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Home   /   Inside Match-Fixing in Football

Despite the size of the problem, very few football fans understand the complexities of match-fixing, how prevalent it is, and what is being done to prevent it. Jacob Panons investigates.

Growing up as a football fan in Hong Kong you quickly learn about the concept of match-fixing. With every fishy game I attended I began to question the legitimacy of the sport I loved. In Hong Kong after every questionable penalty awarded and sloppy bit of goalkeeping fans in the crowd would exchange glances with one another as if they knew something the rest of the world didn’t.

Match-fixing lingers over Hong Kong like the heavy pollution which has wandered down from factories in China. Everyone knows it’s there but after a while you just get used to it. I have always been curious to find out more about match-fixing due to my experiences in the ‘Fragrant Harbour’.

I remember going to watch a game at Mong Kok Stadium in the heart of Hong Kong. After a questionable decision by the referee a fellow spectator stood up next to me, yelled something in Cantonese, and rubbed his fingers together gesturing that money had been involved. I began to speak with a man behind me who knew both English and Cantonese. He translated what the fans were saying and told me their theories about who was providing the money.

Although it was only a conspiracy it was fascinating to see how whenever anything questionable happens in a game of football in Hong Kong somebody (myself included) would mention match-fixing; even humorously. There’s little to no shock factor when it comes to this problem.

Many fans in the UK consider match-fixing to be an issue of the past or even one that does not wash up on the shores of the British Isles, but unfortunately that’s not the case. You can even go online and pay for information on alleged fixed games in this country.

People often forget that match-fixing has happened in the top division of England. It has happened between Manchester United and Liverpool.

Some of the biggest players in the country have been involved. In the 60s Peter Swan, Tony Kay, and David Layne were all found guilty of bribery, corruption and defrauding the bookmakers for betting on their own team, Sheffield Wednesday, to lose. The three players received a four-month prison sentence and lifetime bans from the sport, although that was lifted eight years later.

The trio aren’t big names now but Swan claims that Sir Alf Ramsey told him he would have been selected for England’s 1966 World Cup squad if it had not been for his involvement in the scandal that shocked the nation. In another life Jack Charlton could have been sitting on the bench as the formidable partnership of Swan and Bobby Moore lift the nation’s first and to date only World Cup.

Kay was also a big player and had become Britain’s most expensive footballer when he moved to Everton for £60,000 before he was convicted.

Match-fixing does not discriminate and unfortunately it’s not just an issue of the past.

If you were investigating the natural earth you want to contact David Attenborough. If you were investigating modern linguistics you want to contact Noam Chomsky. If you are investigating match-fixing in football you want to contact Declan Hill.

Hill is considered one of the world’s top experts on match-fixing and has written The Fix: Soccer and Organised Crime and The Insider’s Guide to Match-fixing In Football. On a video call with Hill we discussed the intricacies of match-fixing and how it’s mutated over the years.

The University of Oxford alumnus started by talking about the two types of match-fixing in football. “One is where they are fixing it so that one team either wins or loses and the reason why they are doing that is because they want a team to win the championship or avoid being relegated…There’s some reason inside the sport of why they are doing it.

“The second reason for fixing is just to make money on the gambling market.”

Hill went on to explain how these types of fixing can be identified. “The first category is really easy to tell when they are going to fix the game because it’s always towards the end of a season which always determines crucial points.

“Then there’s the gambling fixing which happens constantly. It’ll just happen anytime they (the fixers) want to make money.”

Along with these types of fixing Hill says there’s a new form of the problem that’s never been seen before which comes from the globalisation of the betting market. “(For example,) there’s a bookmaker; there’s a fixer living in Singapore who’s working with a Croatian guy who’s fixing matches in Canada and the guy in Singapore is placing bets in the Hong Kong and Philippines market. So how many continents is that?…There’s this network of corruption around the world and that’s only occurred in the last 20 years.

“It’s making corruption so much easier…Now you have got a globalised market that used to be divided into tens of thousands of little markets…Now the globalised sports gambling market is worth a trillion dollars and that money’s flowing constantly on to all kinds of little games.”

The number of countries fixing can go through also makes the crime harder to trace as it can span several continents.

Dr Argyro Elisavet Manoli, from Loughborough University, found that out of the 11 countries in her research published last year, Mapping of corruption in sport in the EU, the UK came second in the number of reported cases of corruption with match-fixing being the most common form from the data collected between 2010 and 2018. Although the numbers aren’t through the roof it indicates the issue hasn’t disappeared.

