Inside the secret fight against match-fixing in football
Illustrations: Joe Waldron
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, 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.”
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”