Thursday, November 28, 2013

How Big a Problem is Match Fixing in Football?

British newspapers are reporting that 6 people have been arrested in the UK accused of fixing multiple, low-tier football matches. The story was first reported by The Telegraph.

One notable aspect of the current arrests is that one of the accused is a former Premier League player, Delroy Facey who played 14 games for Bolton back in 2002. The phrases "match fixing" and "Premier League" in such close quarters will get anyone's attention. However, Facey is currently playing for the Albion Sports FC of the Northern Counties East Football League, pretty far removed from the Premier League.

Even so, the arrests raise an important question: how significant are the threats to football integrity are match fixers?

The Telegraph article included excerpts of an undercover discussion with one of the key fixers arrested this week, and it suggests a limited reach with respect to top flight football:
The Telegraph was approached by an undercover investigator with links to Fifa, who had been gathering evidence against suspected Asian match fixers offering to operate in Britain.

During undercover meetings in Manchester earlier this month, the fixer told the former Fifa investigator that he could pay referees and players to manipulate the results of games.

However, during the course of the conversations about English matches, the fixer also said that he could rig matches “all over” the world, except in Singapore where the penalties are very high.

“I do Australia, Scotland. Ireland. Europe. World Cup. World Cup qualifier,” he said.

“What, the World Cup?”, asked the investigator.

“At least, at least 15,” the alleged fixer claimed. “I bought the match.”

The Singaporean national claimed that he controlled one African country’s “whole team”.

The fixer said that he worked closely with a registered Fifa agent, which meant he could organise matches throughout the world.

“He’s a very close friend”, explained the alleged fixer. “My boss is the one who asked him to spend the money to get the licence.”

The alleged fixer claimed to have set up international friendly matches. Some of these matches have already been the focus of concern amid allegations they were fixed.

In a series of covertly recorded conversations in this country, the alleged fixer was asked how the illicit trade worked.

Asked if the betting syndicate paid for the Fifa licence, the alleged fixer replied: “Yeah so he is very close with me… I'm [the] one who's sending money…he can organise any match around the world….that's the reason why I say I can organise any game any tournament…’Cause I use his licence I will ask him if ok he can arrange international friendly for this team before, usually before any world cup match or any tournament there will be friendly match, just a warm up match.”

In a later meeting, the fixer boasted about the teams he could use to control matches in Europe.

“I got team in Belgium. France as well I got,” said the alleged fixer.

“Good teams. Their country, most of these place their salaries are very low…Like Germany, the players, they pay high…France not so high. Very moderate. But Finland, Belgium, Sweden, all everybody all [earn] very less [sic]".
Economic theory would also suggests that would-be fixers will have a hard time cracking top leagues. The Economics of Sport blog discusses the incentives at play:
Economists have investigated criminal behaviour before, with the most well-known model of crime and punishment being Gary Becker's rational choice approach. Put simply, Becker viewed economic agents as purely rational from start to finish and that engaging in criminal activity was a question of the costs and benefits an individual faces.

In the Sky Sports report on the same matter, it is reported that the Daily Telegraph secretly taped a match-fixer and recorded him speaking of the high costs of match fixing in the U.K [Ed: As excerpted above], when he suggested that “In England the cost is very high... usually for the players it is £70,000.”

By Becker’s logic one would assume that top tier games around Europe are not subject to match fixing as the costs to compensate (already highly paid players) would need to be excessive to convince them to stake their reputation.

As the benefits of a fixed match in the betting market can be the same regardless of who is playing ( i.e. a 2/1 Arsenal win pay-offs the same as a 2/1 Northampton win), match fixers have a far greater incentive to target lower tier fixtures where costs are lower as compensation for the players would not have to be as great. Also these games would not have the eyes of the world watching. The only greater cost is that a ‘big bet’ on an obscure match is more likely to set off alarm bells for the bookies. 
Yet, the evidence that is available, as limited as it is, suggests that there is indeed a serious risk posed by match fixers. That risk appears uneven with respect to teams, players and leagues, and is largely based on anecdotes rather than any sort of systematic analysis of the problem.

What is the evidence that top leagues or teams are under threat? To be precise, by top leagues and teams I mean those in the top 30 (or so) of the FIFA World Rankings or the top 30 (or so) club rankings and their domestic leagues. What is the evidence for a significant match-fixing risk at these levels of play? There is some but not much, here is a summary of some recent experience and claims.
The list of allegations, sanctions and expressions of concern could go on, but there is certainly enough here to conclude that risks are not negligible. But how much risk? What is the nature of the threat? Is the idea that football itself is at risk a solid claim? Or is it the case that match fixing is fairly limited in its scope?

A big problem for dealing with the issue of match fixing is the lack of good evidence on which to base action. On the one hand there are experts such as Hill and Eaton who proclaim a threat to football itself, yet the data suggests that while match fixing is endemic in the sport, it is clearly concentrated in lower tier soccer and to the extent that match fixing finds its way into higher-level football, it occurs in nations where corruption is more common.

The Council of Europe has proposed a convention on match fixing (here in PDF). However, one of the big challenges facing a coordination or harmonization of laws, even across an integrated bloc like Europe, is that nations have vastly different legal regimes covering corruption, sports and gambling. The challenges of dealing with match fixing were a focus of the recent Play the Game conference in Aarhus, Denmark.

That there is growing attention is the good news.Even so, the sporting community remains a long way from fully understanding the scope of the problem that it faces with match fixing, much less the sorts of actions that might make sense in response. More systematic, rigorous attention to this issue is clearly needed.


Post a Comment