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.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Who Had the Hardest Route to WC2014 Qualification?

Which team had the easiest time qualifying for the 2014 World Cup? How about the hardest?

To answer these questions I created an index of achievement. Specifically, I took the October 2013 FIFA World Rankings and used them as the basis for creating an index based on performance in World Cup qualification. I used a simple metric, a team gets all of their opponents ranking points for a win and half of those points for a draw. Of course, a defeat results in zero points. One could of course devise other plausible ways of tallying points.

According to FIFA there were 820 matches in total played in qualification for the 2014 World Cup. Not all teams played the same number of qualifiers, nor did each team face the same quality of opponents.

Here is how the numbers stack up:

1 Argentina 9769
2 Colombia 8172
3 Ecuador 7689
4 Uruguay 7445
5 Chile 6903
6 USA 6546
7 Costa Rica 6156
8 Belgium 6149
9 Honduras 5879
10 Mexico 5734
11 Portugal 4996
12 Croatia 4832
13 Netherlands 4705
14 Italy 4556
15 Switzerland 4293
16 Germany 4161
17 Greece 4151
18 France 4111
19 Australia 4084
20 Iran 3703
21 Spain 3694
22 Japan 3635
23 South Korea 3619
24 Russia 3570
25 Bosnia 3485
26 England 3240
27 Cameroon 3081
28 Algeria 2506
29 Ivory Coast 2161
30 Nigeria 1927
31 Ghana 1919
32 Brazil 0

Brazil obviously had the easiest route to qualification, serving as host and automatically qualifying.  The highest achievers come all from CONMEBOL, with Argentina leading the way. The USA was next highest. Belgium is the highest performer from UEFA.

Germany and Greece sit squarely in the middle. England was the lowest achieving UEFA squad, earning less than one third of the points tallied by Argentina. The 5 CAF teams all fall at the bottom of the rankings.

All data for this exercise comes from FIFA.

Nick Harris (@sportingintel) parses the data in per match fashion:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Armstrong Implicates Verbruggen

In the interview above with The Daily Mail Lance Armstrong implicates former UCI president Hein Verbruggen in a cover-up of his 1999 positive doping test, indicating a conspiracy reaching to the highest levels of cycling governance. Those responsible for protecting the sport were actively involved in furthering its corruption.

For Verbruggen's part The Daily Mail reports:
In February, Verbruggen personally delivered a letter to the most important 15 Olympic officials at the Lausanne  Palace Hotel, attacking the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and denying  he had aided any cover-up of Armstrong's doping.

Verbruggen wrote: 'I have been frequently accused that, in my UCI presidency, my federation would not have been too serious in its anti-doping policy and that - in particular the Lance Armstrong case - the UCI and myself have been involved in covering up positive tests.

'Cover-ups never took place. Not only would this never have been allowed, but there simply was nothing to cover up. Armstrong, nor his team-mates, never tested positive.'
And the woman at the table with Armstrong and Daily Mail reporter Matt Lawton is Emma O'Reilly. The interview is reported here.

UPDATE: Verbruggen responds here.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Introducing the STePPS Project

I've started up a new project here at the University of Colorado, with a new homepage courtesy of the unmatched Ami Nacu-Schmidt.

Here is the project description:
STePPS is a new project of the CIRES Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. It is focused on the governance of sport, with a special emphasis on the roles of science and technology in how sport is governed. STePPS will focus on original research, university education and outreach to the broader community. We have partnered with the emerging undergraduate certificate program in Critical Sports Studies, out of the Department of Ethnic Studies.

If you are interested in learning more, please contact Roger Pielke, Jr.
Check it out here, comments welcomed.

League of Denial on The Daily Show

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lance Armstrong and Travis Tygart Communicate Through the Media

Here is Lance Armstrong on the BBC World Service:

Travis Tygart of USADA responds indirectly in The Guardian:
Tygart said he had not read Armstrong's comments, but there was nothing personal for Usada.

"Their [Armstrong and his lawyers] goal was to make it personal against us, you know, so that we would get the pressure and I would get the death threats and my family would get the death threats," Tygart said. "Play one out of the defence playbook is to identify a single person and then vilify them.

"And that's how you try to bully them or intimidate them or scare them away from doing the job and exposing the truth that they know our job was to expose. Look, we were very methodical, very judicial. It's a very clinical process. We went through it, treated him the same as everyone else was treated."