Sportradar’s Fraud Detection System (FDS) also issued 1,625 reports of suspicious betting trends in football matches worldwide between May 2009 and November 2014. This may be less than 1% of the games monitored and from a few years ago but that averages 24.3 matches a month. It must be said that these are games just reported for suspicious betting trends, they are not confirmed to be fixed. The FDS also found that 78% of reported games were top division matches. This information goes against the general assumption that match-fixing may be a bigger problem in the lower leagues where players are on less money.

Also, graphs from the Gambling Commission’s Sports Betting Integrity Quarterly Snapshot in October 2019 showed that football raises the most alarms for suspicious betting trends. The sport made up 51% of the reported cases ahead of tennis in second with 30%. This data was recorded between July and September of 2019.

As mentioned previously globalisation has helped match-fixing thrive. Hill recalled a trip to a bookmaker in Manilla, Philippines,“There was a game between the Macau under-16 team, so 15-year-olds, against Hong Kong and there was USD$4m on that one game. And I’m not saying the boys were fixing but I’m saying like 20 years ago you couldn’t get $4m on a bunch of 15-year-olds.”

Hill also spoke about a testimony in Brussels where Belgian girls, who were of a similar age, had been offered €15,000 to throw their game. “The reason why it’s worth them (the fixers) doing that is because you can get all this money down in ways that you couldn’t before.”

This shows how the globalised betting market has opened up the possibility to gamble on games anywhere and at any level which allows fixers to thrive.

This globalisation is even evident in the legitimate betting sphere. For example, on Sky Bet you are offered the chance to gamble on 125 different football competitions including the Tanzanian Premier League, the Czech under-19 league, and the fourth tier of Turkish football. To add to this it’s now possible to bet on virtual football.

As mentioned previously there are even websites on the dark web where you can pay for information on fixed games from around the world, including the UK. As I scrolled through the dark web I noticed many people in comment sections and blogs saying the same thing, that it’s a scam. This wasn’t a surprise when you consider some people were claiming they only had to pay a few pounds for the information.

Despite this there were indications from users that there are legitimate match-fixing websites out there, you just need to keep digging.

There was a website offering results with a page labelled “proofs” with rigged-fixed-matches in the URL. On the “proofs” page there were screenshots of bets winning up to €49,000. What was perhaps the most interesting thing is that the bets were placed on a few English games predicting the half time and full-time score correctly.

There were nine English matches featured on the pictured betting slips and in seven of those games there had goals in the last 10 minutes. I’m not suggesting these games were fixed, I’m simply explaining what happened in these matches. It must also be considered that the betting slips shown on the website could be edited to appear as if the website knew the result, but it’s still fascinating to see.

I was sceptical of a majority, if not all, of the websites because they were so easy to find and aren’t coy in the slightest. I emailed 16 of these websites and within five minutes I got a response. Despite replying “it’s private” to most questions they claimed to have connections with people working around clubs who inform them of the fixes. This website claimed to be from Luxembourg over email while poor spelling and grammar on other sites suggest they are based in non-English speaking countries.

A shocking thing I found from searching the dark web was how many people wanted to bet on fixed games. There were dozens of websites dedicated to the crime as well as many people in the comments pleading for the information. It was quite harrowing to read these comments from people who were claiming they had lost a lot through gambling and needed the money to stay afloat.

Gambling addiction is another factor to this problem with almost half a million people in the UK suffering from a serious habit. Liz Ritchie, from the Gambling with Lives charity, told the BBC, “there are 250-650 gambling-related suicides per year in the UK and suicides by young people are rising”. Fortunately many bodies in the UK are doing their part to limit the problem. For example, GAMSTOP was set up in 2018 by The National Online Self-Exclusion Scheme Limited to help people struggling with a gambling addiction. GAMSTOP can help users self-exclude themselves from online gambling platforms.

Hill suggested that gambling addiction is a huge part of the problem, especially amongst younger people, but as our conversation developed focus shifted to how a game is fixed. “Many times the athletes are just told to fix. There’s no yes or no issue. When in the Italian league for example, towards the end of the season when they are fixing to get promotion basically the owner of the team is selling the points or buying points. The players don’t get any say…If they say no to the owner of the team they’ll ruin their reputation…So in places like Italy, knowing how to lose is as important as knowing how to win.”

It was fascinating to hear about owners spearheading a fix and Hill believes that the people in charge are some of the biggest culprits. “In most leagues where corruption is endemic it’s the owners. The owners are powerful, rich, middle-aged, elderly guys. They understand the way the world’s working and you have a bunch of young men who are like: ‘I don’t get paid very much. My owner’s fixing. My owner’s cheating. What the hell. I’ll take a little extra cash on the side as well.’…That official corruption is the flowerbed where gambling corruption comes out of.”

