Football's greatest threat: Why technology & stakeholder collaboration are key to combating global match-fixing

Published 08 December 2017 | Authored by: Henry Goldschmidt

The integrity of football has faced significant challenges in recent years – from governance failures and alleged vote-rigging, to concerns around common ownership of clubs, third party ownership of players and so-called “financial doping1 (e.g. potential flouting of financial fair play regulations).

Yet one of the most far-reaching threats to maintaining honest competition in football is a scourge that often seems to go under the radar (certainly in terms of mainstream media reporting) – namely, match-fixing. Whilst FIFA/UEFA seem to be getting their respective houses in order and rules have been introduced to tackle ownership issues, match-fixing continues to blight the game with alarming regularity.

This article discusses the threats that match-fixing poses to football and how the community might best begin to tackle the problem. Specifically, it looks at:

  • Examples of recent match-fixing convictions and allegations from around the world;

  • The paradoxical role that modern technology plays in both combatting and exacerbating the problem;

  • What the future holds in terms of prevention and detection.

 

Recent match-fixing convictions/allegations

A review of media reports from September 2017 alone suggests that match-fixing remains a current, complex and inherently global problem:

  1. On 6 September 2017, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”) upheld FIFA’s lifetime ban against Ghanaian referee, Joseph Lamptey, for “unlawfully influencing match results” by awarding a bogus penalty.2 Following the CAS decision (yet to be published), a World Cup qualifier between South Africa and Senegal will be replayed.3

  1. On 7 September 2017, the Football Association of Ireland (“FAI”) banned4 two Athlone Town players for 12 months for manipulating the result of the club's 3-1 Irish First Division defeat to Longford Town on 29 April 2017. The FAI said5 that it had launched its investigation after a UEFA Betting Fraud Detection System (“BFDS”) report demonstrated "clear and overwhelming betting evidence that the course of the 29 April game was unduly influenced with a view to gaining corrupt betting profits."6

  1. On 7 September 2017, it was reported7 in the Indian media that Sportradar Integrity Service (“Sportradar”) – the anti match-fixing arm of a large sport tech company – had written (on behalf of FIFA) to the All India Football Federation in relation to possible match-manipulation in the Calcutta Football League.8

  1. On 8 September 2017, suspicious betting patterns were reported9 in three matches played in the recent South-East Asia Games. Italian betting analysist Ivo Romano, a former football integrity consultant at UEFA, is quoted as saying there were “tell-tale” signs that Malaysia’s 3-1 victory over Laos was fixed – namely that “there was avalanche of money during the game, betting that Malaysia would score a third goal… [which duly arrived] in stoppage time.”10

  1. On 15 September 2017, it was reported11 that the Irish police had opened an investigation into five games involving Bray Wanderers, who play in the League of Ireland Premier Division. This has allegedly included extensive questioning of Bray’s players at their training ground.12

  1. Meanwhile, on 27 September 2017, four officials in a Malawian cup match were banned for life13 after receiving just US$20 – between them – to fix a game between lower league side Nachalo United and Chitipa United. The officials allegedly then returned US$15 to Nachalo – the team issuing the bribes – because they still lost.

It is fair to say that the above individuals/teams are not exactly household names and may seem a far cry from the 2006 Italian match-fixing scandal – “Calciopoli14 – which implicated the likes of European giants Juventus and AC Milan.15 Yet, when it comes to issues of integrity, it would be imprudent to be fixated on the profile of those purportedly involved as any kind of yardstick of the severity of the problem. The reality is that match-fixing is largely driven by money, and those with less to lose (i.e. on lower salaries) may – logic would suggest – be more susceptible to an approach.16 Indeed, the 2016 FIFPro Global Employment Report indicated that “players in lower income brackets were twice or three times more likely to be approached by match-fixers.”17

 

Match-fixing: A truly global problem

If tomorrow, we go watch a game already knowing the outcome, football is dead.” (Michel Platini, former UEFA President, January 2013)

Back in January 2013, Michel Platini, UEFA’s former President, famously described match-fixing as the biggest threat18 to the future of football. In hindsight, there may be a certain irony about Mr Platini speaking out on matters of integrity, but he was not alone in expressing the scale of the issue. At the time, Chris Eaton (former Head of Security at FIFA and current Director of Sport at the International Centre for Sport Security) described football as being in a “disastrous state” and that the “fixing of matches for criminal gambling fraud purposes is absolutely endemic worldwide… arrogantly happening daily.”19

Given that match-fixing is an inherently clandestine practice, it is almost impossible to quantify its prevalence – “endemic” or otherwise. That said, nearly five years on from Messrs Platini and Eaton’s comments, it is probably safe to say that the threat of match-fixing looms as largely as it did back then and that the issue is not confined to any particular corner of the globe. The reports of match-fixing in September 2017 stretched from Europe to Africa and Asia, whilst the final round of the CONMEBOL (South American) World Cup Qualifiers in October 2017 also attracted scrutiny.20

 

Technology – source or solution?

