LONDON (Reuters) - Match-fixing cannot be eradicated but English soccer in 99.9 percent clean, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said on Friday shortly before two men were remanded in custody after being charged with conspiracy to defraud.
The arrest on Thursday of two men alleged to be part of an illegal betting syndicate based in Singapore after an investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA) has raised doubts about the integrity of the game.
No Premier League matches are thought to have been targeted with the focus, according to media reports, on the lower reaches of English football but Wenger admits he is concerned.
“I don’t believe that in England people fix matches, but we live in an international world and you cannot just stop it at the border anymore,” Wenger said at his Friday news conference.
“It’s a new problem that we all face.
“I still think that 99.9 percent, the English game is completely clean. I hope that (the recent charges) are an isolated incident.”
“When you see the happiness of the players when they score goals, even in the lower divisions, the passion of the fans when I was at Barnet for example, I can’t believe there is a match-fixing problem in England.
“Can it be eradicated completely? I’m not sure. Is it a concern for me and you who love the game? Certainly yes.”
Wenger said match-fixing needed to be fought around the world to save the sport from a bleak future.
“Once you don’t know anymore if everyone is genuine out there, that is something absolutely disastrous,” he said.
“I think we have absolutely to fight against that with the strongest severity to get that out of the game.”
While Wenger feels the huge salaries of Premier League players makes match-fixing in the top echelons unlikely, he said the lower leagues could be vulnerable.
“Maybe the lower divisions are a bit more under threat because it is a bit more anonymous, there is less money so it is easier to buy people,” he said.
Wenger has first-hand experience of the effects of the problem described as a “cancer” by FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce, having been at Monaco when Marseille were relegated from the French first division in 1994 following a match-fixing scandal.
“That was much more serious,” he said. “It was a period where European football was not clean, for different reasons, but I hope we have that behind us.
“It was one of the most difficult periods in my life. But I think even in France now, the championship is completely clean.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Alison Wildey