But why’s a particular player targeted to help with a fix? Hill says that fixers will try to get the best players on board because they are the ones who can make a difference along with the goalkeeper.

Hill explains that a fixer will get in contact with a player who acts as the project manager. The player will then have an idea of who on the team will take the money. Hill gave an example: “One of the guys is approached in this way. He takes the cash from them (the fixer) and he finds three or four guys on the team and he goes around and gives them cash after the fix is over. So most of the team didn’t know (about the fix) but this little clique on the team did.”

It’s great to pick the brain of someone like Hill but you’ve got to talk to people from within the world of football. Besides owners, players and officials are the two groups of people who can influence the result of the pitch.

Dennis Hedges has officiated in the top division of England as well as in international games. During our conversation Hedges reminisced about his career including giving Paul Gascoigne the first red card of his career, sharing banter with Kevin Keegan during his playing days, and talking to Sir Alex Ferguson after a game in which the Scotsman feared that he would face the sack.

Despite never being approached to fix a match Hedges was the referee assessor when West Ham faced Crystal Palace in November 1997. A young Frank Lampard had just equalised for the Hammers and the floodlights cut out. “I thought: ‘That’s queer.’ It was almost as if someone put a switch down and turned the lights off.” Little did Hedges know but the game had been fixed by an Asian betting syndicate who had just become six-figures richer. The match became part of a string of games which had tactical floodlight failures to fix the results along with Wimbledon vs Arsenal in December of the same year and Charlton Athletic vs Liverpool in February 1999.

Despite not knowing the sinister nature behind the floodlight failure in the moment Hedges was suspicious. “Genuinely I thought: ‘Something’s going on here.’ I’ll tell you why I think that. Because it added up. a: The scores were equal. b: It was when a goal was scored. And c: Floodlights don’t go off as quick as that unless there’s some obvious reason and they (the club staff) couldn’t tell me an obvious reason.”

Hedges recalls confronting the groundsman. “My words to him were: ‘So you’re telling me that you can stand there with a boiler suit on and a screwdriver in hand and put off a game that’s probably worth £15m.’ I meant to the clubs now I didn’t mean to say anything was going on that was wrong…He said: ‘The generators aren’t working.’ So I said: ‘You haven’t got a secondary generator?’ ‘No.’ Which amazed me.”

Although it must be said that the groundsman might have not been involved as at the Charlton game a security guard was bribed to turn off the floodlights.

Jean-Jacques Kilama, like Hedges, has had an experience with match-fixing but for the Hong Kong international he saw the inside workings of the crime.

The defender has played across Asia including in the top division of China under World Cup and Ballon d’Or winner Fabio Cannavaro. Despite failing to break into Cannavaro’s starting lineup Kilama insists he and the Italian got on well with the manager even organising a birthday party for the defender.

I interviewed Kilama back in 2018 for a university project and our hour-long chat was extremely eye-opening. The defender is a tall, intimidating figure. He’s known for his outlandish fashion but surprisingly when we met at his serviced apartment near Tsuen Wan he opted for a basic black shirt, baseball cap, and black tracksuit bottoms. 

Kilama was approached in 2009 by a former teammate, Yu Yang, who offered the defender money to throw a game. Kilama refused to listen to offers via a translator, who comically had to use a computer to translate. Yang tried to convince his former teammate by claiming that other players in the team had accepted the bribe. Ironically money was one of Kilama’s main concerns but in the form of his win bonus. “I said: ‘F*** me!’ I want to win the game to get my HK$3,000 (approx. GBP£240) win bonus.”

After the 45-minute conversation Yang gave up in his pursuit to recruit Kilama but pleaded with the defender not to tell anyone, which he agreed with. Despite this Kilama decided to tell club chairman Philip Lee about his encounter and although he didn’t originally believe the defender he decided to talk to his team. Kilama recalls Lee coming into the dressing room before the game and giving his side an uplifting talk where he confronted the rumours before saying they must “shoot” the players who had allegedly accepted bribes like Yang suggested. Lee’s Rangers went on to win the match 2-0.

Following the victory Lee called Kilama into his office thinking he had lied about the fix. “He was angry at me, you know!? (Lee said:) ‘屌你老母’ (Diu nei lo mo!) (loosely translates to f*** your mother in Cantonese).”

Nothing was initially done about Kilama’s claims until one day when the chairman brought him to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Kilama was taken into a room with a translator (who didn’t need their computer) and a picture of Yang and his female associate were slid across the table for the defender to confirm their identities. Kilama’s alibi had been checked and CCTV footage from an elevator showed the two going up to his 12th-floor apartment. Yang ended up receiving a 10-month prison sentence.