The interplay between match-fixing and technology is an interesting one as, arguably, developments in the latter could be used to both facilitate and tackle the former.

Data analytics – widening the evidential net

At least three of the September 2017 reports around match-fixing related to suspicious/unusual betting movements or patterns. The ability to monitor global betting markets is not, in itself, a new capability but the sophistication of the data-driven reports generated are now such that they have an increasingly important role to play.

The decision in FK Pobeda, Aleksandar Zabrcanec, Nikolce Zdraveski v UEFA21 some eight years ago was in many ways a watershed moment with respect to the use of technology in match-fixing cases. In that case, after rumours circulated about two legs of a Champions League Qualifier played five years earlier, betting patterns were retrospectively reviewed. UEFA mandated a betting expert, Mr Karl Dhont, to analyse the matches played in 2004 between Macedonian side FK Pobeda and FC Pyunick of Armenia, and he subsequently discovered that “unusual large amounts of money had been betted… ten times the usual amount for this the kind of match.”22 The CAS Panel “relie[d] primarily on the expert report” – alongside other supporting evidence – in deciding that the fixture had indeed been manipulated. UEFA subsequently launched its BFDS for the 2009/10 season.23

Perhaps the biggest development in jurisprudence in this area was the CAS decision in Klubi Sportiv Skënderbeu v UEFA24 – published in January this year. In that case, UEFA’s ban on Albanian side KF Skënderbeu Korçë (“Skenderbeu” or the “Club”) from European competition for the 2016/17 season was duly upheld by the CAS. Skenderbeu – like Pobeda – are relative minnows in the world of European club football but the CAS decision itself could have far-reaching implications. The facts of the case are well reported but, in simple terms, UEFA’s BFDS detected more than 50 matches involving Skenderbeu since 2010 which had signs of being manipulated for betting purposes.

The Panel concluded to its “comfortable satisfaction” that the Club had, at the very least, been indirectly involved in match-fixing.25 In coming to that decision, the Panel observed that the analytical information derived from the BFDS had been “valuable evidence26 and drew an analogy with the athlete blood passport (“ABP”) in anti-doping matters:

Both [BFDS and ABP] rely initially on analytical data which is subsequently interpreted by experts/analysts before conclusions are drawn as to whether a violation is presumed to be committed or not.27

What weighed heavily against the Club was the lack of credible alternative explanations for the betting patterns and that it merely contested the reliability of the BFDS reports in a “very generic way”.28 However, the Panel’s decision should not be interpreted as a licence to prosecute cases on the basis of betting pattern/behaviour analysis alone – indeed, the decision emphasised that betting pattern/behaviour analysis had to be “supported by other, different and external elements pointing in the same direction” which could effectively enable a “qualitative analysis of the quantitative information.”29 Corroborative evidence, in that case, was included in the BFDS report themsevles and included video footage of suspiciously poor defending, a pattern of conceding late goals (when the result was no longer in doubt), post-match concerns raised by opponents and the removal of the Club from certain live betting markets.30

For all the complexity of the algorithms and mathematical models used in generating the reports, the Skenderbeu Panel equally suggested that BFDS processes could be improved (e.g. ensuring a minimum number of analysts, anonymising club names, including former players and/or coaches in the pool of analysts, etc).31

What is clear is that football governing bodies are increasingly willing to rely on analytical information for investigatory and disciplinary purposes. Indeed, it was a BFDS report that ultimately led to the FAI banning the Athlone Town players in September. Meanwhile, back in February 2017 (shortly after the Skenderbeu decision was published by the CAS), Sportradar entered into formal agreement with FIFA, aiming “to identify and analyse any suspicious betting pattern across a number of international and domestic competitions around the world”.

For more information on the Skenderbeu decision, please see: Can suspicious betting alerts prove match fixing? The case of KS Skënderbeu v UEFA.32

Access to betting markets

On the flipside, technology can also be exploited for the wrong reasons. The ubiquity of smartphones and tablet devices has propagated an extraordinary growth in the global sports betting market. Millions of people have access to unrestricted, wall-to-wall, online betting markets at the touch of a button, regardless of geography. Technology has made the world a smaller place but in doing so, has made it easier for criminals to operate in unregulated and/or undetectable ethers beyond the reaches of law enforcement.

