Things have not been going great for Pawel Cibicki since he left Leeds United. They didn’t exactly go great for him here, a 23-year-old winger signing for £1.5m from Malmo as part of the barrage of test tube tries Victor Orta threw at Thomas Christiansen in 2017/18. Two assists in 358 minutes is what Leeds got from him, plus seven shots on target and twelve accurate crosses; since then he’s played for Molde in Norway, Elfsborg in Sweden, Pogoń Szczecin in Poland and ADO Den Haag in the Netherlands, adding twelve goals, six assists, and crucially, three yellow cards. The second of those bookings, given for a foul against Kalmar while playing for Elfsborg in May 2019, led to last week, when Cibicki was convicted on appeal of taking a bribe and match-fixing.
The outline of the accusations is that, on the eve of the match, two defendants — who have been convicted of match-fixing — set up 27 new gambling accounts, that all placed bets on Cibicki getting a rare booking. The same people transferred SEK 300,000 into Cibicki’s bank account — about £25,000. Six months ago a Swedish district court, while convicting the fixers, cleared Cibicki of all charges, because there was no evidence of an agreement to fix the match. The police investigators appealed, and this week the Court of Appeal decided the circumstantial evidence was too strong to ignore: the links between the payment, the creation of the accounts and the statistical unlikelihood of Cibicki getting booked were enough. The court overturned the original decision and convicted Cibicki, handing down probation and a suspended sentence. Neither, ‘the value of the penalty nor the nature of the crime justifies a sentence of imprisonment’ the court said.
Cibicki and his lawyers still maintain his innocence, and he may yet appeal to a higher court. Pawel claims he’s being made an example of. After the original trial, when he was initially cleared, the Swedish FA imposed a four year ban until February 2025 anyway, made worldwide by FIFA. “I don’t care what people think, but what I think is ugly is what the Swedish Football Association has done,” Cibicki told a podcast a couple of days before the appeal verdict. “It’s a blow below the belt. For me it’s a big joke.” Cibicki claims the £25,000 was only a loan to him, and his accounts show that he paid it back a month later, plus another £8,300 interest. If it was a bribe, he says, why would he pay it back with interest?
If you think the terms of that loan sound rough on Pawel, you’re right, and as he explained on Hamza Ftouni’s podcast Full Time Professionals, that’s his real battle. He needed the loan to finance a gambling addiction that has plagued him since he was eighteen. The terms of the loan, according to the prosecutor’s case, are grim. The fixers got their money back, plus 15 per cent interest, plus the profits from their bet on his booking. Cibicki got nothing, apart from avoiding whatever would have happened to him if he hadn’t got that £25,000 for his debts when he needed it. And now he has lost his career.
“I was a gambling addict and I lost a lot of money,” he told Ftouni. “It’s a drug. It is deadly. Many people have the problem, but I sit here proudly today and can admit it. I’ve lost millions. But am I a bad person for that? We all make mistakes. I’m ashamed of what I’ve done to my parents. I’ve hurt them. They’ve taken so much shit. You borrow from everything and everyone. I’ve let a lot of people down. A lot of people.
“I have gone to therapy and I am free of it today. I’m approaching ten to twelve months as bet-free. I can be proud when I’m 50 and I can say I haven’t gambled in 25 years. Then I can be proud. But now it’s still a process for me. I struggle with it every day.”
The struggle has not been helped by the prosecutor pursuing him through the Court of Appeal. Although the crisis has brought his gambling addiction to the point where he has sought help, the suspicion has taken a heavy toll. At times, Cibicki says, he has felt suicidal.
“I had a strong psyche, but everyone turned. Everyone said Pawel did it. He’s so-and-so, he’s so-and-so … At the same time, it ended between me and my girlfriend. We were together for eight years. It all came together in one fell swoop. Should I be completely honest? I swear to God I felt the worst. Do you know how bad I felt? I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. I felt so bad. Quite honestly, the thoughts came [of suicide].”
He wanted to use the podcast interview as a platform, he said, to encourage people to seek help for gambling addictions.
“It’s like mental illness. As soon as you feel ashamed, you will feel bad. Talk it out, instead. I’ve had a lump in my stomach for a year. But if people want to listen to this, they’re welcome to do so. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t be ashamed if you’re sick or have a problem. Talk about it. It helps.”
But he also wanted, on the eve of the appeal verdict, to explain his side of the story, and publicly maintain his innocence.
“I am innocent. I’ve been innocent since day one and I’m innocent to this day … I am 27 years old and I have lost six months. Many have said that Pawel is finished. But I will become an even better footballer. I’m not worried. I was acquitted in the district court and I will be acquitted again in the Court of Appeal.”
He was not acquitted in the Court of Appeal, and if Pawel Cibicki is to make that comeback and be an even better footballer, he and his lawyers have to decide whether to appeal his conviction in the Supreme Court, or appeal to the National Sports Board to reduce his playing ban, or both. Otherwise, he won’t be able to play again until he’s 31 years old.