Tygart said he felt "compassion" for Armstrong and his family as he was really "no worse" than a lot of other riders. But "he was the one that won, obviously. He was the one that profited the most," Tygart said.

"It can't be a good situation where he's at right now," Tygart said. "That was a large part why we gave [him] the opportunity back in June 2012 to come forward. We were as disappointed as anyone back then when they rejected that and went on the attack. And we still, I think, remain open."

Armstrong has said that a truth and reconciliation commission for international cycling is crucial. It's something that Wada and the UCI's new leadership may make progress on in Johannesburg this week.

"We've been pushing for it from day one," Tygart said. "When we saw the evidence that we saw during the course of this investigation, we knew this was not just about one individual athlete. It was about a system that corrupted a sport.

"To get to the bottom of the dark culture during that time is critically important for the success of the sport going forward."
More from Tygart here with AP. And more to come in this soap opera to be sure.

Friday, November 8, 2013

University of Colorado Course: Communication, Sport & Society

As part of an emerging undergraduate Certificate in Critical Sports Studies there are a set of new and interesting course offerings here at the University of Colorado. COMM 3000 -- Communication, Sport & Society will be offered in the summer term 2014 by Jamie Skerski of the Communication Department.

Here is the course description:
COMM 3000:  Communication, Sport & Society

How and when did “play” become such a serious, high-stakes endeavor?  How does being a “fan” at a ball game collapse otherwise divisive economic class distinctions? Why are male athletes often referred to by last name, but female athletes by first name? Why does the NFL “go pink” every October and what are the implications?  How does the concept of “free agency” impact “community” for both fans and players? What metaphors shape the way we perceive different sports and their cultural value?  What can we learn about larger social relations from studying sport?

This course examines the communicative, historical and cultural aspects of “sport” in contemporary American society.  Thinking critically about sport as a social institution, our readings and discussions will explore the intersections of power, gender/sexuality, race and ethnicity, class and national identity.

Scholars from communication, anthropology, sociology among others agree that public narratives about sports are symptomatic of larger social issues, including racial tensions, gender inequities and labor disputes.  The goal of the course is to facilitate critical thinking about sport as a site of cultural production.  Students will be prompted to make connections between the discourses of sport and other arenas of public life as well as their own life experiences.  As such, student learning objectives include:
  • Theorizing the differences between “play,” “games” and “sport”
  • Understanding the political economy of professional sports, both nationally and internationally
  • Recognizing the gendered discourse embedded in sports culture and its implications
  • Identifying the racial/ethnic/class implications of professional “scouting” and “farming” players
  • Making connections between the cultural norms of sport and dominant ideologies

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

FIFA Reform Recommendation Scorecard

Last week at Play the Game, I presented the results of my evaluation of the recently-completed  FIFA reform project. A summary of what I found can be seen in the slide above. In short, FIFA took some small steps forward, but has a long way to go to raise its governance to what experts would judge to be minimally acceptable standards.

In the panel discussion that followed the presentation both Mark Pieth, who chaired the FIFA reform project, and Walter DeGregorio, FIFA spokesman, put up some very mild resistance to the numbers that I presented.  The session is pictured below, with from left to right, Osasu Obayiuwana, me, Pieth and DeGregorio, photo courtesy Play the Game 2013 and Thomas S√łndergaard. Note: you can watch the presentations here.
DeGregorio tried to impeach my analysis by quoting Winston Churchill as saying, "I only believe in statistics that I doctored myself." Unfortunately, that "quote" from Churchill was apparently manufactured by Goebbels in an effort to discredit Churchill. On several levels this was probably not DeGregorio's best response. Even so, DeGregorio did not really offer much to contradict my evaluation and in his own off-the-cuff remarks, underscored the challenges that FIFA faces in furthering reform (DeGregorio's formal presentation, which he did not give, can be found here in PDF).

Professor Pieth asserted his familiarity with the empirical science and took issue with the summing of the recommendations. Fair enough. They are presented in a convenient tabular form above and can easily be considered report-by-report. But, after the pro forma objections, Pieth gave an excellent presentation that really jibed well with what I presented.

You can do a lot of things with data and statistics. However, one thing that you can't do is make FIFA's reform effort look like a success.