In April 2015, Patrick Jay, an independent betting expert and former sports and football director at Ladbrokes, estimated the global sports betting market to be US$1 trillion per year – of which 90% was illegal.33 Speaking at the 13th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Mr Jay also explained that34:

  1. 65% of the global figure was spent on football betting;

  2. The Asian market was the centre of sports gambling – with China becoming the epicentre of the illegal market; and

  3. Up to €1 billion could be gambled on a single football match.

Despite the common perception that it is easier to fix one-on-one sports like tennis, darts and snooker, the sheer volume of bets (including, and especially, illegal bets) placed on football matches is indicative of the challenge the game faces. Mobile apps now allow in-game betting, spread-betting and betting exchange (i.e. the ability to back or lay bets) – increasing the volume of bets placed and making it easier for fixers to artificially manipulate the market.

Whether it is consumer driven or otherwise, there seems to be an unquenchable thirst for sports betting content. By being able to bet on almost every element of the game – from the number of red cards to the minute the ball first goes out of play – it has also become easier to fix discrete outcomes (rather than actual results) within team sports. Indeed, Prof Sally Gainsbury, an expert in the psychology of gambling, has suggested that players may view such behaviour – known as “spot-fixing” – as less unethical than throwing an entire match.35 Spot-fixing has historically been associated with cricket36 but it is equally as applicable to football in today’s betting market. 

 

Discussion

Match-fixing is a global phenomenon. For all the talk of overpaid footballers in the upper (and even middle) echelons of the game, match-fixing tends to strike at the other end of the spectrum – with some willing to influence games for as little as US$20. Evidently, it can be less headline-grabbing (if reported at all) but that should not belie the threat match-fixing continues to pose to the wider game.

For the purposes of prevention, recent reports have shown the need for resources to be injected into lower leagues and smaller federations to improve integrity measures. It may seem trite, but players, officials and administrators need to be better educated – about existing betting rules, how/to whom to report any illicit approach, the potential repercussions of being involved in spot/match-fixing, etc. The use of technology could also play a part in education – for example, through the dissemination of e-learning programmes and fraud prevention apps.37 Awareness of these resources is as important as their existence, so they should be properly promoted to ensure maximum utilisation.

As for detection, analytical data will likely play an increasingly prominent role in the prosecution of match-fixing cases (alongside more traditional evidence). The Skenderbeu decision has shown that tribunals appear willing to give increasing weight to suspicious betting data (alongside other corroborative evidence). This will not have gone unnoticed by the likes of Sportradar and Genius Sports, who (i) offer such services and (ii) will see themselves as ever more valued participants in the fight against match-fixing.

Given the extraordinary growth in the global sports betting market, it follows that the gambling industry has a significant role to play if match-fixing is to be curbed to any significant extent. For instance, the opportunities to manipulate a match may be reduced if the legal betting markets restricted gambling to – for instance – (i) high-level competitive games, and (ii) significant events within a contest (e.g. scoring a goal as opposed to kicking the ball out of play). In retort, the gambling industry would no doubt emphasise that this would not prevent illegal bookmakers from accepting bets on lower-level sports and alternative outcomes. Limiting the breadth of betting opportunities would also likely mean less revenue potential, which is unlikely to be an attractive proposition for licensed bookmakers. Ultimately, it will be impossible to please everyone, but such restrictions would send out a strong message and draw a more tangible line between lawful and illicit betting operators – which may, in turn, assist with the identification of the latter.

As stakeholders seek to minimise their exposure to the risk of match-fixing, a more collaborative approach has been encouraged over the last 5 years, with a focus on partnerships (and/or improving information exchange) between key stakeholders. However, the effectiveness of such partnerships may be limited by – amongst other things – disjointed efforts and the varying appetites/capabilities of local law enforcement agencies. A more viable long-term model, therefore, may be the creation of a global body akin to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The joint participation of private and public bodies (including the pooling of resources into a centralised project), together with the adoption of a uniform set of rules by all stakeholders, would allow for a more coordinated and uniform approach in the fight against match-fixers. One major obstacle, however, is that match-fixing lacks the publicity of doping (which, prior to formation of WADA, had long been in the spotlight). The lack of visibility may result in a corresponding lack of impetus from governments and other potential stakeholders. If that is right, the recent match-fixing reports in football are unlikely to be tipping points.

For more discussion on this issue, please see: Why sport needs a unified approach to sanctions for corruption offences.38

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About the Author

Henry Goldschmidt

Henry Goldschmidt

Henry Goldschmidt is an associate at Morgan Sports Law, specialising in arbitration and litigation.  He trained at Lawrence Graham (now Gowling WLG), qualifying into their dispute resolution team.  After four years doing commercial litigation and international arbitration, he joined MSL in September 2016.  Henry  has particular interests in anti-doping, concussion and match-fixing.

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