The reality behind the match-fixing headlines

Posted by Gabriele Marcotti

With Europol -- the European Union's law enforcement agency handling criminal intelligence -- claiming it has uncovered evidence of football match-fixing on an unprecedented scale in Europe and beyond, here's your guide to deciphering the semantics of the controversial topic.

Q: Six hundred and eighty games fixed worldwide in the past four years! That's what the man from Europol said! It really was a "dark day"...

A: Sure it was. But it's also worth noting how vague Europol was when asked how many of those 680 had been previously reported. In fact, they repeatedly side-stepped the question. Which rather leads you to conclude that what they did was add up all the cases that are being investigated, the ones that have been concluded and, possibly, ones that are under suspicion and may yet be investigated.

Still, that's a lot for one body like Europol to investigate!

Well, it's not Europol who is investigating. Europol isn't the FBI. They don't have special agents running around in every corner of the world. Europol liaises and helps share information between police forces worldwide. These are cases that police and authorities in various countries around the world looked at or are looking at.

- Forrest: Surprised about match-fixing? You shouldn't be
- Delaney: History of match-fixing
- Video: Klinsmann - Clean up the game
- Duerden on Asian match-fixing
- Video: Liverpool game part of match-fixing probe
- Press Pass on match-fixing

So it's not really news?

It is in the sense that it's important and we ought to be paying attention to it. It isn't in the sense that not much is "new".

Take the fact that they mentioned the two Champions League games that were investigated. We know one of them, Debrecen-Fiorentina from 2009-10. We know because the Debrecen goalkeeper, Vukasin Poleksic, was investigated and subsequently banned for two years. And several outlets have reported that the other game, the one Europol described as "another match on UK soil" (a description designed to tantalize the British tabloids), was Liverpool-Debrecen.

There is no official confirmation that this was the game but, given that Poleksic was banned and he played at Anfield, folks are putting two and two together.

So this guy fixed both games, which Debrecen, presumably, lost?

Not quite. The allegation was that Poleksic had agreed to favor the "overs", that is, allow as many goals as possible, a popular bet in the Asian betting markets. He "succeeded" against Fiorentina (Debrecen lost, 3-4); less so against Liverpool (despite his alleged "compliance," it finished 1-0 to the Reds).

The thing is, authorities weren't actually able to prove that the game was fixed. Poleksic appealed his ban for match-fixing and the Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS) found that there was insufficient evidence that either game was fixed or that Poleksic tried to fix it.

He was ultimately banned on a lesser charge: failing to report that he had been approached by match-fixers. Which is part of the problem -- match-fixing is tough to prove.

How so?

Vukasin Poleksic of Debrecen
GettyImagesVukasin Poleksic of Debrecen is unable to stop Dirk Kuyt of Liverpool scoring in the Champions League Group E match between on September 16, 2009

In Poleksic's case they had evidence of conversations between him and known match-fixers. They knew they had asked him to allow as many goals as possible. But they had no definitive evidence that he actually did it. And no evidence that he received payment for it. So they got him on the lesser charge, which still carries a very stiff punishment.

Wait ... so it's actually really hard to figure out when a game is fixed. And it's even harder to prove it?

Fortunately, we have tools to help us figure out when a game MAY have been fixed. That's not so difficult. Bookmakers initially set their odds based on what they think the probabilities are of something happening, but then, as the game goes on, they'll change those prices based on the way the game is going and on what sort of bets they're taking in. If most of the money is going on one result, they'll make the odds less attractive for that result and more attractive for the opposite result so folks will bet on that one and things will, hopefully, balance out.

Now, we have a pretty clear sense of what the odds SHOULD be in certain situations. If they're not where they should be, it's because somebody is betting heavily in one direction or the other. And that can be a sign that something untoward is going on.

I'll give you an example. A few years ago, a criminal organization fixed a game between Latvia and Bolivia. Or, rather, they bribed the referee (who has since been banned) so he'd ensure that three or more goals were scored. (It's a pretty standard bet, backing whether you think there will be more or fewer than 2.5 goals.) When the game started, the "price" was at 1.69, which meant that if you bet $100 and you won you'd get back $69 plus your initial $100 stake. After 40 minutes, it was still 0-0. Logic would suggest that the price would get a lot bigger, since the two teams now had a lot less time to score their three goals. Indeed, based on history and statistical modelling one would have expected it to be up around 3.50. But in fact, it had fallen to 1.62. That was a very obvious sign that something was very wrong.

OK, that's pretty straightforward. So then we know for a fact when a game has been fixed?

Not always. Some games have so much money staked on them that even a bunch of big bets on a single outcome (the kind a match-fixer would make) aren't going to be enough to shift the price so much that people would notice. In the bigger leagues, like the Premier League, where it's not uncommon for more than $100 million to be bet on a single game, it would be far harder to spot something like this. But in more marginal leagues, where there is much less liquidity on the market, yes, you can usually tell.

Right ... but then they need to go and catch these guys ...

And that's where it gets difficult. So leagues and bodies like UEFA and FIFA can liaise with companies that monitor betting patterns and sniff out stuff that's suspicious. The problem is what to do next. Sport governing bodies don't have subpoena powers, they can't do surveillance, they can't tap people's phones or monitor their emails or bank accounts. All they can really do is interview players and team officials. And they can call the police who, of course, can do most of the above.

OK, so then the cops go bust people, right?

That's the idea. The problem is that all this surveillance costs money. A lot of money. In some countries, the way the law works makes it difficult. In some it's not even a crime. In others, the cops may have other priorities, like busting murderers or drug dealers. It becomes a law enforcement issue, and police may choose to use their (finite) resources on other crimes.

So let me get this straight. These Europol guys aren't telling me anything new, they're just sort of recapping what's been going on and presenting it as their investigation. And while we're pretty good at spotting suspicious activity on betting markets (at least in smaller leagues; in bigger ones we're not so sure), we can't rely on governing bodies to go and investigate; it has to be the police. And they might be busy with other stuff. That's all pretty depressing ... anything to cheer us up, or at least offer some hope?

Europol
GettyImagesEuropol: Making big claims

Well, at the highest level, players make so much money that it takes a lot to bribe them, because they have so much to lose. And the reality is that match-fixing isn't that lucrative. If you start placing million-dollar bets every week, folks will notice and start asking questions. And if you keep doing it and keep winning, nobody will want to take your money. Some top-flight players will be vulnerable, of course, but it's usually people who have other problems, like maybe massive debts or guys who are being blackmailed. And fortunately, there aren't that many of those.

In fact, in the two biggest recent scandals, in Germany and Italy, investigators found that a lot of times the fixes were unsuccessful, either because the fixers were themselves ripped off or because it's harder to do than you might think.

Then there are whistle-blowers who come clean when they've been approached by match-fixers or team-mates who need their help to fix a game. A big part of the recent scandal in Italy's Serie B was exposed by a guy named Simone Farina, who simply refused to be a part of it and alerted the authorities. There are also very stiff penalties for failure to report an attempted fix, or even rumors of a fix.

Players have been banned for 12 months or more just for failure to report. That's a pretty big disincentive.

But yeah, we need to be vigilant. And most of all, we have to ensure pressure is brought on the police to investigate this stuff properly while also giving them enough resources to do it. And, in that sense, while Monday's Europol announcement wasn't exactly "news," it did get a lot of attention. The kind that will, hopefully, get lawmakers and politicians to realize how important it is for them to support the police.

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