The Karabatic and Montpellier saga – a follow-up

Am I my brother’s keeper? Nikola and Luka together on the court, and in court!

John Ryan has been a keen follower of the career of Nikola Karabatic for a long time now, so John is gearing up to offer his comments primarily from that perspective. In the meantime, as the story continues to develop, I will offer some further thoughts on some aspects of the surrounding framework.

Of course, the handball season has not come to a standstill for Montpellier (or for Paris-St.G who now has two of Montpellier’s players from last year). Montpellier played a league game in Toulouse yesterday and lost. They had to do that without the five players (the Karabatic brothers, Gajic, Prost and Tej) who had been released from police custody but were still being interviewed, and moreover had been prohibited from having contact with their teammates. Montpellier lost 29-34, drawing on a mixture of experienced players (Accambray, Mamelund, Hmam and Metlicic) together with a group of young talents. Manager Canayer commented after the game that it was remarkable to see that the crowds now applauded the depleted team, rather than treating them as the invincible villains. On Sunday, Montpellier has a home game in the EHF Champions League against Ademar Leon.

I should again emphasize something that does not seem to be clear in the many media reports around Europe: we are dealing with two really separate actions, the betting on their own game, which goes against the regulations of the French league, the French federation (and, for that matter, their counterparts in most other established handball countries), and the accusation that they lost the game intentionally. The betting is exclusively a matter for the handball/sports authorities, as this goes against their ethics codes and regulations, and it has nothing to do with French law which treats all citizens the same way. By contrast, I do not know of any federation that has a regulation explicitly dealing with the notion of losing intentionally; there may be some more vague expectation that a team should ‘always do its best’. And of course, losing a game, even if it is done intentionally, would not be a crime under French law, if it was not for the link to gambling. Because then you commit fraud against other bettors. The police is attempting to confirm the betting, as it provides evidence for the intention to lose the game, and then remains the more difficult issue of proving that the loss actually was intentional.

So the only excuse for the federation and the league, in their preference to wait quietly for the police to conclude their investigation, is that they prefer to have the police establish the evidence for the prohibited betting. Karabatic first had his lawyer admit to his own betting, then he used his facebook page to deny it, but now that denial has been removed. It seems the defense will be focused on what I noted a few days ago: the loss was plausible because of the many injured players, the betting was done by the family and friends who inevitably knew about the injuries and the fact that Montpellier had already secured the league title, and the notion that players who did not actually play in the game of Cresson somehow, by definition, could not be accused of manipulation. But the legal authorities are smarter than that. They understand that key players such as the Karabatic brothers could easily influence their teammates about how the game should proceed, even if those who played had not been involved in the betting. And now it may be getting worse, because media have just released the idea of suspicions regarding another game that Montpellier lost late last situation, against local rivals Nimes.

Going back to the responsibility of clubs, leagues and federations, it was interesting to see that the National Association of the French sports gambling syndicates issued a scathing accusation. They noted that, when sports gambling became legal in France, they had urged the federations and the clubs to collaborate with them in a special effort to educate and warn the athletes about the potential risks and consequences. However, the statement suggested that there had been no interest in collaboration on the part of federations and clubs. So it is really a considerable hypocrisy, when the federations now express great surprise and the clubs complain about the hardships caused by the loss of access to their expensive key players. I have suggested that the FCH, the umbrella organization for the top European handball clubs, could use its neutral but prestigious position to urge clubs across Europe to open their eyes to the dangers and to help coordinate an educational effort.

Finally, an interesting twist: after I wrote my initial article, it has become clear that most of the betting was in fact in the half-time result, not the final result. This is a concept known as ‘spot betting’, meaning that it involves some detail within the game rather than the final outcome. I wrote about this a few months ago, and I underscored the dangers of such betting. Because it may involve some aspect that has no real connection to the final result (such as who got the first yellow card, or who scored on the first 7-meter throw), it is more obscure and less likely to draw attention. It may even seem more harmless, because it has nothing to do with losing intentionally, but it could still involve big money and clear manipulation. And I noted that there is more scope for this in handball, compared with for instance football. Intentionally being behind by one goal at half-time in handball involves no real risk for a superior team, but the same thing in football is considerably more dangerous.