Italy’s football federation has banned Newcastle’s Sandro Tonali from playing football for 10 months for breaking the country’s gambling regulations and ordered that the midfielder must spend the following eight months continuing a rehabilitation programme.
This latter period, with the final portion “commuted to alternative therapies”, will involve Tonali making at least 16 trips to Italy to talk to players at assorted levels of football about the dangers of betting, in addition to visiting addiction clinics.
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Should Tonali miss any of a series of engagements which may clash with club commitments, he faces being barred from playing for Newcastle for the entire 18 months. In a statement Italy’s FA said: “The federal prosecutors office will ensure compliance.”
The 23-year-old’s agent said his client has a gambling addiction and that Tonali cooperated fully with a wide ranging investigation into illegal betting orchestrated from Turin. The Italy international admitted to placing bets on matches, including some in which he was involved for Milan.
In July Eddie Howe, Newcastle’s manager, expressed “delight and surprise” that he had been able to sign Tonali for £55m but now he must cope without his marquee summer buy until late August next year.
Should Italy qualify for Euro 2024, Tonali will also miss next summer’s tournament in Germany but Newcastle are relieved that he will be able to train with Howe’s squad during the ban. Club executives had been concerned that a player still adjusting to living in England and struggling to learn the language would be exiled from the club and end up returning to Italy for the duration of the suspension.
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Although there are suggestions in Italy that Tonali will not be paid throughout the ban, Newcastle are understood to be reluctant to impose that sanction. It is possible, though, that he may accept a wage cut over the coming months.
Professional footballers in Italy are prohibited from betting on any competition organised by Fifa, Uefa or the FIGC. Doing so is punishable with a three-year ban, although, as in Tonali’s case, this may be reduced with a guilty plea.
“The FIGC prosecutor and Tonali have reached an agreement which I have already approved,” Gabriele Gravina,the FIGC president, said. “The agreement consists of a 10-month ban plus eight months of rehab activities and at least 16 public appearances.” The former Italy Under-21s captain has also been fined €20,000 (£17,400).
Tonali’s lawyer was in Italy last week to negotiate a plea bargain for a player promised Newcastle’s full support. Howe said last Friday: “We will throw our arms around Sandro and protect him and try to give him the love and support he needs to find solutions to the problems he’s had. We see him being part our team for many years. We are committed to him long-term.”
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Newcastle have declined to comment on the feasibility of taking unspecified legal action against Milan but that possibility appears to be receding, particularly as the Serie A club are adamant they knew nothing of Tonali’s gambling problem.
Howe and his board are exploring the possibility of signing a replacement, ideally on loan, in January. Manchester City’s Kalvin Phillips, Manchester United’s Scott McTominay and Al-Hilal’s Rúben Neves are believed to be under consideration but the Manchester clubs are unlikely to be keen on loaning players to a key rival. Although Portugal’s Neves is exceptionally talented, the former Wolves midfielder is perhaps not ideally suited to Newcastle’s aggressive pressing style.
Howe’s supportive stance has been welcomed by The Big Step, a campaign group lobbying to end all gambling advertising and sponsorship in football which forms part of Gambling with Lives, a charity established by those bereaved by betting-related suicides. “Footballers are human and if they are suffering from addiction they deserve empathy and support, not lengthy bans,” The Big Step said in a statement. “Every football game is wall-to-wall with gambling ads, not just across shirts but around stadiums and related media content.
“Sending someone addicted to gambling into this environment is like sending an alcoholic to work in a pub. If you force young footballers to endorse addictive products, then don’t be surprised if they use them. Ending all gambling advertising and sponsorship in football, including all parts of the shirt and in every stadium, will help to prevent harm on and off the pitch.”
The Juventus midfielder Nicolò Fagioli was last week banned for seven months as part of a settlement with the FIGC after breaching rules surrounding betting on matches. His suspension was for 12 months but five of those were suspended and he was fined €12,500. He also agreed to a treatment programme for gambling problems.