A year ago, the issue was all the rage. Six men were arrested following an investigation by The Daily Telegraph, while four Englishmen were arrested for alleged offences while playing in Australia.
Dan Tan, described as “the glue” between the match-fixing and the betting operations — was arrested in south-east Asia. The story of Wilson Raj Perumal, a prolific match fixer who was arrested in Helsinki in 2011, became well-known.
We were assured match-fixing was the scourge of the game, “endemic” around the world.
Since then, though, the trail has gone cold and the issue been dropped. Or at least, that is how it seems.
Talk to those involved in the fight against match-fixing and the true picture becomes clear. Match-fixing hasn’t stopped; rather, the fixers have become smarter.
“We are seeing criminal organisations vary their activities, they are being far more careful and selective,” explains Chris Eaton, the Director of Sport Integrity at the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS).
“That gives the impression that the market for corrupting the field of play is being reduced, but in fact sport betting has grown and continues to grow enormously. That is all criminals are after.
“Some steps have been taken by police and sports organisations around the world, but that has not stopped the interest of criminal organisations in trying to defraud betting organisations by fixing football matches and other sports as well.”
And Eaton should know. Having spent 30 years as a policeman in Victoria, Australia, he became Fifa’s security advisor for the 2010 World Cup before being appointed their head of security. Having accused the organisation of failing to implement a series of reforms he proposed to combat match-fixing, he left to join ICSS and is now leading the fight himself.
He believes match-fixers focus less on the big games and more on smaller markets.
Low-earning players are far more vulnerable than multimillionaires, while less of the authorities’ attention is focused on those small games.
If they can influence just one player or member of a team, they can fix a match, while in-play betting is rife with danger. If you know a score even a few seconds ahead of the betting company, you can make a killing.
Yet some significant steps forward have been made to safeguard an industry that sees up to €2.5 billion wagered on sport by just three Asian betting syndicates.
Partnerships between Fifa and Interpol, and Uefa and Interpol, have had some successes and last year they named 380 matches as potentially suspicious, including two in the Champions League.
But Eaton believes that they cannot go far enough, constrained as they are by borders. Once an investigation becomes an international affair — and if the betting fraud has been committed in, say, south-east Asia but involves a match in Hungary — then it inevitably tends to grind to a halt.
“The investigations in Hungary (where 45 people were charged with being part of a match-fixing ring) and into allegations around South Africa’s friendlies before the 2010 World Cup, have been going on for four years,” says Eaton.
“There have been significant steps in the past four years, both from sports organisations round the world and by police organisations. But that has not stopped the interest of criminal organisations in trying to defraud betting organisations by fixing football matches, and other sports as well.”
According to Eaton, certain types of matches are particularly vulnerable. The first are international friendlies, where a match may be made to seem more serious than is actually the case.
There are examples, Eaton believes, of training camp matches, or games involving sides pretending to be senior teams, which are not what they appear — particularly if they are not ratified by Fifa. The most famous example of this is the ‘fake’ Togo team that lost 3-0 to Bahrain in 2010, with the side bearing no relation to the actual Togo first-team.
A key factor, Eaton believes, is certain players who are either vulnerable or actively involved in match-fixing, moving freely without an international transfer tracking system.
“Fifa has a transfer tracking system but it is not universal,” says Eaton. “Up to 100,000 players are transferred every year and this should be logged somewhere and there are certain people we should be tracking.”
There are two key steps Eaton would like to see taken. The first is the establishment of an international platform that shares information without delays. The second is the departure of Sepp Blatter from Fifa.
For the first to happen, there may have to be a recognition from governments that they are losing out on valuable taxation income due to fraud, or that people are openly and obviously dissatisfied with the issue.
“I hope that in a year’s time we will see a movement towards the first international cooperative platform, which is an exchange of information and data from all participants so we can warn sport in time and can warn police in time.
“These organisations can then take action before match-fixing even starts.
“At present there is a rampant debate about match-fixing in Europe and I hope that is globalised. That has not happened in America yet as there is less interest in football, but it is growing in south-east Asia. Once match-fixing and betting fraud are recognised as dual crimes — and they are dual crimes, with fraud the purpose and match-fixing the method — there will be an interest from governments.”
As for Blatter, Eaton is unequivocal.
He adds: “If you have journeymen around the world who see the greed and largesse at the administration of their sport, I suppose it’s very tempting for them to think ‘how can I get access to that sort of money?’
“Fifa has to lead by example. Transparency is the hallmark of integrity.
“My attitude is that Fifa still has a long way to go and I saw a former member of the independence governance committee, Michael Hershman, say that Fifa will not change until there’s a leadership change.
“He’s saying that on the basis that leadership change is an acceptable example of an operation changing the direction of that organisation.
“In other words he’s saying you cannot show or model a change in direction with the current leadership and that’s an opinion that he’s well placed to give. It’s an opinion that I would endorse.”
So change Fifa, introduce cross-border controls on gambling and match-fixing, and follow the players and the money. Match-fixing certainly hasn’t gone away, but it is a fight that might, slowly, be won.