Can Fifa keep soccer clean of match-fixing?

With billions of dollars in illegal bets exchanged every year and allegations of match-fixing rife, the world’s most popular sport is waging a battle to protect its integrity.

Working from a nondescript side street in this European banking center, Early Warning System has the task of trying to keep Asian crime syndicates and other gambling mafias around the world from fixing matches.

“More than &uero;100-billion a year are bet,” said Wolfgang Feldner, head of strategy for EWS. “We are responsible for matches in all different regions ... you never know where the next manipulation will take place.”

In the last few months alone, reports have surfaced of wads of cash dangled before African players, police raids on illegal Asian betting dens and heavy, and late bets on obscure teams in low-level European leagues.

Fifa decided it had to act to protect the game from corruption after being shaken by recent match-fixing scandals in Germany, Italy and Brazil.

“That was the catalyst,” Fifa spokesperson Andreas Herren said.
“We realised we had to be as sophisticated as the other side.”

EWS, which was founded last year and hired by Fifa to look into match-fixing, has signed up more than 200 bookies and betting companies worldwide and is seeking more daily to serve as its eyes and ears, but also uses reports from journalists, police, soccer officials and players to assemble a detailed portrait of match-fixing forces.

At the 2006 World Cup—the source of more than 90% of Fifa’s revenue—the organisation instituted a test programme to make sure all 64 games in Germany were free of betting irregularities.

EWS is now monitoring more than 900 qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and will check the final tournament’s 64 matches as well. Fifa says all 90 qualifiers played since August 2007 have been clean—but that doesn’t mean the match-fixers haven’t tried.

And since Asian World Cup qualifying began, the matter has taken on even more urgency. Gambling is a continental obsession and Asian soccer leagues have been battling match-fixing for years.

Last month, Interpol announced the results of a huge crackdown on illegal soccer gambling across Asia. Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble told a crime conference in Singapore that 430 people were arrested and 272 underground gambling dens handling $650-million in illegal bets were shut down. More raids are being planned.

“The grey market in Asia—this is a big problem,” Feldner said.

In contrast, Las Vegas bookies handled $92-million in bets for this year’s Super Bowl.

Noble said illegal soccer gambling profits support a wide range of crime syndicate activities, from drug-smuggling to people-trafficking, prostitution and extortion.

Organisers at the French Open have decided to try to fight possible match-fixing by suing online gambling sites from offering bets on the clay-court Grand Slam. Yet with hundreds of professional soccer games played around the world every single week, it’s not a tactic Fifa its soccer federations feel will yield any success.

“It’s impossible to ban betting,” said Feldner, who spent years working for the German betting company Oddset before coming to EWS.

Team sports are simply harder to fix, others say.

“The good thing about team sports is there are 22 players, four officials, two coaching staffs, substitutes—that’s a high number of people you have to get at to fix a game,” Herren said. “Plus, the more people you try to bribe, the more chances you have of being exposed.”

But the more people you bribe, the more chances you have of the outcome you want.

“One person is not enough—you need to bribe three or four at least,” UEFA spokesperson William Gaillard said. “The games we have doubts about are never the big games—those are too expensive to fix. What are you going to offer a player who makes €4-million a year? It’s always lower division games, maybe where two clubs have already qualified, a game that’s not televised.”

He should know.

‘Unusual betting patterns’

UEFA recently told the European crime-fighting agency Europol it saw “unusual betting patterns” in 26 member games from 2005 until 2007, 15 of them last year.

Noble said crime lords may have made $5-million alone on one game in July 2007.

None of those games involved qualifiers for this year’s European Championship in Switzerland and Austria, Gaillard said. Most involved clubs from eastern and south-eastern Europe. The area has some experience with match-fixing: Croatian mafia bosses were calling the shots and collecting the profits when referee Robert Hoyzer was fixing Bundesliga games in 2005.

“Just use common sense: It’s easier to fix a match in Albania than it is in Sweden,” Gaillard said. “The more corruption there is within a country, the more it can affect their soccer teams”.

If UEFA gets a report about odd betting patterns, it shares that information with the clubs and the referees before the match and sends an observer to the game, Gaillard said. Fifa has never cancelled or postponed a match due to suspicions of match-fixing but would not hesitate in doing so, Herren said.

In this fight, it’s all about the patterns.

Late bets, heavy bets, late and heavy underdog bets; high or low scoring; surprising draws; wide swings in the quality of play; odd or inexplicable referee calls—all of these can trigger monitors to take a closer look at a match.

Detlev Zenglein, in charge of competition analysis for EWS, said every case is different but patterns of manipulation are similar.

“Clearly, it’s easier to lose a game than to win. From that, goalies and defenders are the more obvious targets to bribe,” he said. “It also makes no sense to bet a lot of money on the favourite.”

Most bets are made in the four hours before a match begins, creating a crucial crunch time for EWS. But even volatile swings in betting do not automatically mean a game is being fixed.

“It’s not always a manipulation: It can be a mistake by the bookmaker, or it can be a sporting issue. Maybe the team’s top two strikers are injured and the bookmaker has not updated his odds ” Zenglein said, noting that there are “lots of professional punters” on the world market, all looking for an edge.

Just last month, an Asian fixer offered national team members from Benin and Namibia $30 000 per man to throw games at the Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana. Benin coach Reinhard Fabisch said he ordered the man out of his hotel, and the African Football Confederation is investigating.

“Put yourself in the mind of a criminal. It would be cheaper to bribe the Benin team than the Brazilian team, no?” Gaillard said.

Yet even as old-school bribery still goes on, new match-fixing tactics are evolving.

“The big market now is live betting—who scores the next goal, who gets the next yellow card. You can bet until the very end of the match,” Zenglein said. “Things like goal differential is not that important on the market, but if you have a way to manipulate the match, then it’s a way to earn a lot of money even if you bet on the

favourite.”

Referees are never popular, but Hoyzer’s bizarre tactics in 2005 put soccer’s arbiters under a new microscope.

Fifa president Sepp Blatter has often pointed to referees as a possible weak link in the fight against match-fixing because they are the lowest-paid people on the field. Accordingly, Fifa will spend $40-million to professionalise the ranks of referees before the 2010 World Cup.

Herren said Fifa has an extensive monitoring system that evaluates referees’ performance and removes those prone to error but notes that “not even the best ref is protected from making a blunder”.

At the 2006 World Cup, security guards were posted outside the referees’ hotel, no direct outside calls to their rooms were allowed, and Fifa doubled their tournament pay to $40 000. Herren expects refs to earn even more at the next World Cup.

Proving match-fixing, however, can be tough.

“It’s easier to find abnormal betting patterns than to find abnormal players,” Gaillard said. “When you don’t have a smoking gun or a confession, these things are hard to prove.” - Sapa-AP

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