.

The topic has never been more pertinent for Alfredo Lorenzo Mena, who joined LaLiga in January 2015 and is the organisation’s director of integrity and security.

Allegations of corruption in sport continue to emerge on a regular basis across the world. In July this year, Spanish football itself was thrust into the spotlight when Angel María Villar Llona, the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), and his son, Gorka, were arrested as part of a police investigation.

Good governance

“We manage the top two divisions, so we are a different entity from the RFEF, but it is a concern of course,” Mena says. “At the same time, it also reinforces the importance of what we are doing at LaLiga and highlights crucial issues such as transparency and good governance.”

Having started to focus on sports integrity as a priority back in 2013, LaLiga has invested significant resources into proactive prevention methods whilst simultaneously exploring innovative approaches to identify suspicious activities surrounding games.

“Since starting to focus on integrity issues four years ago, little by little LaLiga has created a more extensive programme,” says Mena, who studied law at the University of Salamanca and served for 18 years on the national police force, rising through the ranks to become chief inspector, before spending two years in the international oil and gas security sector.

“The integrity of the competition is very important, so we are working with players, coaches, club staff and others surrounding football on prevention through education – explaining forbidden behaviours and the consequences – as well as providing ways to report suspicions and concerns.”

Although LaLiga only operates the top two divisions in Spain, the organisation’s strategy regarding the prevention of corruption in football includes educating individuals involved in all levels of the game.

Through a partnership with the ProLiga association, which represents clubs in the third-tier Segunda División B and fourth-tier Tercera División competitions, hundreds of clubs have access to LaLiga’s advice in the fight against corruption.

Protection

“Our core business is the top two divisions, but we understand that football is not only about the professional game,” Mena adds. “We are offering real protection to Spanish football as a whole, so we work with Segunda División B and Tercera División clubs, even though they are outside our official scope.

“We want to protect Spanish football in all categories and we have to be aware that players can progress through the leagues during their career.

“We don’t have authority outside the Liga and Segunda División, but clubs from outside those divisions often come to us to ask for advice. That shows that LaLiga’s integrity programme is renowned and respected throughout Spanish football.”

The first challenge facing any organisation responsible for protecting the integrity of a network as complex as football in Spain is to engage with the clubs themselves by underlining the importance of the issues at hand.

Mena is convinced that the top two divisions in Spain are now very well protected thanks to LaLiga’s comprehensive education and prevention programme. However, he acknowledges that significant challenges remain outside the top two tiers, although the attitude towards safeguarding the sport is on a positive trajectory.

Pointing to the fact that the last recorded suspicious incidents in the Liga or the Segunda División occurred towards the end of the 2013-14 season, Mena adds: “The top two divisions are well protected from match-fixing and corruption. There is a very strong system in place.

“However, the other divisions are very vulnerable, because no one has taken care of them. Players in those competitions generally will not earn a lot of money and some might have financial problems and addictions, but this is no excuse for illegal betting.”

LaLiga allows players of all levels to report any issues via telephone or email on a confidential basis, with the ‘hotline’ details available on all documents distributed to players and clubs.

“Players can contact us and say they have an addiction to gambling and alcohol and we will support them,” Mena says. “If they provide us with information about any suspicious activities, we refer the evidence to the police.

“We offer players a soft hand with support, but also a hard hand if they have done something wrong.

“Two years ago, we started working with clubs from below the top two divisions and we provided the same solutions as we have for the Liga and Segunda División. The clubs are more aware now of the importance of integrity and we aim to expand our collaborations with women’s competitions and other tournaments.”

Education

During the 2016-17 season, LaLiga hosted 162 training sessions, educating youngsters and senior players about the dangers of corruption in sport and how to guard against heading down the wrong path.

However, as Mena explains, the educational programme is continuing to evolve and expand.

“We are very ambitious,” he adds. “It is compulsory for the 42 senior teams from the top two divisions to meet us at least once per year so we can provide updated information to their players and staff about the integrity programme and the reporting channels.

“However, for us, that’s not enough. We also want to expand in the game’s grassroots and underline the importance of the values of fair play.”

LaLiga’s integrity operations already extend into schools across Spain through the Futura Afición programme, which engaged 5,000 ‘future fans’ last season.

“We focus on the values of football as that can have a big impact when people are young,” Mena says.

