On 27 October 2023, Newcastle United’s Sandro Tonali became the latest Premier League player to be suspended for betting related offences. The Italian International was sanctioned with a 10-month playing ban by the Italian Football Federation, a decision which has now been imposed worldwide by FIFA. Tonali is the second Premier League player in 2023 to receive such a ban after Ivan Toney, who was suspended for eight months in May 2023 after admitting to 232 breaches of the FA’s betting rules. With Tonali and Toney both facing lengthy suspensions, the recent decision involving Nottingham Forrest’s, Harry Toffolo, who received a minor financial penalty and no suspension for seemingly comparable offences, has raised questions over how the FA determines sanctions in respect of betting breaches.
The FA Betting Rules
The rules governing betting on football are contained in FA Rule E8 of the FA Rules (the "FA Betting Rules"). Rule E8.1 prohibits individuals involved in football from betting on matches or competitions or providing inside information to allow others to do so. An action against a participant for breach of the FA Betting Rules will be decided by a FA Regulatory Commission ("Regulatory Commission").
To improve consistency in the determination of cases involving the breach of the FA Betting Rules, the FA has published a set of guidelines for use by the Regulatory Commission. The guidelines are a starting point in each case but are not binding. The Regulatory Commission retains discretion to apply sanctions out with the specifics of the guidelines if appropriate in accordance with the facts of the case.
When considering a case, the Regulatory Commission will initially consider the type of bet which has been placed. The guidelines provide for six categories of bets, ranging from minor offences, such as betting on a football match not involving the participants club, to the most serious offence, placing bets in respect of a particular occurrence involving the player who placed the bet. Comparing the cases of Toffolo and Toney, one of the reasons that the sanctions imposed by the Regulatory Commission on Toney were more severe than Toffolo’s was that Toney had placed more bets, which fell into the most serious category of the FA guidelines. In particular, Toney had placed 15 bets on himself to score goals in a particular match, whereas Toffolo had only done so on two occasions. The Regulatory Commission places particular significance on bets which involve a player’s own conduct because of the risk that the bet could be perceived to undermine the integrity of the game.
The Regulatory Commission should then consider whether there are any facts or circumstances which mitigate or aggravate the breach. The guidelines set out various factors which may be considered, including the overall perception of the bets on game integrity, the number of bets placed, personal circumstances and experience of the participant. Following the guidelines, the Regulatory Commission found that there were a number of mitigating factors in Toffolo’s case (including mental health struggles, gambling addiction, inexperience and lack of awareness of the betting rules) which could be applied to his breaches and ultimately reduced his sanctions. Conversely, Toney was shown to have several aggravating factors, including that he was fully aware of the FA Betting Rules, was found to have given false and misleading responses during his interviews and placed bets through third parties to conceal his betting from the FA.
The international nature of modern football poses unique challenges for regulators in providing a consistent international regulatory approach to sports betting. To combat this, FIFA (which sits at the top of the world football structure) plays an oversight role in connecting the various jurisdictions. In cases where a player has been suspended for breaches of national sports betting rules, each country’s Football Association has the authority to apply to FIFA to extend a national suspension worldwide. This power aims to prevent suspended players from being loaned out to foreign clubs to circumvent the ban and will also capture players who move club during the transfer windows. When Toney was initially banned there were various reports that the FA was applying to FIFA to extend his ban worldwide (although those claims have not yet materialised). Similarly, in the case of Tonali (who has recently moved from AC Milan to Newcastle United), the Italian Football Federation applied to FIFA to have the 10-month ban applied worldwide so that it would capture his tenure at Newcastle United; a request which was upheld by FIFA. The result being that Tonali will miss out on Newcastle United’s current season. The oversight role played by FIFA allows for a cohesive and consistent regulatory approach between the international football community and, importantly, prevents players from using the international aspect of the modern game to escape sanctions.
Often cases, relating to breaches of the FA Betting Rules are reported primarily through newspaper or online articles, which typically report only on the headline facts, such as the number of bets made, and the sanctions applied. There is often little information about the underlying decision-making process of the Regulatory Commission, which can lead to uncertainty amongst fans around the fairness of the sanctions process. It is important to understand that there are several factors which will be considered when a player faces a sanctions determination. The Regulatory Commission, in line with the FA guidance, places significant weight on the type of bet placed and if there are any mitigating/ aggravating factors. The Regulatory Commission does have a wide discretion when dealing with these cases, but the consistency of their approach to date becomes clearer when their decisions are looked at more closely. The recent international cases serve as a useful reminder that while the FA only has specific regulatory powers over matters involving English football, its reach can be extended by FIFA to international jurisdictions.