Foot­ball’s crime fight­ers

The Lon­don-based firm who are flag­ging up global match-fix­ing

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Nick Moore Il­lus­tra­tions Joe Wal­dron

A Swiss com­pany that mon­i­tors sus­pi­cious bet­ting pat­terns is now at the van­guard in the bat­tle to end match-fix­ing. FFT vis­ited the Lon­don-based nerve cen­tre of a se­cre­tive op­er­a­tion prov­ing that if you want to ex­pose cor­rup­tion, just fol­low the money

An African ref­eree is iden­ti­fied as vul­ner­a­ble to cor­rup­tion. He’s per­suaded to en­sure that a World Cup qual­i­fier has at least three goals. With half-time ap­proach­ing, it’s still 0-0 and the of­fi­cial gets twitchy. A cross hits a de­fender on the knee. He awards a penalty for hand­ball. De­spite up­roar­i­ous protests, the spot-kick is con­verted. The game ends 2-1. A Euro­pean club win the first leg of a Cham­pi­ons League match by a large mar­gin. With their progress as­sured, it’s ar­ranged for them to con­cede late in the sec­ond fix­ture. With three min­utes left, their defence switches off. A ball is punted up­field and a for­ward heads it goal­ward. The goal­keeper barely at­tempts a save.

Fix­ers ar­range for a group of English sixth-tier play­ers to join a club on the other side of the world. Un­ques­tion­ingly ac­cepted by the new em­ploy­ers, a pre­vi­ously solid side sud­denly start los­ing, and heav­ily.

A young goal­keeper in cen­tral Europe is be­friended by a rich man. He gets him into clubs, gets him girls and treats him like a rock star. A fam­ily debt is soon paid off. Later, he asks him to con­cede a goal in a friendly game. Who would that harm? This is then used as lever­age against him to com­mit more sig­nif­i­cant on-field fraud.

There are nu­mer­ous ways to fix a match. Some are sim­ple, oth­ers are so­phis­ti­cated and barely be­liev­able. But when the true beauty of sport is its un­pre­dictabil­ity, how on earth is it pos­si­ble to prove if odd be­hav­iour is down to hu­man er­ror or some­thing a lot more sin­is­ter? How can all the above sce­nar­ios get busted?

Just fol­low the money.

“WE AL­WAYS START WITH THE BET­TING PAT­TERNS”

You’ve prob­a­bly never heard of Spor­tradar, and de­spite the com­pany kindly agree­ing to a fea­ture in Four­fourtwo, it’s quite happy that way. We’ve stopped by its Lon­don of­fices – it has 34 world­wide, with 1,900 em­ploy­ees – un­der the con­di­tion that we don’t dis­close the lo­ca­tion, or use any real names.

If this seems like the para­noia of a counter-in­tel­li­gence unit, that’s be­cause it is. As the world’s fore­most ex­perts in bet­ting-re­lated fraud and sports cor­rup­tion, Spor­tradar is not muck­ing around. The peo­ple they’re bat­tling against in­clude many in­ter­na­tional mafias, who of­ten see gam­bling as a good way to laun­der money. Death threats were is­sued to UEFA in­spec­tors in Fe­bru­ary af­ter the ex­po­sure of Al­ba­nian out­fit Sk­ender­beu’s in­volve­ment in fix­ing, and a mem­ber of the Nepal side ap­peared to threaten Spor­tradar’s team af­ter play­ers were put on trial for throw­ing a match.

Some of the fig­ures in­volved in the world­wide gam­bling in­dus­try are gob­s­mack­ing: an es­ti­mated €1.5 tril­lion a year, with a game like the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal at­tract­ing around €1 bil­lion in bets (with 70 per cent of this punting go­ing on in Asia, much of it be­ing un­reg­u­lated, such fig­ures can never be ex­act).

As our Spor­tradar spokesman Ian (not his real name) ex­plains to us: “Peo­ple don’t re­alise how big the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket is, and there’s no real way of know­ing how big ex­actly. But it’s a crap-ton of money.”

So how do you go about mon­i­tor­ing such an un­wieldy beast? Data, data and more data. Spor­tradar was started in 2001 by Carsten Ko­erl (his real name), a Ger­man en­tre­pre­neur who helped to es­tab­lish on­line bet­ting com­pany Bwin.

Ko­erl recog­nised that in­ter­net gam­bling would pro­duce a plethora of new book­mak­ers, but that many would lack the ex­per­tise to set odds ac­cu­rately. A rep­utable ser­vice provider would be needed, and this was Be­tradar – the part of Spor­tradar that sells in­dus­try-lead­ing in­for­ma­tion to turf ac­coun­tants world­wide.

The ‘in­tegrity ser­vices’ part ar­rived in 2005 as a by-prod­uct. “What­ever you need to op­er­ate a bookie, we can de­liver,” says Ian. “But as part of our re­la­tion­ship with the bet­ting in­dus­try, we get their in­for­ma­tion back. It soon be­came clear that by us­ing this, we can see when book­mak­ers move away from the rest of the mar­ket. It al­ways hap­pens for a rea­son.”

What many ca­sual pun­ters might not re­alise is that while odds partly re­flect how likely some­thing is to hap­pen, they also re­flect book­mak­ers bal­anc­ing risk. So if a big amount of money comes in on Crewe to beat Ex­eter, op­er­a­tors may com­pen­sate by of­fer­ing more at­trac­tive odds on Ex­eter to beat Crewe, to cover po­ten­tial losses. By the same rea­son­ing, if a fix­ing group are bet­ting big on a late goal be­ing scored with a cer­tain op­er­a­tor, that bookie will al­ter its odds to re­flect this.