“We spend a day working with the students, teachers and schools and we always try to involve players from clubs in the same region as important messages delivered by a local celebrity are much more effective.”

Underpinning LaLiga’s approach to protecting football is an appetite to engage with like-minded organisations at home and abroad.

“Involving the police and the government is fundamental as these are criminal activities,” Mena says.

“We’re very lucky to have a Memorandum of Understanding with the police force and can exchange information with the government through the Sports Council. We have also been involved in training police investigators in how to deal with match-fixing cases for the past year-and-a-half.”

LaLiga is also a key partner of the Council of Europe, working with the organisation on the groundbreaking Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions (the Macolin Convention), which was opened for signature in September 2014 to provide a unique international legal framework.

LaLiga also takes a hands-on role in linking up with organisations based around the world to exchange information.

“The Council of Europe’s Convention will provide the backbone for the fight against corruption in sport across Europe in the coming months,” Mena says.

“The perception about LaLiga’s integrity programme is that it is best practice and, through the Council of Europe, there is the opportunity to share aspects of our programme with other organisations.

“We’re also working with many leagues and associations in Latin America and other parts of the world. Our integrity programme is mature, but in some other leagues the programmes have not been developed as much.

International

“We’re open to working with different organisations around the globe, as long as we can get involved properly, rather than just signing a document against match fixing as anyone can do that.

“This is not a national challenge; it’s an international challenge. You have to consider international markets and the fact that there are regulated and non-regulated betting markets. During the monitoring process, we are keen to seek out deeper sources of information.”

In order to adapt to the evolving challenge, ahead of the 2017-18 season, LaLiga’s strategy is entering a new phase.

LaLiga has taken the bold decision to bring its monitoring operations in-house, having previously used third-party providers to look out for suspicious activities surrounding games.

It is a step that is highly unusual in the international marketplace, with federations and associations set to watch on with interest to find out how the approach develops.

Partners

“We have been very satisfied with the work of our partners, but we need to enhance our monitoring process, and if we manage things in-house, we can utilise our knowledge of the lower divisions,” Mena explains.

“We are developing our own software and have our own team of analysts. Under the new system, perhaps 50 to 60 per cent of the analysis can be attributed to the software, but the other intelligence we will bring to the situation is very important.

“We have tailor-made resources to monitor our competitions and perhaps other leagues and associations could follow this example in due course.”

Maintaining the spirit of cooperation, LaLiga has already shared in-house software with the police force with regard to fighting piracy.

Over the coming months, the internal team will expand from a core of three analysts as and when dictated by the software and its 24-seven monitoring capabilities and also according to the parameters defined by LaLiga.

Moreover, relations with players will be further strengthened by the appointment of Luis Gil as LaLiga’s competition director.

“We have such a strong integrity programme and we do believe that our competition is well protected,” Mena concludes.

“The effort we are putting into education and prevention is of paramount importance. We are investing time and money, but it’s not an expenditure; it’s an investment for a better future.

“We have the best players and teams in the world so we have to be the best in terms of protecting the competition.”

INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION

LaLiga’s willingness to work closely and effectively with partners across international borders has set a new benchmark in the field of sports integrity. According to Cassandra Fernandes, a senior project officer in the sports conventions division at the Council of Europe, LaLiga has collaborated with the organisation on the groundbreaking Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions, as well as the joint European Union and Council of Europe project, Keep Crime out of Sport.

“LaLiga has shown a willingness to work with stakeholders, not only in Spain, but across Europe,” Fernandes says.

“LaLiga is very hands-on in an operational sense – something the Council of Europe really appreciates as it sets an example for other countries. We know that LaLiga works with South American clubs and within Spain across a range of levels. That is exactly the sort of approach that influential sports entities should be taking.

“LaLiga’s support for the Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions, which is the first and only legally binding framework in this area, is also vital.”

The Convention secretariat regularly holds meetings with various stakeholders, including those from the sports industry, such as governing bodies, leagues and player unions, to gain a broad perspective on the challenges facing advocates of sports integrity. The secretariat also facilitates exchanges with other stakeholders from public authorities, law enforcement, prosecutors and the betting industry.

