Soccer: Matchfixing - threat to the soul of the sport

By Oliver Brown

Oliver Brown examines why betting corruption is a menace to Britain's national game

Striker DJ Campbell (front) has been arrested as part of an investigation into fixing claims. Photo / AP
Striker DJ Campbell (front) has been arrested as part of an investigation into fixing claims. Photo / AP

A sinister custom has arisen at road accidents in Singapore, where the more morbidly minded note down the registration plates of stricken cars to enter them in a four-digit lottery, believing such numbers have exhausted their bad luck and will deliver great fortune to the punter.

It is this degree of obsession that has rendered the southeast Asian betting market four times as lucrative as the region's pharmaceutical trade, with an influence percolating every huckster's paradise in England.

The dismissal by Football Association general secretary Alex Horne of the endemic match-fixing enabled by betting fraud as "not a significant issue here" appears at best painfully parochial, at worst negligent.

For 2013 was the year that Britain lost its innocence in the fixing debate. Former Premier League player Sam Sodje was filmed by an undercover reporter claiming that he could arrange for players to be sent off in exchange for a £70,000 ($140,400) fee from the fraudsters.

Six people, including Blackburn Rovers striker DJ Campbell, have been arrested.

Chris Eaton, Fifa's former head of security and now head of the integrity unit at the International Centre for Sport Security, is scathing about the FA's attitude.

"It is careless globally, if I can put it that way," he says. "It is all well and good to say, 'Our league is OK, thank you very much'. This is a global problem. Football is about more than the FA or any individual federation. We are looking for leadership here, not simply a case of, 'I'm all right, Jack'. Well, you're not all right. You are playing your sport in a global environment, and the Premier League is the most bet-on league in the world."

Just take a look at those Aston Villa shirts bearing the name Dafabet, the leading online betting service headquartered in the Philippines, to confirm the impression that English soccer and a globalised gambling culture have become indivisible.

The world's three largest betting organisations are based in Manila, with sub-agents scattered everywhere from Indonesia to Laos.

Increasingly the tentacles of more malign operators are reaching into the English game, as suggested by the recent arrest of two Singaporean men shown boasting about being able to rig lower-tier matches. One of the men identified his "boss" as Wilson Raj Perumal, a notorious fixer who is under police protection in Hungary.

As Eaton expresses it, English soccer "cannot build a protective wall around itself" without accounting for the explosion of betting activity in southeast Asia.

In this climate, the hand-in-glove connections between Premier League clubs and the betting giants - Stoke and Fulham also play in shirts sponsored by gambling companies - ought perhaps to worry us more profoundly.

"Commercial relationships alone are bereft of the ethics that should underpin such agreements," Eaton says. "The primary cause of sport corruption in the world today is betting fraud. If sport is engaging as a sponsor in this environment, then there ought at least to be some responsibility clauses."

There are signs that the malaise of match-fixing will be approached a little more conscientiously next year. Uefa's 11-point plan to eradicate it in Europe will be unveiled at its congress in Kazakhstan in March.

But it seems a fallacy to believe it can be resolved at the confederation level. The sheer opacity of many Asian gambling dens demands nothing less than the intervention of governments.

Eaton is convinced that the Asian market, while appallingly policed, is not immune from control.

"At some point the people with the power have to force the least transparent betting firms to the table," he says. "It is the duty of governments to protect the public from criminals, and right now organised crime is infiltrating and taking advantage of sport for the purposes of fraud.

"Politicians cannot avoid this by saying that it is the sovereign right of China, for instance, to put a global ban on betting, or that is the sovereign right of the Philippines to determine how it regulates. This is not the case with banking - there have to be universal rules."

The initial gesture by British Culture Secretary Maria Miller convening a conference inviting delegates from five leading sports to document the scale of fixing seemed a touch tokenistic, although she has since called for a sliding scale of punishments, related to the seniority of the athlete.

Even so, when Crystal Palace manager Tony Pulis declares that a fix would be "impossible" in England's top flight, there still appears an air of complacency, curious in light of an insidious creep of fraud elsewhere.

Aston Villa's jerseys carry the logo of a betting company. Photo / AP
Aston Villa's jerseys carry the logo of a betting company. Photo / AP

Attendances in China have tumbled amid revelations that 70 per cent of matches might be rigged, while La Liga has acknowledged that eight games a season could have been fixed in top divisions.

One solution is to fight such a pitiful perversion of sport through the clubs. While there is a rush to condemn a player such as Sodje for his outrageous claims, we forget that warnings of the perils of fixing seldom form part of a footballer's education.

Indeed, many in Europe's less gilded leagues are actively drawn towards them by the arbitrariness of their contracts. A survey by football's international trade union, Fifpro, of 3357 professional players discovered that 41 per cent had not received their salaries on time and that 12 per cent had been approached with enticements to manipulate a match.

Were they to be encouraged to report such approaches, then the roll-back of the con merchants might begin in earnest. Players tempted with an illegal windfall tend to live in fear of retribution, warned by fixers that their lives will be in danger if they renege on the operation, when the impulse should be to speak out.

The persistence of the criminals, alas, is being fuelled by the sheer voraciousness of the appetite for gambling in some Asian markets. In Singapore, betting is so entrenched that Neil Humphreys, author of Match Fixer, a novel based on this fixation in the city-state, says: "There should be no more burying our heads in the sand. Singapore is addicted to gambling, as is much of the region."

While Singapore's authorities insist they have carried out a crackdown on prominent fixers, gambling habits in the country have reached a complexity difficult for anti-corruption investigators to comprehend.

Even though the culture has been corporatised, with password-only backstreet hovels supplanted by shiny 24-hour call centres, it is still known as the "grey market" for practices peculiar to Western convention.

It is dangerous, for instance, to disregard the fashion for fixing red cards as insignificant - because they are seen as trifling wagers that would not interest larger crime syndicates - when they can still have a marked bearing upon a match.

If a fixer knows precisely when a player will be dismissed, he is able to trade on the Asian goal markets in much the same fashion as fraudsters can control the stock market if they have insider information.

This form of "boutique" betting, to use Eaton's description, is often used as a test to establish whether players are prepared to commit graver acts of deception.

The apparently low-level fixing can be a gateway to far more lucrative betting crime. The under-supervision of Asian markets has allowed for a rise in more creative fraud, where gamblers do not realise fixers can generate huge amounts if, for example, a corrupt team have agreed to concede a certain number of goals.

The implications of this infinite array of betting permutations are being felt in almost every corner of the globe.

So there should be no excuse for naivety in Britain, as the very soul of the game is at stake.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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