In Swedish newspaper Espressen, columnist Therese Strömberg is asking what responsibility football has towards Cibicki now, and how the game — awash with sponsorship from betting companies — allowed him to get to this point. The few footballers who have spoken out about their gambling addiction, she writes, all have the same stories, stories that are:
About young people who, for various reasons, start and then may not be able to stop, and who have no bloody idea where to turn when things start to go too far. After all, their clubs and national teams are making money from the swamp they themselves have just fallen into — so who’s there to help them?
[Players don’t have] a desire for life to be this way, there’s no impetus to gamble away everything you own and have, to potentially do something criminal … There isn’t a young boy or girl who dreams of being a footballer who also dreams of it being like this.
Players need looking after. Who should have been looking after Pawel Cibicki? At the time of the decisive booking, in May 2019, he was on loan at Elfsborg but still contracted to Leeds United, as he was from August 2017 to January 2020. A lot of fans had forgotten him until Angus Kinnear brought him up in those weird programme notes the other week, when he reacted to the fan-led review of football governance like a moody teenager at a private school getting into Rage Against The Machine: the Premier League will not be regulated, they won’t do what you tell them! He also drew a bizarre line between sensible Premier League chief executives who can be trusted to self-regulate, like Angus Kinnear, and reckless Football League executives who, had you given them any extra funding, ‘would have still blown it on Pawel Cibicki’. Like Angus Kinnear.
It is and was okay for fans to make jokes about Cibicki at Leeds. Terrace humour is as old as the game, and deep down we know we’d swap in a second with the players we’re taking the piss out of. A lot of us also remember Cibicki’s debut and a brilliant cross for Kemar Roofe to score at QPR, a brief moment when ‘Seabiscuit’ looked the business. But Kinnear can’t joke about blowing money on Cibicki when he’s the chief executive who signed off on paying £1.5m for him in the first place. It isn’t possible to whip the tie off, hop out of the director’s box and run over to start nudging the fans, pointing at the pitch and asking ‘wow, who blew all the money on that guy!?’, when the answer is you, you blew the money on him. Then you sold us tickets to watch him, you hired Paul Heckingbottom to coach him, and the team finished 13th. That’s why fans tell jokes, because if we didn’t, we’d cry. What were we supposed to be laughing at in Kinnear’s programme notes?
It was a tumultuous season when Cibicki was here, Andrea Radrizzani’s first in full charge, ending in a London restaurant where Victor Orta screamed at him that the strategy wasn’t working. In the midst of it all, I remember Felix Wiedwald doing interviews in Germany about his long hunt for bratwurst in Harrogate getting him nowhere because all his cooking appliances needed adaptors anyway, then ending his season out of the team, walking in the Dales on Saturdays; I remember Jay-Roy Grot’s girlfriend documenting their life in Leeds on her YouTube channel, sitting by the canal near their flat, contemplating the future, worrying about what country they might have to move to next; then there was Samu Saiz, out of Bielsa’s team, concerned about his partner’s difficult pregnancy, telling the club he wanted to go back to Spain.
And Pawel Cibicki, Pontus Jansson’s little mate from Malmo, who nobody realised was gambling away every penny he was paid and more, redefining ‘blowing the lot’ to a point beyond jokes about transfer fees. That season proved that real life isn’t like Football Manager, and you can’t just set a European search for 15+ potential and throw a team together, not least because what you get in real life are not avatars, but real people who crave real German sausages. In the years since, Leeds United have given every sign of being a club getting itself together, with strong leadership from among the players who can help keep their teammates out of trouble. In 2019, Angus Kinnear spoke up well in support of Jordan Stevens, after The FA banned him from all communication with the club for six weeks for betting on matches.
But Therese Strömberg’s wider point about the scrapheap of failed ‘playing assets’ applies across the game. Could somebody have helped Pawel Cibicki in the eight years he spent playing and betting, at Malmo, Leeds, or elsewhere? Maybe, maybe not. He hid it from everybody. As he says, the shame was powerful. But couldn’t someone help him now? The judge in Sweden gave him a suspended sentence because they deem him extremely unlikely to offend again, but despite that assessment, he is banned for the next four years from the only profession he’s ever known. The profession that didn’t protect him, the profession that profits from encouraging the gambling that captured him, the profession that ought to be his chance to save himself. How is that helping? ⬢
◉ Pawel is right when he says, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t be ashamed if you’re sick or have a problem. Talk about it. It helps.” If you think you might need help with gambling problems, https://www.gamcare.org.uk has online tools and advice, and a 24/7 number you can ring for a chat: 0808 8020 133. If you feel like you need help with anything at all, Samaritans are always available in the UK and Ireland on 116 123, on their website https://www.samaritans.org, or by email to [email protected] or [email protected].(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)