The announcement, when it came, was framed in the coldest of language.

"The Federal Prosecutor's Office has reached an agreement (pursuant to Article 126 of the Codice di Giustizia Sportiva) with the player Sandro Tonali, following which he will be sanctioned with a 18-month ban, 8 of which will be commuted to alternative requirements, and a fine of €20,000, for the violation of Article 24 of the CGS which prohibits the possibility of betting on football events organized by the FIGC, UEFA and FIFA," said a statement from the FIGC, the Italian FA.

Tonali, the player in question, became the most expensive Italian player of all time when he transferred from Milan to Newcastle in the summer and is one of the young stars of the national team. With a 10 month ban and a further eight months of rehabilitation he faces missing the rest of the Premier League season, as well as Euro 2024 in the summer.

The midfielder followed Juventus man Nicolò Fagioli, who received a seven month ban, while Nicolò Zaniolo of Aston Villa is also expected to face questions from prosecutors.

In a way Tonali and Fagioli got off lightly - the Italian rules provide for a minimum three year ban for breaking the rules around gambling, but the pair were shown leniency for their prompt and complete co-operation.

For the players a long stint on the sidelines and a reckoning with addiction awaits - for football their experience raises further questions about sport and its relationship to gambling.

Read More: Sandro Tonali needs ’empathy and support’ after being banned for 10 months

'I'll break your legs'

Perhaps more so than any other country in Europe, being caught breaking the rules on gambling is not something you want to do in Italy.

Under the country’s law gambling is a criminal offence, only permissible in cases where the state has granted a licence. Until the late 1990s, the only legal way to bet on football was to play the Totocalcio football pools – or to go to illegal bookmakers, often linked to organised crime.

While there has been some relaxation of laws in recent years, the complete ban on sportspeople being allowed to gamble on sports is taken hugely seriously, and with good reason. Rumours continue to circulate that Napoli’s late collapse in their Serie A title defence of 1987-88, which saw them lose four of their last five matches, was linked to the Camorra, who it's said would have been bankrupted paying out bets placed on the hometown team to retain the Scudetto. In the early 1980s Milan and Lazio were both forcibly relegated for their links to a betting scandal, while 2011 saw former Italian internationals Giuseppe Signori and Cristiano Doni banned by the FIGC for their part in rigging games (the former was later pardoned).

While there is no suggestion that Fagioli and Tonali were involved in match fixing, both have admitted to using illegal platforms and the Newcastle man confessed to having bet on matches involving his own team, Milan.

The Herald: Newcastle United midfielder Sandro Tonali

In his deposition, Fagioli told how he burst into tears having been substituted in a loss to Sassuolo as his gambling losses spiralled. He borrowed money from Juventus team-mates, running up debts of close to €3m. The Italian international wrote that he received a message saying “I’ll break your legs”, which he presumed to come from one of the illegal gambling platforms he’d used and owed a debt.

However, while footballers betting on matches may be more fraught with danger in Italy than elsewhere, it’s something which takes place across the continent.

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‘I know a lot of players who have done it’

In 2013 Rangers midfielder Ian Black was banned for 10 games – with seven suspended – for betting on 160 matches, including some involving his own team. The Daily Record subsequently uncovered evidence of a number of players breaking the rules by betting on football matches, including then Kilmarnock right-back Ross Barbour.

Six years later Barbour revealed he had blown close to £250,000 on betting, stealing from his mum and dad to fund his addiction. It was only after an intervention from club captain Kris Boyd – from whom he’d asked to borrow money – and manager Garry Locke that he got help. The former defender disclosed that he attempted suicide at the height of his gambling involvement.

The Herald: 11/07/15 PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY . BERWICK RANGERS v KILMARNOCK . SHIELFIELD PARK - BERWICK . Ross Barbour in action for Kilmarnock.

In 2020, Hamilton Accies boss Brian Rice, a recovering gambling addict, reported himself to the SPFL for breaching betting rules in a relapse. Former Celtic star John Hartson has spoken about his own 20 year addiction, stating had he not attended Gamblers Anonymous he’d be either “dead or in jail”.

Kevin Twaddle, formerly of St Johnstone, Hearts and Motherwell, told how he spent nearly £1m to fund his own addition and confessed “I must have stolen a couple of hundred grand”.

Dorin Goian, who played for Rangers between 2011 and 2013 alleged last week that he and some fellow team-mates would bet small sums - “£20-30” - on the day’s games, with the odds arranged between themselves on a big board in the dressing room.

"I know a lot of players who have done it," he shrugged.

Footballers are made acutely aware of the fact they’re not allowed to gamble on their sport – so why do so many do it?


The first and most obvious answer is that footballers, certainly at the top levels of the game, are both very well paid and have a lot of free time on their hands.

In his deposition before the FIGC prosecutor, Fagioli recalled how he started to bet while at a training camp for the Italy Under-21 side to “alleviate the boredom”. He began betting solely on tennis on a website called Icebet – not licenced by the Italian state and therefore illegal in the country – before branching out into football.

The second answer is perhaps more nebulous – and troubling. It’s increasingly difficult to separate sport from gambling – and gambling companies – and nowhere is that more the case than in football, the most popular and therefore must lucrative sport on the planet.

The Herald: Ivan Toney

When the Brentford striker and England international Ivan Toney was banned for 11 months for a series of bets, including on his own performance and own team, there was little doubt he was bang to rights.

However, many were quick to point out he’d placed many of his wagers while playing in the SkyBet Championship, and his club has Hollywood Bets on the front of their shirts. Nine of England’s 20 Premier League clubs have gambling sponsors on their shirts, many more have stadium advertising featuring betting companies – many opaque and registered in the Far East.

Read More: Opinion: Don't take a chance, get help to beat gambling addiction

Things are perhaps even more entwined north of the border, where there is less money coming in from television. Celtic’s front of shirt sponsor is Dafabet, Rangers’ is Unibet, the league system was for many years sponsored by Ladbrokes.

Tonali’s own club, Newcastle, had Chinese gambling firm Fun88 as their front of shirt sponsor until this season and it remains on board as the club’s “official Asian betting partner”. This may have been a sudden attack of conscience, or may be related to the takeover of the club by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which back home doles out prison sentences and lashings for gambling.

It’s an issue which goes beyond the athletes themselves, too. Anyone wishing to work in the football media will find it difficult to do so without some overlap with the gambling industry – and that’s to say nothing of those watching at home on television.

There are an estimated 1.4million gambling addicts in the UK, and the logos of betting firms can appear more than 700 times in the course of a single match according to a Channel 4 documentary. Football remains predominantly a working class sport, and it’s well known that bookmakers’ concentrate in the less well-off areas of the country.

Research by the Standard Life Foundation charity found 21% of bookmaker shops were located in the poorest 10% of communities, with just 2% in the richest 10%. Glasgow has one betting shop for every 3,264 people, with high concentrations in the poorest areas of Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Dunbartonshire. Physical shops may be on the decline, but it’s quickly being replaced or even exceeded by online betting.

It is to be hoped that Tonali, who has admitted to having a gambling addiction, will get the help he needs from his club and country. As to whether football will extricate itself from the neon claws of the industry: don’t bet on it.

Support resources for people struggling with a gambling addiction can be found here