Dónal Woods dives in to the murky waters of match-fixing

In light of the recent controversies involving Lance Armstrong and the entirety of Australian sport, it would appear that that drug taking is the biggest threat to the integrity of sport in the modern era. But there is another trend that might pose just as significant, if not a greater, threat: match-fixing.

On February 4th, Europol (the EU’s law enforcement agency) announced that over the last 18 months it had, unbeknownst to the FA or UEFA, been carrying out an extensive investigation into match-fixing in football around the world. Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, announced at a press conference last week that they had uncovered an “extensive criminal network involved in match-fixing.”

Europol have investigated 680 matches in 30 countries around the world. 425 players, match officials and club officials are under suspicion of being involved. It is also believed that some World Cup and European Cup qualifiers are under investigation, to go along with games from various leagues across Europe.

The Football Association of England has always maintained that their leagues are impervious to match-fixing, and it appears that it has not infected their leagues as much as others around the world, but a Champions League match that was played in England sometime during the last four years is under suspicion.

The game in question is Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Hungarian side Debrecen during the group stages of the 2009/10 season. It is alleged that the Debrecen goalkeeper was bribed to concede three goals or more, but Liverpool could only manage two shots on target. At the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that Liverpool were in any way involved in the fix.

Modern match-fixing doesn’t necessarily involve a referee or player throwing an entire game. Many games have been “spot fixed”. This is where an official can be offered money for calling, or not calling, a foul or penalty on some play that has happened. Players can similarly be paid off to concede a penalty or get a red card.

Match-fixing is not unique to football, this Europol investigation is just focussing on one particular sport. Sports that work on a one-on-one basis, like tennis or boxing, are more vulnerable to match-fixing as only one person needs to be paid off and it is easier for the conspirators to cover their tracks.

Last summer’s Olympics in London had one notable event of suspected match-fixing. The fight between Japan’s Satoshi Shimnizu and Magomed Abdulhamidou of Azerbaijan was going in Azerbaijan’s favour up to the last round when Shiminizu made a startling comeback and knocked Abdulhamidou down five times in the last round.

Despite this, Azerbaijan was awarded the victory by referee Ishanguly Meretnyyazov to boos from the crowd. Japan appealed the result and their loss was overturned. Ishanguly Meretnyyazov was later expelled from the international boxing association.

Boxing has a long history of corruption, and it is almost synonymous with the concept of match-fixing, but there have been high-profile cases of match-fixing in sports which have surprised the general public due to the public perception of the sport being one of honour.

One such instance was the by match-fixing scandal that rocked cricket back in 2000, when the Delhi police intercepted a conversation between a blacklisted bookie and the South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje in which they learned that Cronje accepted money to lose matches.

In fact, cricket has a few recent blemishes on its reputation. Pakistan’s tour of England in 2010 was marred by a spot-fixing scandal in which three players, including the Pakistani captain, were involved in a plot to bowl no-balls at specific points in the game. The three players were suspended from cricket and even spent some time in prison for their actions.

The format of cricket makes it the perfect target for spot-fixing. Bets are made on particular balls or a particular over, with those involved hoping that the sheer length of the game will help to hide any suspicious behaviour.

The main problem that faces those who are trying to fight match-fixing comes from how profitable it can be. Betting on sports can win a person a large amount of money in a very short amount of time. Unlike the stock market, the profit can be seen instantly and betting regulation is not as strict.

Sports-fixing can help criminal organisations obtain millions of euro, which they can then use for whatever various nefarious activities they choose to engage in. Football, with its huge worldwide popularity, is an easy target for fixing as since there are so many players to choose from, with the majority of them not making a whole lot of money.

The games that fall victim to match-fixing the most are usually those in the lower leagues, which don’t have as much publicity, but can still make these cartels a lot of money. Europol described the £6.9 million profit made by criminal organisations on the games under investigation as the tip of the iceberg.

It is painfully clear that the fixing of sport throughout the world must be stopped, but the question of how to do that is not as straightforward. A combination of; utilizing modern technology, educating sports people on the negative effects of supporting criminals by match-fixing , and protecting those who do blow the whistle on match-fixing would be a good start.