If you are not a dedicated follower of British football or a fan of French club Marseilles you may not know too much about Joey Barton.
Over the course of 14 years he has racked up 240 or so appearances in the English Premier League for Manchester City – before the big bucks transformed the club – Newcastle United, Queens Park Rangers and, most recently, Burnley. He also had a spell at re-emerging Scottish powerhouse Glasgow Rangers and a loan period in the South of France.
Add to that a solitary match for the England national team and you have a picture of a highly talented and effective player whose career was far from run-of-the-mill without ever breaking through into true greatness.
But Barton is about far more than the sum of his career statistics. His career and personal life have been marked by on and off-field violence, which at one point resulted in him serving 77 days of a jail term, and a remarkable personal transformation – in the public eye at least – which has seen him become established as one of the most articulate commentators on the game and a champion of a range of social causes.
PICTURE: Joey Barton (Getty Images)
It’s a pleasure to hear Barton discussing football, because of his ability to conduct a conversation and make an argument that goes beyond self-reference. He is shrewd, intelligent and has used his Twitter account to build a strong, if complex, personal brand.
So, there were mixed feelings when, in April, Barton announced that his career was effectively over – not because he wants to call it a day or because fate had dealt him a career ending injury, but because the Football Association had banned him for 18 months because of his medically-recognised betting addiction. And that’s a ban that effectively brings the curtain down on his career as a top pro footballer if it is not significantly reduced at appeal.
Now, professional footballers know they are prohibited from betting on the sport and Barton’s rap sheet included bets placed against his own team, although he was at pains to point out that he was never in the match-day squad and consequently not able to influence the outcome of these games.
He doesn’t dispute that he broke the rules but, being Joey Barton, used a neat deflection tactic to take some of the focus off his own conduct and open up a broader conversation about the relationship between football – and by implication all sports – and the mammoth betting industry.
In a statement on his website, Barton wrote: “I think if the FA is truly serious about tackling the culture of gambling in football, it needs to look at its own dependence on the gambling companies, their role in football and in sports broadcasting, rather than just blaming the players who place a bet.”
And in doing so he ripped the lid off a can of the juiciest, wriggliest worms.
While he may be overstating the case by suggesting that football is ‘dependent’ on the betting industry, it has certainly become an extremely important source of the revenues that feed the game in many top European leagues.
So far as the EPL is concerned, half the clubs carry the logos of betting companies on their shirts. By and large these are the smaller clubs; those which don’t have the individual brand equity of, say, Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea, which are able to sell in a far broader market, because of their massive global appeal.
PICTURE: Bournemouth takes on Crystal Palace in the EPL (Getty Images)
Instead betting companies flock around the foot soldiers and water carriers of the Premier League. Their logos are their calling cards and they are smart enough to know that Crystal Palace and Bournemouth (which have the same betting sponsor) may be small fry by comparison, but when they play the big boys they get massive global TV coverage. Consequently, they are willing to out-pay brands from other sectors for shirt-front real estate.
Away from the clubs, the TV companies which have invested so heavily in football rights mitigate their spending against the revenue from betting companies that sponsor or advertise around the coverage with their cosy messages about being members of a club of 22 million (Bet365) and issuing mild warnings against the dangers of what they are peddling: When The Fun Stops, Stop.
So, does Barton have a point?
Gambling – although in its illegal form rather than through recognised and licensed brands – is the major driver of match fixing in sport. This is a business run by dangerous criminal gangs and unscrupulous individuals. It threatens the credibility and fabric of sport and, by extension, the business which has built-up around it. Match fixing is not so much about well-known players betting on sport through licensed channels but about young players being compromised and becoming the slaves of gangsters to whom they will always be in debt.
Stopping licensed betting companies advertising around TV coverage of football or taking their names off shirts won’t end this and nor will banning Barton as a result of his (apparently) spectacularly unsuccessful betting habit.
But there are other issues around the related matters of addiction, debt and mental health which need to be considered as well.
So if the FA thinks his 18-month ban is sending out a positive signal perhaps the football industry in general should take a look in the mirror and think about what sort of message their relationship with the licensed betting industry is sending out. It’s a complex issue, but Brand Football may ultimately be better off by making a break from its relationship with betting in all forms.