Why it's fantastic that Newcastle United's Sandro Tonali won't be punished further by the FA

Sandro Tonali has been handed a suspended sentence for gambling breaches by the FA - and that’s an important step forward for the game.
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It’s been 190 days since Newcastle United lost 1-0 to Borussia Dortmund at St. James’ Park. The hosts didn’t play especially well that night in the Champions League, and neither did Sandro Tonali, who put in a rather flaccid 25-minute cameo and cut a rather dejected figure as he trudged through the Tyneside rain after the final whistle. He hasn’t played a game since.

Tonali, who is serving a 10-month ban for breaching FIFA and FIGC gambling regulations – which included betting on AC Milan games while he was a player there – won’t get back onto the pitch until August, and that will remain the case after he discovered that the FA has decided to hand down no more than a suspended sentence for further breaches which took place after his move to St. James’ Park. On several levels, that he won’t face further sanctions is a great relief.

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The two-month sentence the FA has issued to Tonali will only be served if he breaks betting rules again before the end of the 2024/25 season – he has additionally been fined £20,000. That he won’t be prevented from playing any more than he already has is a mercy because, like so many others who develop problematic gambling habits, he is or was unwell.

About a week before Tonali discovered the severity of his initial punishment back in October his agent, Giuseppe Rico, told the media that his client was “playing his most important game – against betting addiction.” Tonali, like Ivan Toney before him, is apparently battling an addiction which afflicts around 250,000 people in the UK, according to Public Health England. It is an illness, a serious one, and needs treatment, not punishment. Thankfully, sanity has prevailed on this occasion.

One of the problems that the Italian, who signed for Newcastle for £55m in the summer before his gambling issues were revealed, would have faced had the FA punished him further is that he may not have been able to train with his team for some or all of his new sentence – that was the case for Brentford’s Toney over the first months of his recent ban, and he’s since spoken about how difficult it was to face an addiction and a difficult period in his life while forcibly isolated from his friends and colleagues.

Newcastle have, to their credit, been supportive of Tonali. Shortly before the ban was announced, Eddie Howe told the media that “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 are committed to him long-term.”

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In this instance, FIFA and FIGC rules did not prevent Tonali from training with his team and he has been a regular presence at the training ground, keeping both his fitness and, hopefully, his spirits up. It’s easy to lambaste Tonali for his ‘stupidity’ or ‘mistakes’ but addiction has a habit of making a fool out of perfectly decent and sensible people. Newcastle’s response – to put an arm round him – has been infinitely better, wiser and more humane than the FA’s was with Toney. He was exiled, at least for a short time, and left to fight his demons alone.

Tonali has not discussed his situation with the media since his suspension. We don’t really know how he’s getting on, we don’t have a picture of his mental health, and we don’t know whether his recovery is progressing well. But one thing that can be confidently asserted is that had he been punished with another ban – a very real possibility – then it could only have had a deleterious effect on his well-being while not really providing any further deterrent to others.

The suspensions already endured by Tonali and Toney should act as the strongest possible deterrent for players who might think about doing something daft down the line. 10 months out of the game is no joke. But players who fall foul of gambling rules won’t necessarily be stupid but may be seriously unwell instead, and they will need help, not punishment. A more enlightened approach to handling gambling among players is surely required.

To be fair to the FA, they did at least reduce Toney’s ban from a possible 15 months to eight after considering psychiatric evidence which confirmed the likelihood that he was suffering from an addiction, but still took a ‘punish first and support later, if at all’ approach to the situation. England manager Gareth Southgate was among the public figures to push back.

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"How do we give him some structure over the next few months that he can develop himself or be a better person at the end of it or have experiences that he might not experience?” Southgate asked in a press conference. “I don't like the idea that we just leave somebody so they are not allowed to be a part of the football community. I don't think that's how we should work, I don't think that's how the best rehabilitation programmes would work.”

Southgate was quite right. Toney and Tonali’s bans were already extremely severe and failed to focus on the players’ health – or even make many concessions to it whatsoever. Wellbeing has to be the first focus going forward. In deciding against imposing another suspension on Tonali – for now, at least – the FA have taken a small step in the right direction, and hopefully it will help him on his journey towards recovery.

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