The subtle art of match-fixing
Summer heat invites people to leave their houses and offices and to head to football pitches, tennis courts and rugby grounds. This is the season where major sports tournaments take place.
The summer of 2024 in particular will be a big year for sports, especially in Europe. Both the UEFA European Football Championship and the Summer Olympics are scheduled to take place in the summer of next year, in Germany and Paris respectively. These are excellent occasions to promote togetherness, team spirit and healthy lifestyles…. and provide a unique opportunity for match-fixing.
There have been reports of rigged matches and ill-gotten glory ever since the advent of sport.
Ancient Greek sport, for example, has a well-documented history of cheating in panhellenic tournaments. However, the sums of money to be made in this era were rather unsubstantial and the athlete in question was expected to cover all his expenses, including hiring a private coach.
In addition to this, the life of a Hellenistic athlete involved a considerable amount of training and travel, not to mention the risk of an untimely death. These downsides of the job were compensated with an almost god-like adulation across the panhellenic world for victorious athletes and their fame rubbed off on the winner’s family and community.[i]
Modern-day accounts of match-fixing revolve mainly around the accumulation of money, not glory. The commercialization of sports sent budgets allocated to sports into overdrive, and the development of match-fixing followed suit. This resulted in high-profile scandals in most notably football, but also increasingly in other sports such as cricket, snooker, tennis and sumo.[ii]
In addition to this, match-fixing also serves as a vehicle for other financial crimes such as tax evasion and money-laundering.[iii] This prompted Theo van Seggelen, former secretary-general of the international football players union FIFPro, to state that match-fixing is the world’s most lucrative business after drugs trafficking.[iv]
A recent report published by Europol offers an insight into the modus operandi preferred by criminal organizations that are attracted to the profitability and relatively low-risk nature of match-fixing. What is striking is the frequent involvement of sports betting companies. The gambling industry is usually a central factor in match-fixing schemes due to the significant profits that can be accrued and the fact that a large chunk of the global gambling market, 80% according to estimations, is unregulated.[v]
Another prominent element is the targeting of the sporting competition. Criminals generally favor lower-level competitions due to the advantages of more limited media coverage and more readily available athletes sensitive to bribes. Another crucial factor are the so-called ‘runners’, usually former sportspeople with a network in their respective sports environment, tasked with contacting athletes and other key players such as coaches and officials.[vi]
In many cases criminal organizations prey on vulnerable players earning low wages, playing in countries where the professional sports culture is often characterized by nepotism and corruption.[vii] This was the subject of the 2020 documentary ‘Fixed: A Football Comedy’, where a football match between Togo and Bahrain is mired in controversial decisions, resulting in something that at times bore more resemblance to a comedy of errors rather than a sports match. Initiator Yves Kummer, a former professional rugby player, recounts an instance where the filming crew noted that the match-fixers were seated next to the coach in the dug-out, handing out advice to the coach.
The referee, who was also a culprit in the scheme, ended the match well before full-time to ensure the planned 3-0 outcome of the game. Even more shockingly, the Togolese football association had no knowledge of their team playing Bahrain and pointed out that their players were in Botswana in preparation for the Africa Cup of Nations. Even though these instances are thankfully extremely rare, the bizarre history outlined in the documentary serves as an illustration of the lengths criminals will go to in order to secure their desired result and make a profit.
According to Chiel Warners, the coordinator of the National Platform Matchfixing in the Netherlands, what makes it so hard to battle this form of criminal behavior is its opaque and elusive nature.
The effects of match-fixing are less visible than those of other crimes such as burglary, theft and murder and do not cause similar widespread feelings of unease in society, in part because of the
age-old entanglement between sports and the betting industry. In addition to this, it is hard to present proof of a match effectively being ‘fixed’, there is no clear-cut frame of reference available like there is with a positive doping test. As a result, this makes it more difficult to convince decision-makers of the necessity to allocate resources to combat these crimes.
Warners warns about the magnitude of match-fixing in sports. He emphasizes that in order to gain an overview of the scope of the problem, it must be clear what match-fixing actually entails. After all, organizations and individuals that are determined to fight match-fixing have a common goal so a clear definition of match-fixing should be the starting point for a cooperative approach.
One step in the right direction has been the creation of the Macolin Convention by the Council of Europe, which entered into force in 2019 and was signed by 40 European states as well as by Australia and Morocco. This legal instrument clearly defines the actors involved in the manipulation of sports competitions and offers a framework for prevention, detection and cooperation in this field.[viii]
Article 12 of the convention acknowledges that the sharing of information is crucial, something that is also evident in practice. The success of uncovering of the largest match-fixing scandal in Europe to date, involving over 200 individuals and generating illegal gains of around 10 million euros, was largely due to the cooperation of German, British, Swiss and Austrian police.[ix]
Tackling match-fixing ultimately depends on the political will to stamp out this problem and putting the fight against corruption in sports firmly on the agenda. Taking this into consideration, Warners is in favour of giving match-fixing a legal basis in national law, in addition to existing corruption regulations. This could for example take the shape of legislation that focuses specifically on sports corruption. Not only will this be a signal to criminals and the general public that corruption in sports is taken seriously and that offenses are adequately punished, but it will also make clear that sports and match-fixing are a toxic combination.
[i] Papakonstantinou 2016, p. 18.
[ii] Villeneuve 2015, p. 634.
[iii] UN report: ‘Resource Guide on Good Practices in the Investigation of Match-Fixing’, p. 15.
[v] Europol report: ‘The involvement of organized crime groups in sports corruption’, p. 5.
[vi] Europol report: ‘The involvement of organized crime groups in sports corruption’, p. 11.
[vii] Okwechime & Adetiloye 2019, p. 379.