In light of the match-fixing arrests yesterday by the National Crime Agency, we thought it would be of interest to report on a recent event we attended on the evening of 11th November at Birkbeck University at which Declan Hill, investigative journalist and author of bestselling book The Fix, discussed the themes and issues in his upcoming book, The Insider’s Guide to Match Fixing in Football. Based on the doctoral thesis of Hill at the University of Oxford, The Insider’s Guide to Match Fixing in Football is an analysis of the motivations, mechanisms and methods which pervade match-fixing. The seminar also included discussion from Franz Tabone, UEFA’s Integrity Officer for Malta, and Tony Higgins, FIFPro’s spokesperson for the ‘Don’t Fix It’ project.
There has always been corruption in sport. However, according to Hill, recently match-fixing has been going “haywire”. The sports gambling market is huge in Asia, dwarfing the combined European and North American markets, and this acts to drive the manipulation of sporting fixtures. The proliferation of sporting manipulation in Asia has been well publicised, and there are now few sports which have not been faced with fixing scandals. The focus of corruption in sport has been on Asia, and unsurprisingly so in light of the scandals there, including when such damaging and quite frankly shocking situations are allowed to arise such as former President of Indonesia’s football association, Nurdin Halid, serving two years in jail for corruption whilst remaining as President of the Football Association.
Given the widespread match-fixing problems in Asia and the perceived lack of integrity, the attentions of the betting market have turned to European football matches. Sadly, but inevitably, the fixers’ attentions have followed suit.
Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, reported in February 2013 that they had conducted a major investigation into match-fixing in Europe. The investigation, the largest match-fixing investigation ever in Europe, uncovered a total of 425 match officials, club officials, players and serious criminals from more than 15 countries, suspected of being involved in attempts to fix more than 380 professional football matches. The activities formed part of a sophisticated organised crime operation which generated over €8million in betting profits and over €2million in corrupt payments to those involved. Amongst the suspicious matches identified were World Cup and European Cup qualification matches, two UEFA Champions League matches and several top flight matches in European national leagues.
Such investigations illustrate how match-fixing has proliferated in top flight games in Europe. In August 2013, Turkish team Fenerbahce were excluded from European competitions for the next two years after losing an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) against a UEFA sanction for match-fixing. The President of Fenerbahce was sentenced to six years in prison for his involvement. In August 2013, Lazio captain Stefano Mauri was banned for six months by the Italian football federation for his part in alleged match-fixing two Serie A games. Italy in particular has been a prime target for match fixers; the well-known ‘Calcipoli’ scandal, uncovered in May 2006, led to the stripping of Juventus of their 2005 and 2006 Serie A league titles, and relegation to the Serie B division. So far most commentators believe that the Premier League remains untarnished.
According to Hill there are two types of match-fixing: fixing that takes place to defraud betting companies; and everything else, namely match-fixing to secure sponsorship or promotion for clubs. Hill believes some clubs in Europe have adopted a business model of intentionally trying to lose a number of matches per season; the profits of losing ‘fixed’ matches can exceed the value of winning those matches.
Hill remains upbeat about the prospects for tackling match-fixing however. “I think we can win”, commented Hill, “but first we need to know how the fixers operate”. Understanding why a player would fix a match is the main question. In The Insider’s Guide to Match Fixing in Football, Hill compiled a database of players who indicated whether or not they would fix matches, recording a number of variables. One variable stood out amongst the players who would take part in match-fixing – age. When players are over the age of 30, said Hill, matches are over three times more likely to be fixed.
Hill also highlighted the fact that many players in leagues around the world are not being paid. This point is highlighted by FIFPro’s ‘Black Book’ findings, which report that 41.1% of players in Eastern Europe are not paid on time. Non-payment is particularly common in international matches, meaning these games are at a higher risk of being fixed. As Tony Higgins of FIFPro highlighted at the seminar, the proliferation of match-fixing leads to television companies focusing their attentions on leagues which are perceived to have less of a problem with corruption, such as England’s Premier League. This in turn creates funding problems for clubs, intensifying the problem of players not getting paid, and in turn, sustaining match-fixing.
Whilst Hill noted that match-fixing is not particularly prevalent in the UK, he warned that the FA should not rest on its laurels – rather prophetic; his view was that the strong culture of gambling in the UK could act as a gateway to criminality in future. Vulnerabilities in the UK are likely to emanate from the lower leagues were players are paid significantly less than their Premier League counterparts, and we saw recently that four British footballers from those leagues were charged in September of this year by the Australian authorities in relation to match-fixing allegations concerning games there.
An international approach to combatting corruption in sport is clearly required because the criminal conduct is taking place in multiple jurisdictions. A specialist international law enforcement agency dealing with corruption in sport would be the high watermark. In an ideal world it needs to be supported by international or even EU-led legislation requiring countries to criminalise sports manipulation and then monitor enforcement. The European Council has acknowledged the problem and sanctioned an international approach – in June 2013 it authorised the European Parliament to participate on behalf of the EU in negotiations for a convention to combat the manipulation of sports results primarily focussed on judicial cooperation in criminal matters and police cooperation. The European Parliament has also called on all member states to criminalise match-fixing if they have not already done so. Match-fixing in England could be prosecuted under Chapter 19 of the Gambling Act 2005 (cheating or aiding and abetting cheating), Chapter 45 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 (conspiracy), and most recently as a result of the Bribery Act 2010 (offering or receiving a bribe), and our wide money laundering offences can capture the proceeds of such criminality if not the individuals. But perhaps a dedicated offence may be helpful.
Just as importantly, sporting associations needs to educate their member clubs and sportsmen and women about the dangers of corruption in sport and the potentially serious consequences. As Mr Hill indicated on 11 November, the UK should not rest on its laurels.