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Inside the secret fight against match-fixing in football

Illustration: Joe Waldron
Illustration: Joe Waldron

Illustrations: Joe Waldron (opens in new tab)

An African referee is identified as vulnerable to corruption. He’s persuaded to ensure that a World Cup qualifier has at least three goals. With half-time approaching, it’s still 0-0 and the official gets twitchy. A cross hits a defender on the knee. He awards a penalty for handball. Despite uproarious protests, the spot-kick is converted. The game ends 2-1.

A European club win the first leg of a Champions League match by a large margin. With their progress assured, it’s arranged for them to concede late in the second fixture. With three minutes left, their defence switches off. A ball is punted upfield and a forward heads it goalward. The goalkeeper barely attempts a save.

Fixers arrange for a group of English sixth-tier players to join a club on the other side of the world. Unquestioningly accepted by the new employers, a previously solid side suddenly start losing, and heavily. A young goalkeeper in central Europe is befriended by a rich man. He gets him into clubs, gets him girls and treats him like a rock star. A family debt is soon paid off. Later, he asks him to concede a goal in a friendly game. Who would that harm? This is then used as leverage against him to commit more significant on-field fraud.

There are numerous ways to fix a match. Some are simple, others are sophisticated and barely believable. But when the true beauty of sport is its unpredictability, how on earth is it possible to prove if odd behaviour is down to human error or something a lot more sinister? How can all the above scenarios get busted? Just follow the money.

On the radar

You’ve probably never heard of Sportradar (opens in new tab), and despite the company kindly agreeing to a feature in FourFourTwo, it’s quite happy that way. We’ve stopped by its London offices – it has 34 worldwide, with 1,900 employees – under the condition that we don’t disclose the location, or use any real names.

If this seems like the paranoia of a counter-intelligence unit, that’s because it is. As the world’s foremost experts in betting-related fraud and sports corruption, Sportradar is not mucking around. The people they’re battling against include many international mafias, who often see gambling as a good way to launder money. Death threats were issued to UEFA inspectors in February after the exposure of Albanian outfit Skenderbeu’s involvement in fixing, and a member of the Nepal side appeared to threaten Sportradar’s team after players were put on trial for throwing a match.

Some of the figures involved in the worldwide gambling industry are gobsmacking: an estimated €1.5 trillion a year, with a game like the Champions League final attracting around €1 billion in bets (with 70% of this punting going on in Asia, much of it being unregulated, such figures can never be exact).

As our Sportradar spokesman Ian (not his real name) explains to us: “People don’t realise how big the international market is, and there’s no real way of knowing how big exactly. But it’s a crap-ton of money.”

So how do you go about monitoring such an unwieldy beast? Data, data and more data. Sportradar was started in 2001 by Carsten Koerl (his real name), a German entrepreneur who helped to establish online betting company Bwin.

Koerl recognised that internet gambling would produce a plethora of new bookmakers, but that many would lack the expertise to set odds accurately. A reputable service provider would be needed, and this was Betradar – the part of Sportradar that sells industry-leading information to turf accountants worldwide.

The ‘integrity services’ part arrived in 2005 as a by-product. “Whatever you need to operate a bookie, we can deliver,” says Ian. “But as part of our relationship with the betting industry, we get their information back. It soon became clear that by using this, we can see when bookmakers move away from the rest of the market. It always happens for a reason.”

Balancing risk

What many casual punters might not realise is that while odds partly reflect how likely something is to happen, they also reflect bookmakers balancing risk. So if a big amount of money comes in on Crewe to beat Exeter, operators may compensate by offering more attractive odds on Exeter to beat Crewe, to cover potential losses. By the same reasoning, if a fixing group are betting big on a late goal being scored with a certain operator, that bookie will alter its odds to reflect this.

“If one bookmaker is getting a lot of money on something that nobody else is, there can be many innocent reasons,” says Ian. “Maybe they’ve got some injury information earlier than everyone else or they’ve got an excellent analyst – or maybe the bookie’s got it wrong that day, so they realise their mistake and adjust.”