Despite doing the honourable thing Kilama faced criticism for exposing a former teammate and even received death threats. The police approached the defender to offer protection, although he refused. “I believe in myself, I come from Africa. You say I’ll die? I cannot die. I’m not scared of anyone.”

From looking at the data and talking to people who have experienced the issue it’s clear that match-fixing does happen. Hill, Dr Manoli, and even Joey Barton all suggest that more could be done to combat the problem. Barton has said previously that the FA aren’t well equipped to deal with match-fixing while Hill and Dr Manoli both believe more could be done to limit the problem.

Hill says that the problem has a simple solution. “I don’t think much is being done now…It’s really easy to solve it…So the Italian football league goes from roughly the first week of September to mid-June and around (the) end of March, early April it’s very clear who are the four teams who are going to win the league in whatever division in Serie A, Serie B or whatever and which are the four, five teams who are going to be relegated or are in that relegation dogfight and then there are the 10 teams in between.

“They know they have got enough points, they don’t have to worry. The owners of those 10 teams start to sell their points to either the teams that need them to win the league or to avoid relegation and that system where the owners are making a lot of money from buying and selling their points could be stopped like that *snaps*.”

Hill suggests that if the format of competitions are changed to a playoff system then it could help reduce the problem. “So you are changing the incentive of the tournament. Around the end of March, beginning of April you just say: ‘Okay, that’s it. Those four or five teams who are challenging for the championship, those four or five teams that are losing, they just play each other. It’s winner takes all, loser whatever and those teams in the middle have another tournament.’ So you tweak the tournament a little bit and suddenly all the motivation for that (results type) system goes.”

The journalist elaborated that this potential format change has many positives. Firstly, you aren’t spending a lot of money. Secondly, it’s straightforward. Finally, you aren’t getting complicated with whistleblowing, hotlines, and police. “You are just tweaking the system and you remove that type of fixing, (the results type), from the game.”

In terms of the gambling type of fixing Hill suggests that the issue cannot be eradicated until the owners are stopped in the results type. “If you can get rid of most of the system then you are really helping get rid of the gambling because it’s very difficult to stamp out gambling matches if team owners are corrupt.”

Although a change to the system could help limit owners buying or selling points, in a country like the UK where football is so ingrained into the culture it’s hard to change the league format without an uproar from fans.

In terms of what else can be done Dr Manoli has called for bodies to evaluate the effectiveness of current policies to see what works best. She also encourages transparency between bodies during the manifestations of corruption.

I wanted to take these criticisms and suggestions to the hierarchies in football to see what they are doing and what they had to say in response.

FIFA, UEFA, Sport England, INTERPOL, the FA, the EFL, the Gambling Commission, the Sports Betting Integrity Forum (SBIF), the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), and the government were all contacted but nobody wanted to talk. My title as a ‘student journalist’ was often used as a reason to reject interviews but it’s quite concerning that I had better communication with the people selling details on fixed matches than with those who are trying to stop those matches being fixed. I wonder if any of the bodies mentioned previously have contacted the same dark web pages? They aren’t hard to find.

When I first contacted the Gambling Commission I received this statement. “We play an important role in fighting corruption in sport…Our Sports Betting Intelligence Unit works with all the major sports governing bodies and take any allegations of match-fixing very seriously. 

“Where appropriate we will support others or take enforcement action as required. For example, all operators supplying services to consumers in GB must tell us about suspicious betting patterns or individual bets – where appropriate we share that information with partners as part of investigations…We are empowered to undertake investigations and bring prosecutions regarding criminal offences. If convicted, a person could face up to two years in jail plus a fine.”

Despite the email lacking any real personality it was interesting to hear that all betting companies in the country must tell the Gambling Commission about suspicious betting patterns.

This raises the question of how many incidences there are of operators informing the Gambling Commission of these trends? I submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the body for this information but, despite originally accepting my request, my FOI was later rejected.

The Gambling Commission were also contacted, several times, in the hope of talking to them about their strategy but they refused an interview.

The FA were another body who rejected an interview regarding the topic. Instead they sent me their ‘Essential Information For Media Guide’. It read, “all participants are prohibited from seeking to influence for any improper purpose the result, progress, conduct or any other aspect or occurrence in a football match or competition.

“Any participant who is approached to get involved with match-fixing must report it. Failure to do so is a serious breach of The FA’s rules and regulations.”

This is a relatively broad statement and barely scratches the surface of the issue. It’s wishful thinking to assume that nobody will step out of line if you say it’s prohibited.

