Sunday 17 December 2017

Match-fixing a real threat to every code

Irish sport has left itself vulnerable to betting scams, says Jack Anderson

Jack Anderson

The multiple arrests in Britain for football match-fixing in the past week, including one former Premier League player and two so-called international football "fixers" from Singapore, prompts the question as to how prepared Ireland is to face what many now regard as the number one integrity threat to sport.

The arrests were made in the wake of a sting by journalists from the Daily Telegraph, to whom an international fixer of games boasted about how easy it was to approach non-league footballers and officials to rig games for money and, benefiting from this inside information, how bets could then be placed on Asian websites.

In recent years many international agencies, including the United Nations, Interpol and the European Commission, have alerted sport to the extent of the threat posed by illegal gambling scams perpetrated by organised crime gangs based mainly in South-East Asia.

The potential threat is directly related to the growth in global sports betting in the past decade or so. It is now estimated that there are over 400 million sports betting odds movements per day, an increasing number of which take place on online betting exchanges. Including both the illegal and legal betting markets worldwide, the industry is now worth up to US$1 trillion and football betting accounts for 70 per cent of that market.

The reality of the threat to football was revealed earlier this year when a Europol investigation uncovered an extensive criminal network, mainly in Eastern Europe, dedicated to football match-fixing. The conspiracy involved a total of 425 matches and included Champions League fixtures.

English football clubs were only indirectly referenced in the Europol investigation with some suspicion surrounding a 2009 Champions League group game between Liverpool and the Hungarian club Debrecen.

Last week's arrests, facilitated by the UK's equivalent of the FBI, the National Crime Agency, is, however, rather more direct. Despite the magnitude of the threat, British sport is prepared. The UK's Gambling Act is a model of best practice and UK sport has a long history of dealing with match- and race-rigging.

The British Horseracing Authority, for example, is a world leader in illegal betting prevention. Two years ago the BHA successfully uncovered the largest race-rigging conspiracy in the sport's history. In total, 11 people were sanctioned to a combined 66 years' suspension for their involvement in a corruption ring that netted almost £280,000 from 10 races.

Even a less well-resourced sport such as snooker has a dedicated 'integrity' unit monitoring the possible fixing of matches. This year, snooker's integrity unit conducted an extensive investigation which resulted in the banning of former world No 5, Stephen Lee, for 12 years for match-rigging.

Cricket has seen the conviction of a number of players for cheating at gambling, including infamously the three Pakistan cricketers caught facilitating spot-fixing during the 2010 Test series in England.

Indeed, the Football Association itself has a history of dealing with gambling scams emanating from Asia. In 1997, a series of Premiership games ended prematurely due to floodlight failure. The premature end to a game meant that the Asia markets paid out on the result of the game as it stood when abandoned.

More importantly still, the UK has the resources, the policing skills and the political will to collectively combat match-fixing in sport.

In the run-up to the London Olympics, for instance, that approach led to the establishment of a Joint Assessment Unit – consisting of experts drawn from the International Olympic Committee, the UK Gambling Commission's Sports Betting Intelligence Unit and the London Metropolitan Police – to monitor possible corrupt betting activity on the Games.

Ireland is not as well-prepared as the UK and if Ireland wishes to host major international events in the future, it will need to address this. The International Rugby Board, for example, which has very advanced anti-match fixing policies, would likely ask the Irish government for reassurance on this if the Rugby World Cup 2023 bid were to be successful.

More immediately, one of the alleged fixers in the latest exposé mentioned Ireland as a place where he could fix football games. At present the FAI avails of the resources of UEFA and FIFA to monitor match-fixing but there needs to be a greater collective approach, sponsored by government, to assist sporting organisations. Simply acknowledging, as Sports Minister Michael Ring did, that match-fixing is a "hugely serious issue" is not enough.

There has been suspicion in the past regarding the rigging of a number of League of Ireland games. The league is vulnerable because, given that it runs through the European summer when football betting markets are otherwise quiet, it attracts disproportionate attention from the Asia betting markets. Moreover, in a profiling sense, players in the League of Ireland are relatively poorly paid and often are on short-term, season-long contracts. Experience from elsewhere shows that this increases the vulnerability of a league to match-rigging.

Other sports and even the GAA may also be vulnerable. The players most susceptible to approaches from fixers are often those who themselves have gambling issues. In this, the recent increase in players contacting the GPA regarding gambling addiction is a worrying sign.

The match-fixing threat to sport is very real and no longer remote. Britain has planned well for this eventuality. We have not.

Jack Anderson is a Professor of Sports Law at Queen's University, Belfast

Sunday Independent

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