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Why Football Matches Get Fixed

An estimated one percent of football matches get fixed, here’s why.

There is a purity in sport that gets degraded when distasteful elements such as racism and corruption get thrown in. What should be a sanctified competition of athleticism, on-field tactics, and managerial strategy, becomes less dignified with each incident of bigotry or bribery. But while racism rears an ugly head for all to see once in a while, match-fixing is the ever-present, seedy underbelly of football that relatively few are aware of and almost no one is able to prevent. We at Football Tribe attempt to uncover the reasons for this.

The primary motivation behind match-fixing, gambling, may be frowned upon but it happens a lot

Gambling may be condemned in all manner of scripture, but in terms of both legal and illegal sports betting around the world, it happens to the tune of around 3 trillion US Dollars every year. 

That’s a lot of slick website and customer service hotline money, or some kit sponsor money.

And that’s just a conservative estimate by Patrick Jay, a betting expert who spoke at the 13th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in 2015. To paraphrase Jay, who used to work at Ladbrokes, some of his peers in the industry would suggest even higher numbers. The true volume of sports bets that move around the world is understandably difficult to quantify—according to Jay, the vast majority of global sports betting (around 90 percent) is unregulated.

Matches of interest can take place anywhere in the world, but a lot of the betting happens in Asia

Around 65% of bets around the world are placed on football matches, especially lower-tier fixtures that are broadcast live during ordinary waking hours in Asian time-zones.

A gambler placing a bet at a Hong Kong jockey. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

 These seemingly trivial details are cited by experts like Jay to support a number of damning assertions. One of these assertions being that, while somewhat regulated in the UK and parts of western Europe, the sports betting industry still enjoys little to no enforcement in Asia. In places like China, for example, over a billion US Dollars in wagers could be placed on a single match. 

The gambling continues to happen because it can

Despite the weight of all that money, there isn’t much regulation. 

Some nations don’t have laws in place to specifically address match-fixing, any charges filed against alleged fixers tend to revolve around fraud and money laundering. With around 90% of wagers being made off the books, the prevalence of criminal interests is a given. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), around 25 percent of global sports betting is currently being controlled by organised criminal groups.

Another critical assertion by experts like Patrick Jay is that the preferred targets of match-fixers are leagues featuring a balance of characteristics such as cut-rate obscurity, loose enforcement, and nominal expectations of professionalism. Due to chronically lower wages and few high-profile commercial endorsements, players and referees in semi-professional leagues are said to be more easily bought off without drawing attention. 

As illustrated with Sam Corcoran’s impression of a cartoon during a Conference South match between Chelmsford City and Hayes & Yeading in November 2012.

These requisites for fixed matches mean that regional criminal groups eventually end up in collaboration with each other. Criminal groups with physical access to targeted teams welcome partnerships with other groups that can finance the fixes, streamline a high volume of wagers coming primarily from Europe and Asia, and kick a percentage of the bookmaking fees or winnings their way.

For some people, gambling continues to happen because it has to

Depending on who you ask, anywhere between one in 100 to one in 20 people could be classified as compulsive gamblers.

The allure of winnings multiple times the value of a wager, the understandably brutal machinations of a largely unregulated industry controlled by criminal interests, the compulsion for many and an addiction for some, with all these ingredients in the mix, creative solutions to affect desired outcomes in matches inevitably arise.

Sometimes, these solutions are as creative as the tried-and-tested method of paying for on-field favours with cold, hard cash.

It’s been going on for a long time

It’s even a subculture of its own, distinct from cardsharps, pool sharks, or grifters. 

All manner of characters from street toughs and fixers to financiers of expensive fixes and old-timey syndicates experienced in the protection game have been degrading the integrity of football since time immemorial. That culture has survived—perpetuated by criminal groups who divested as the times changed, expanded with live bets, and supercharged, initially by telephone, and then, by the internet.

One could refer to season 5 of Peaky Blinders on Netflix to get a fictional portrayal of what some of that might have looked like back in the early-twentieth century.

As discovered through the stories of characters like the mysterious “Uncle” Frankie Chung, who mentored the deceptively innocent-looking “Dan” Tan Seet Eng, who employed the jet-setting Wilson Raj Perumal, who in turn employed the runner Segaran “Gerry” Gsubramaniam, there is a hidden and old world, a subculture of habitual gambling leading to match-fixing, beneath the shiny veneer of association football.

Admitting to the problem could be difficult

Recognising that match-fixing exists might be the first step, but no one really wants to take it.

According to known match-fixers, the reach of criminal groups invested in sports betting extends beyond bribing individual players, or even whole teams. The fixes could happen anywhere from the lowest tiers of professional football leagues around the world all the way up to hiring referees through shell companies for the FIFA World Cup.

A report by FIFA said a match-rigging syndicate infiltrated the sport’s upper reaches. Credit: Illustration by Sam Manchester/The New York Times; photographs from FIFA report and Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

 Even with testimonies by fixers like Perumal sitting among ample evidence currently circulating around courts and prosecutor’s offices around the world, acknowledging the problem could destroy the credibility of many respected institutions. 

High technology could fix match-fixing—if we really wanted it to

With the technology to root it out, it really is up to the leagues to prevent match-fixing.

There’s the video assistant referee (VAR) and goal-line technology to help keep referees in check, and then there are big data services like Sportradar to look out for weird betting patterns—which is generally understood to be as indicative of match-fixing as smoke is to fire.

Combining an extensive database of any person who has been involved in a match, open-source intelligence of social media connections, in addition to analyses of match statistics and live bookmaking data, Sportradar has reportedly identified thousands of potentially fixed matches in the last decade.

More recently, Sportradar monitored several players who exported a suspicious set of behavioural patterns from the English FA to the Australian Football Federation, culminating in formal charges for the accused match-fixer Gsubramaniam and several semi-professional players in Melbourne.

Sportradar marked the Southern Stars SC as a deliberate loser and the right place for some match-fixing players to end up.

Gsubramaniam was branded as the ringleader and received a year of prison time, while his likely employer (Perumal) probably earned around 2 million Australian Dollars and remained a free man—albeit living under witness protection in Hungary. The conspiring players, despite some claims of innocence and coercion, were slapped with fines on top of career-ending bans. The lower tiers of the English FA and the Football Federation of Australia lost even more credibility—and the true ringleaders, at least for now, have disappeared into obscurity.

Read on about the 10 Most Valuable Football Leagues in 2019 or 10 Moments in Football That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.

Kevin Eichenberger reckons that in addition to prison time and public service announcements on gambling addiction, match-fixers should play matches against gamblers who believe in luck.