Wellington lawyer Andrew Scott-Howman has been appointed to a powerful FIFA committee. He talks to Shane Cowlishaw about his new role - and why New Zealand is a premier target for football match-fixing.
When an international acquaintance of Andrew Scott-Howman called and asked if he could fly to China in two days to give a presentation in his place, the answer was yes.
The colleague’s wife was in labour, so it was hard to say no. But also, a trip to China is not to be sniffed at.
Problem was, Scott-Howman had no idea what he would present at the football conference.
As an employment lawyer by trade, and having also acted for professional athletes, he decided to wing it with a presentation about the benefits of trade unionism.
Not an obvious choice of subject for a talk in China, but it obviously impressed some people.
Soon after, the bigwigs at football’s governing body FIFA came calling – would he be interested in joining the Players’ Status Committee as a judge?
“Frankly, I was amazed, I never imagined this would be something FIFA would be interested in for me.”
The global body is in a period of transformation. Years of being mired in a corruption scandal have taken its toll.
It is at the tail end of a restructure, and Scott-Howman believes being a New Zealander free from the ties of Europe was what sealed the job offer.
As a member of the Players’ Committee, Howman will act as a judge during disputes between clubs about player transfers, as well as eligibility questions about whether players can represent a chosen country.
An example of a situation he would likely preside over is New Zealand Football’s own recent eligibility crisis, which saw the under-23 side tumble out of Olympic qualification after South African-born Deklan Wynne played for the team.
Scott-Howman’s own involvement with sport began with rugby when he was asked by his brother, former World Anti-Doping Agency head David Howman, to set up a player’s association for the New Zealand Union.
Coming from an employment background, Scott-Howman realised that he could register the group as a trade union and enter into collective bargaining.
“Collective bargaining is the international model for employment relations for professional athletes but it was totally new for New Zealand and not only was the NZRU initially upset about this prospect, my brother was outraged at me.”
Since then he has helped negotiate collective agreements across rugby and football and is hopeful he can bring some of the knowledge and techniques used by our sports organisations, especially rugby and how it is administered, to a wider audience.
“What is it that, as a country like us, we can contribute to the world game? I’m not sure what the answer is, it may be that you clear your throat to be told you don’t know what you’re talking about or maybe we do actually know what we’re doing better than other countries.”
New Zealand is a “ripe cherry” for match-fixing
Alongside his other work, Scott-Howman is also involved in a match-fixing taskforce led by the police.
Formed ahead of the Cricket World Cup in 2015, the group, consisting of organisations including SportNZ and the TAB, arose after an Interpol conference on the risks of corruption in sport.
Howman-Scott also runs education sessions for young New Zealand footballers, and it’s this sport that is important for a single reason.
“What’s terrifying for New Zealand is the time-zone for our competition…we play most of our games at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon which in all the major markets in Asia makes it between 10am and lunchtime. Now there’s no other football being played in the world at that time.
“For a golden period every weekend we provide the only product that Asian markets can bet on.”
Howman-Scott is not talking about the A-League here, he means our domestic league.
Currently called the Stirling Sports Premiership, games being played in front of modest crowds at Nelson’s Trafalgar Park and Napier’s Bluewater Station attracted $50 million in bets last year.
Most of that is coming from Asia, where football is the most popular sport to gamble on.
“Over 200 people are offering a book on Hawke’s Bay United playing Southern United, which is mind-blowing.”
While players are educated about the risks, Howman-Scott estimates it would take an offer of $5000 or less to tempt a local player who receives no income from playing.
This would usually be to “spot-fix”, which could be something as simple as the first throw-in or corner.
Approaches, which have undoubtedly already been made to New Zealand players, are often in the guise of beautiful women – the “honey trap” – or “coaches” offering a path to more lucrative leagues, Howman-Scott says.
Initial contact can also be made through Facebook and be difficult to track.
“Those approaches are never a guy with a bag full of cash, they’re always someone who portrays themselves as a businessman or a coach, say of a team of Malaysia who says I will get you a trial at my club, here are the plane tickets.
Our only saving grace, according to Howman-Scott, is the fact the league is not televised outside of New Zealand.
If it was, he estimated it wouldn’t be 200 bookies, but 20,000 offering odds.
New Zealand Football is well-aware of the risks to its players.
It introduced new anti-match-fixing regulations in 2015, spelling out exactly what was prohibited and the penalties involved.
An integrity officer and ethics committee was formed and players can report approaches to them.
Players also have access to a “red button” app, allowing them to quickly report match-fixing approaches.
But despite these measures, there is nothing that can be done to stop match-fixing from reaching our shores, Scott-Howman says.
All the sport can do is prepare as best it can, and try and get the message across to players about the risks involved.
“Really all we’re doing is preparing the best ambulance at the bottom of the cliff that we can, there’s no stopping the tide that is surging over the top of the cliff.”