Knowledge

With that in mind, LaLiga’s appetite to share knowledge with like-minded organisations around the world fits perfectly with the Council of Europe’s goals, which include networking discussions and stakeholder workshops.

“To move forward as a political institution, we need to facilitate the exchange of information,” she adds. “You can see it when organisations sit down face-to-face with LaLiga, for example. They come out of the meeting with their convictions strengthened, because LaLiga has been able to share its experiences and knowledge.”

Tjeerd Veenstra, the independent chair of the integrity unit at the Royal Dutch Football Federation, the KNVB, is particularly impressed by LaLiga’s ability to form partnerships – particularly with the national police force in Spain.

“The MoU that LaLiga has with the police is absolutely vital as it can be very difficult to exchange information between different organisations and there are often legal hurdles to overcome,” Veenstra says.

The KNVB will be watching on with interest as LaLiga implements its new in-house software system for the start of the new season in order to monitor games for suspicious activities.

“It is a very interesting move,” Veenstra adds. “Spain is a big country with hundreds of clubs, so I can see why it makes sense.”

Looking forward, establishing close ties with similarly proactive leagues is a crucial step in the battle against corruption in football, according to Veenstra.

He adds: “It can be as straightforward as simply being able to pick up the phone to an organisation like LaLiga and ask: ‘Do you know about this person of interest?’ We need to work together to tackle this effectively. By its definition, the challenge facing us is international.”

Fernandes echoes those sentiments when she looks to the future and the role of LaLiga in the broader integrity picture.

“The main challenge will be to nurture partnerships between the stakeholders and prioritising this issue on a political level,” she says. “Fighting the manipulation of sport involves input from betting firms, law enforcement agencies, various ministries, finance and tax authorities, and of course the sports movement.

“The task is to enable these different stakeholders to work together. There is a certain level of awareness that needs to exist to tackle such a phenomenon and LaLiga is taking a leading role in putting the resources required into this challenge.”

SECURING THE FUTURE

Alfredo Lorenzo Mena joined LaLiga in January 2015 as a direct response to a sickening incident that highlighted the challenges surrounding security at professional football matches in Spain and around the world.

In late November 2014, a Deportivo La Coruña supporter died following clashes with rival fans outside the stadium before a match at Atlético Madrid.

The tragedy sharpened the focus of Spanish football administrators, with LaLiga president Javier Tebas acting swiftly to bring in Mena as head of security, before integrity was later added to his brief.

Since his appointment, Mena and his colleagues at LaLiga have worked tirelessly to support clubs as they seek to clamp down on trouble-makers.

“We are working very hard to have safe and secure football matches and reduce incidents of racist and intolerant chanting by a small percentage of spectators,” Mena says.

“It has improved in Spanish football, but it is not enough. We continue to work with the authorities and our clubs to develop the best standards possible.”

Engaging with fans contributes towards a “different concept of security” that is being implemented and encouraged by Mena and LaLiga.

“Fans go to a stadium to enjoy a match, so we have been working very hard at violence prevention and engaging with fans on this matter,” Mena says.

Fan engagement

“We work with fan associations at a national level. We have regular meetings with them – at least twice a year – as it is important to exchange opinions.

“If we compare security at Spanish football now to 15 or even 10 years ago, it is completely different, but the idea is to keep improving and be even better next year. We are working with clubs and they are aware of the requirements.”

Specifically, LaLiga is keen to increase awareness of crowd management amongst clubs, particularly with regard to away fans.

Mena says: “If something happens outside a stadium, although it’s a job for the police and public authorities and we don’t have direct responsibility, we can’t just say ‘it’s not our business’ and forget about it.

“We’re working with clubs to have better control of away fans. The clubs need to know who is travelling and how they are travelling so that security measures can be implemented. It is also then possible to provide accurate information to the police.”

At the heart of LaLiga’s strategy for improving safety and security at games is a broader shift.

“We are working on prevention of course and making it easier to report incidents, but the overriding idea is to encourage a cultural change,” Mena says.

“Going to a football match is like going to a concert or the cinema, so behaviour is important. Fortunately, 99 per cent of football fans are peaceful. For the others, we have to change their mindset.

“LaLiga does not have the authority to sanction a club for trouble in the stands or racist chanting. However, we can report these incidents and work with clubs on preventative measures, giving them instructions to prevent similar incidents in the future.”

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