But if one of the 550-plus online gambling companies that Sportradar work with suddenly offers prices that deviate wildly, it can be a smoking gun for match-fixing. “If a lot of people bet on something with unnatural confidence, it could be because someone’s engineered the result.”

The company therefore developed the Fraud Detection System (FDS) – an algorithm that scans 280,000 competitive fixtures annually across 17 sports looking for anomalies. “The algorithms don’t ask questions, they create alerts,” says Ian. “So we need a second stage, called qualitative analysis. This is our team of more than 100 experts. They work 24/7. As soon as an alert pops up, they have 72 hours to determine whether it is a legitimate or suspicious betting pattern.”

The number crunchers carry out their research, chatting to a network of bookmakers and journalists if required. “Maybe our person out there on the ground knows that it was the captain’s birthday so everyone got drunk,” says Ian. “We look at all options. You can’t just say: ‘This is fixing’. You’d be destroying reputations. We’re not a machine gun, we’re a sniper rifle. When we shoot, we get it right. We always start with the betting patterns, but it takes more than that to be credible.”

Sportradar only escalates an incident when it is 100% sure of foul play. To date, this has included 3,800 sports fixtures. The figure has climbed from 146 in 2009 to 650 last year.

This rise reflects more games being surveyed rather than an increase in criminality: Ian estimates that 0.5% to 1% of the matches they monitor are affected. As a result, Sportradar reports have been used in 36 criminal convictions and 251 sporting sanctions (suspensions, bans and fines) to date, with more on the docket.

NEXT: “In some places, players don’t ask questions if they value their kneecaps”

Sportradar’s experience has provided a unique insight into how fixing works. “It’s not generally some guy bowling up and saying, ‘Here’s 50k, please lose 5-0’,” adds Ian. “Fixers usually groom players and officials. They take time, do them favours and entertain them. Then they’ll call in the favours. And once you do something for them they say: ‘You’ve just fixed a match for me, now you’re my bitch’. Prostitutes or drugs can be used as leverage, while older players are sometimes used to influence and recruit younger ones.”

Value your kneecaps

Often at the core of these shady dealings are large criminal groups. “The Balkan, Italian and Asian mafia are involved,” explains Ian. “The owners of clubs can also be criminals. They tell players: ‘Unfortunately you’re going to lose today’. In some places, players don’t ask questions if they value their kneecaps.”

Fixers can even arrange fixtures. Notorious Singaporean super-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal organised numerous friendlies, for which he would pick the referee. “There’s a preponderance of rigged friendlies, because there’s nothing on the line and participants are more willing to agree,” says Ian. Referees are a common target. “They control the result pretty closely, especially if the fixers are betting on total goals. You don’t care who scores them, you just care that there are three or four. So you dish out some penalties.”

This proved the undoing of Ghana’s Joseph Lamptey, who was caught trying to influence goals scored in a World Cup qualifier between South Africa and Senegal last year. His decision to blow for a penalty after the ball hit Senegal defender Kalidou Koulibaly on the knee was ridiculous, but it’s the kind of blunder referees often make. It was the algorithm that caught him. FIFA – a Sportradar partner – decided to replay a World Cup qualifier due to fixing for the first time, and Lamptey was banned for life.

Perumal’s syndicate was involved in the 2013 Southern Stars scandal. Four players and a coach from the Melbourne club were convicted, along with a Malaysian fixer. English players were involved in play so obviously suspect that their opponents regularly questioned what was happening.

“I was panicking, getting a call when we were losing 2-0 and the boss saying this better f**king happen,” defender Reiss Noel told police about one game. “I felt threatened as we weren’t getting the goals required.” Sportradar’s algorithm had again alerted the authorities, and Noel and a team-mate, goalkeeper Joe Woolley, were banned for life by FIFA after admitting helping to fix matches.

“These guys weren’t exactly brain surgeons,” says Ian. “Police were at the game, and you’ve got a fixer on the phone actually speaking to one player, and him then saying to the goalkeeper: ‘We need to let another in’. Sometimes the footage you watch of keepers jumping the wrong way is almost comical.”

