Match fixing in sport on the rise

By Stephen Kelly

Uefa

Few major sports have been free from match-fixing and corruption scandals in recent years. Financial services firm Merrill Lynch projects that the turnover for the online sports gambling industry will top $100 billion by 2015.

When you consider the sheer scale of the money involved it’s easy to see why the problem is growing.

It’s clear that sports gambling is here to stay. Any attempts to seriously restrict it would be like locking the barn door after the horse has bolted. The gambling industry is a powerful lobby and provides significant tax revenues and employment while sport has embraced gambling because it’s such a rich source of advertising funds.

The ubiquitous nature of bookmakers’ ads in English football stadiums is one example. Sunderland, West Ham and Hull City have shirt sponsorship deals with bookmakers while Bolton and Wigan will join them next season. Manchester United have a seven figure deal with ‘official betting partners’ Betfair.

The recent revelations in Matt le Tissier’s autobiography highlight the range of opportunities for corrupt sportspeople. The Southampton player placed a bet on the time of the first throw in one of their matches. All he had to do to collect a sum “well into four figures” was kick the ball out of play early in the match.

While that seems quite innocuous there have been more serious incidents in recent years. Last year five Accrington Stanley players received eight-month bans for placing bets on opponents Bury in a League Two match. In Ireland, some bookmakers suspended markets on a league fixture between Galway United and Dundalk last month after suspicious betting patterns emerged.

UEFA’s recent announcement that 40 Champions League and UEFA Cup fixtures are currently being investigated underlines the magnitude of the problem. The fixtures are believed to involve obscure eastern European teams in qualifying rounds so there will be a tendency to dismiss it as a symptom of more general corruption in that part of the world.

However, the case of German referee Robert Hoyzer is further evidence that football in Western Europe is not immune. Hoyzer was jailed in 2005 after admitting he had been paid by a Croatian syndicate to influence the outcomes of six matches.

One thing that insulates football somewhat is that it is reasonably difficult to affect the outcome with any certainty. It’s not easy to pay off a whole team and keep it quiet. Individual sports on the other hand represent relatively easy pickings and tennis in particular has been dogged by match fixing allegations.

In 2007 it came to public attention when Betfair voided all bets placed on a match involving then world number five Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko was a heavy pre-match favourite against his 87th-ranked opponent Martin Vassallo-Arguello but retired due to injury when trailing in the third set. Despite winning the first set 6-2 the Russian’s odds lengthened dramatically. The volume of money wagered on the market and the size of individual bets placed indicated that some people were certain Davydenko would lose.

The bulk of the winnings were traced to three accounts in Russia. One punter had wagered $590,000 dollars on the underdog before the match while another had bet $368,000 on Vassallo-Arguello when he was a set down. The ATP launched an official investigation headed by former Scotland Yard detectives Jeff Rees and Ben Gunn, but Davydenko was eventually cleared.

Rees and Gunn have been retained by the ATP as part of their anti-corruption unit and have investigated 70 matches so far. A recent report by the pair said: “We do not doubt that criminal elements may be involved in seeking to subvert or corrupt some players or players’ support staff.  That may even involve organised criminal gangs.”

French player Michael Llodra, who admitted to being approached with a view to fixing matches, put it more succinctly. “Wherever there is money, you have crooks. It’s difficult to stop because there is a powerful ring behind it,” he said. Rees and Gunn reported that 45 of the suspicious matches they reviewed require deeper investigation.

The tennis authorities have been praised by the bookmaking industry for taking a “proactive approach” to the problem of but their lack of any real progress highlights the difficulty facing all sporting bodies. Despite their efforts, no player has been convicted. Unless a player is stupid enough to place a bet in an account using his own name it’s difficult to see how prosecutors can possibly connect the player to the online accounts actually placing the bets.

The ATP has found this out the hard way and in an effort to hide their impotence have resorted to fining and suspending a handful of players for having minuscule recreational bets on matches they weren’t involved in. The corrupt players are aware of this as well.

During the Davydenko investigation there was a dramatic drop in the number of suspicious markets. As soon as he was cleared they began to appear again with greater frequency than ever. Betfair must also be aware that the info they provide to authorities is ineffective and it’s easy to be cynical regarding their decision to void a match involving such a high-profile player given the wealth of free publicity it generated for the company.

Overall, the growth of betting industry seems to have caught sporting bodies unaware. The ongoing investigations by governing bodies such as UEFA and the ATP show that sport may finally be waking up to the problem. However, in the absence of any high-profile convictions it’s difficult to have any faith in their ability to combat the problem.

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