What’s being done to stop the issue besides banning it? Is there any investigation into stopping the issue before it reaches the pitch?

Despite many bodies turning down the opportunity to talk there are still policies in place to try and eradicate the issue.

In regards to the suggestion of cooperation and transparency, the SBIF has been set up to help share information between bodies on this topic. The forum came about to develop the country’s approach to protecting integrity in sports and betting.

The forum allows governing bodies, including the FA, RFU, and ECB,  to come together and share information on the issue with one of the aims being to improve the system in place and to limit this form of corruption in sports.

It must be said that the SBIF’s focus is mainly around betting integrity although their website says that the forum was established to develop a national approach to protecting both sport and sports betting from being corrupted. So protecting sport from match-fixing is one of their aims but there seems to be a heavy focus on the issue’s relationship with the gambling market.

The SBIF also produces a yearly Action Plan which outlines the year in terms of protecting sports and betting integrity. This plan includes the likes of the Gambling Commission, betting companies, and many sports governing bodies.

In the most recent plan being aligned with the Council of Europe’s Convention and the Macolin Convention (The Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions) is mentioned. The Macolin Convention is defined as “a ground-breaking legal instrument and the only rule of international law on the subject to currently exist. It provides common definitions, as well as original international cooperation mechanisms”.

Article 13 of the convention sets out what’s expected from members. Similarly to the SBIF, countries are encouraged to get governing bodies to coordinate with each other when combating corruption. As part of the convention the country is also expected to “identify and coordinate the actions of key partners”, and to “collect, assess and exchange information to support the collective and individual partner’s efforts”.

Despite the UK not being a member of the EU they still have the luxury of being in the Council of Europe.

Compared to the convention the Action Plan says its purpose is, “to put in place a framework of actions to: a. Prevent sporting events and licensed sporting betting markets from being corrupted. (And) b. Deterring the manipulation of sports events to gain an unfair advantage on betting markets”.

In terms of specific actions that are being taken the plan suggests there are education programmes in place to self-assess, to better the system, and to learn more about the black and grey betting market amongst other things.

The Gambling Commission, as well as being part of the Action Plan, have also set up the Sports Betting Intelligence Unit (SBIU). The SBIU deals with and investigates reports that the Gambling Commission receive while also working with betting companies and sports governing bodies to understand the dangers threatening sports and betting integrity.

It’s obvious that on paper a lot’s being done to make sure everyone’s on the same page when it comes to sports betting integrity. This is evident with the number of conferences held to share information with the aim of tackling the problem.

This is good but there are some issues that could be considered in order to combat the issue better.

Firstly, there’s a lot of talk about educating, which is great, but there’s very little on what’s actually being done to stop games being fixed. I never read about any plan to stop this problem at the source. The system heavily relies on the honesty of people to report the problem and on betting companies to pick up on suspicious trends.

In terms of taking action there’s an Asian Regulated Betting Task Force in the world of horseracing who try to understand gambling in Asia as well as the extent of illegal betting. This shows a proactive nature that’s somewhat missing in football. This shows that something’s being done to target the problem, in this instance when it originates in Asia. Although sources of corruption come from all over the world.

Secondly, most of the time in official reports, websites, and plans whenever match-fixing is mentioned it’s in relation to the betting market. Although there’s an undeniable link between the two match-fixing is a lot more complex and goes deeper than just gambling. This is seen with the results type of match-fixing.

Fixes can even come about with one owner doing another a favour. Sex has been used as a bargaining chip before.  These avenues don’t seem to be considered.

It’s concerning that the hierarchies in football neglect the results type of fixing with Hill even saying owners are the biggest culprits when it comes to this issue.

This lack of focus on the results type of the problem is also evident with the SBIF and Gambling Commission both honing in on match-fixing’s relation with the betting market.

It makes you question why there isn’t a more specific entity to combat the issue which considers all avenues and both types of the problem.

There are many questions I wanted to ask the bodies mentioned previously. What if sex or gifts are used as a bargaining chip with owners, players, or officials? What if it’s just a favour? How do you stop and identify that? It’s a lot more complicated than betting trends which are quantifiable.

There are also questions around how many avenues are investigated. How far down at club level do bodies investigate? How is it detected? There are an abundance of questions that need answering.

It must be respected that match-fixing is a complicated issue and a lot is being done amongst the governing bodies to help one another understand it but it appears that the hierarchies consider the problem one dimensional. There’s little thought about the results type of the problem due to the focus on the issue’s relation with gambling. Unfortunately, match-fixing is a lot more multifaceted than first appears.

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June 2024