However, there’s also a degree of cat-and-mouse between Sportradar and criminals that wouldn’t look out of place in The Wire. “A few years ago someone realised you don’t even need to manipulate a performance to fix a match – you can just manipulate the concept of a performance,” explains Ian. This led to the extraordinary phenomenon of ‘ghost games’, in which entire matches were faked.

“In order for bookmakers to cover football, they simply need data on what is happening. So it was created from nothing – they sent through details about imaginary goals being scored after they had bet on them.”

Among the games that never kicked off included Maldives Under-21s against Turkmenistan Under-21s from 2012, and Portugal’s Freamunde against Spain’s Ponferradina in 2014. “People innovate – it’s like doping,” says Ian. “We’ve also had some fixers trying not to disrupt the odds by spreading a bet across lots of bookies. But our system now aggregates, so we can catch those spikes, too.”

Take down the mafia

Sportradar can’t take down the mafia, but it's working with people who can. After the Southern Stars scandal was exposed in conjunction with Australian police forces, more law enforcement agencies got involved: Europol are partners and Interpol are close collaborators.

“The floodgates opened, because forces realised that our system isn’t witchcraft,” says Ian. Sportradar now helps to educate police worldwide, free of charge. It has even developed the system to the point where it identified a way to single out specific individual bets that disrupt odds, so law enforcers can follow up those accounts.

A number of countries are also setting up national platforms to fight the problem and share their resources, with Sportradar offering crucial insight once again. Making major arrests will always be complicated, though. The evidence required for criminal convictions (‘beyond reasonable doubt’) is greater than that needed for sporting sanctions (‘to comfortable satisfaction’).

“Sports organisations can ban people but they can’t put them in prison,” says Ian. “Our FDS is good at pinpointing who’s executing a fix, but the problem is they’re footsoldiers – a 17-year-old kid who made a mistake and can’t get out of the web he’s in. We want the puppetmasters.”

As a result, Sportradar now has a specialist group, set up by a former British military counter-intelligence operative, attempting to join the dots in these international crimes. The more information they share, the more criminal cases they can get across the line. This means careful vetting of who works for Sportradar, too.

“We need to check the background of employees,” says Ian. “We need to be wary if someone seems lenient. None of our analysts are allowed to bet, and our level of encryption is extremely high. All our servers are in-house, we have no information on the cloud and we’re quiet on social media. We know we’re causing a headache for people who could make a lot of money, so we might be targeted.”

The big question many football supporters might want to ask, alas, remains unanswered. How much match-fixing takes place in - for example - the Premier League?

“Worth a try,” laughs Ian. “Sadly, I can’t talk about any specific league.” He will discuss the game’s relative vulnerability, however. “It is quite difficult to fix. Something like tennis is easier. There, you can even have a match that’s arranged, but somehow appears fair to the players. We agree that I’ll win the first set, you win the second set, and then we play for real in the third. It’s still the best man wins, and we both get to bet.”

While there’s a different algorithm for the Premier League as opposed to the Croatian third division, to reflect profile and bet spend, we shouldn't assume that the biggest names are not involved. “Rich people can have gambling debts and can be sleeping with the wrong people,” says Ian. “They can be vulnerable. It may be easier to fix a badminton match, but how much liquidity is in the badminton market? Not much. Football has plenty of liquidity.”

It’s almost time to leave Sportradar’s nerve centre when an alert pops up: there’s some suspicious activity in a southern European clash. Our analyst – let’s call him Bob – guides us through several screens. An Asian betting company is offering bafflingly low odds on there being another goal scored, despite it being the 88th minute of the match. Some wild punts are clearly being made. The fix is in, we decide, and watch the closing moments play out on a digital screen. But nothing happens. Bob concludes that this is likely to end up designated as a ‘failed fix’ – a possible dodgy deal that didn’t work. Paperwork will be filed.

A former professional gambler, Bob got into this gig after frequently getting foiled by some of the dubious odds movements he now fights. “I enjoy getting to see it all,” he says. And he still goes home to watch football after work.

Ian admits his work can leave him “disenchanted”, though. “The point of sport is the unpredictability of a result, and the honesty of the battle,” he says. “But this is the world we live in.” Until things change radically, Sportradar will keep following the money.

This feature originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe! (opens in new tab)

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