“If one book­maker is get­ting a lot of money on some­thing that no­body else is, there can be many in­no­cent rea­sons,” says Ian. “Maybe they’ve got some in­jury in­for­ma­tion ear­lier than ev­ery­one else or they’ve got an ex­cel­lent an­a­lyst – or maybe the bookie’s got it wrong that day, so they re­alise their mis­take and ad­just.”

But if one of the 550-plus on­line gam­bling com­pa­nies that Spor­tradar work with sud­denly of­fers prices that de­vi­ate wildly, it can be a smok­ing gun for match-fix­ing. “If a lot of peo­ple bet on some­thing with un­nat­u­ral con­fi­dence, it could be be­cause some­one’s en­gi­neered the re­sult.”

The com­pany there­fore de­vel­oped the Fraud De­tec­tion Sys­tem (FDS) – an al­go­rithm that scans 280,000 com­pet­i­tive fix­tures an­nu­ally across 17 sports look­ing for anom­alies. “The al­go­rithms don’t ask ques­tions, they cre­ate alerts,” says Ian. “So we need a sec­ond stage, called qual­i­ta­tive anal­y­sis. This is our team of more than 100 ex­perts. They work 24/7. As soon as an alert pops up, they have 72 hours to de­ter­mine whether it is a le­git­i­mate or sus­pi­cious bet­ting pat­tern.”

The num­ber crunch­ers carry out their re­search, chat­ting to a net­work of book­mak­ers and jour­nal­ists if re­quired. “Maybe our per­son out there on the ground knows that it was the cap­tain’s birth­day so ev­ery­one got drunk,” says Ian. “We look at all op­tions. You can’t just say, ‘This is fix­ing’. You’d be de­stroy­ing rep­u­ta­tions. We’re not a ma­chine gun, we’re a sniper ri­fle. When we shoot, we get it right. We al­ways start with the bet­ting pat­terns, but it takes more than that to be cred­i­ble.”

Spor­tradar only es­ca­lates an in­ci­dent when it is 100 per cent sure of foul play. To date, this has in­cluded 3,800 sports fix­tures. The fig­ure has climbed from 146 in 2009 to 650 last year. This rise re­flects more games be­ing sur­veyed rather than an in­crease in crim­i­nal­ity: Ian es­ti­mates that 0.5 per cent to one per cent of the matches they mon­i­tor are af­fected. As a re­sult, Spor­tradar re­ports have been used in 36 crim­i­nal con­vic­tions and 251 sport­ing sanc­tions (sus­pen­sions, bans and fines) to date, with more on the docket.

“I FELT THREAT­ENED, AS WE WEREN’T GET­TING THE GOALS RE­QUIRED”

Spor­tradar’s ex­pe­ri­ence has pro­vided a unique in­sight into how fix­ing works. “It’s not gen­er­ally some guy bowl­ing up and say­ing, ‘Here’s 50k, please lose 5-0’,” adds Ian. “Fix­ers usu­ally groom play­ers and of­fi­cials. They take time, do them favours and en­ter­tain them. Then they’ll call in the favours. And once you do some­thing for them they say, ‘You’ve just fixed a match for me, now you’re my bitch’. Pros­ti­tutes or drugs can be used as lever­age, while older play­ers are some­times used to in­flu­ence and re­cruit younger ones.”

Of­ten at the core of these shady deal­ings are large crim­i­nal groups. “The Balkan, Ital­ian and Asian mafia are in­volved,” ex­plains Ian. “The own­ers of clubs can also be crim­i­nals. They tell play­ers, ‘Un­for­tu­nately you’re go­ing to lose to­day’. In some places, play­ers don’t ask ques­tions if they value their kneecaps.”

Fix­ers can even ar­range fix­tures. No­to­ri­ous Sin­ga­porean su­per-fixer Wilson Raj Peru­mal or­gan­ised nu­mer­ous friendlies, for which he would pick the ref­eree. “There’s a pre­pon­der­ance of rigged friendlies, be­cause

there’s noth­ing on the line and par­tic­i­pants are more will­ing to agree,” says Ian. Ref­er­ees are a com­mon tar­get. “They con­trol the re­sult pretty closely, es­pe­cially if the fix­ers are bet­ting on to­tal goals. You don’t care who scores them, you just care that there are three or four. So you dish out some penal­ties.”

This proved the un­do­ing of Ghana’s Joseph Lamptey, who was caught try­ing to in­flu­ence goals scored in a World Cup qual­i­fier be­tween South Africa and Sene­gal last year. His de­ci­sion to blow for a penalty af­ter the ball hit Sene­gal de­fender Kali­dou Koulibaly on the knee was ridicu­lous, but it’s the kind of blun­der ref­er­ees of­ten make. It was the al­go­rithm that caught him. FIFA – a Spor­tradar part­ner – de­cided to re­play a World Cup qual­i­fier due to fix­ing for the first time, and Lamptey was banned for life.

Peru­mal’s syn­di­cate was in­volved in the 2013 South­ern Stars scan­dal. Four play­ers and a coach from the Mel­bourne club were con­victed, along with a Malaysian fixer. English play­ers were in­volved in play so ob­vi­ously sus­pect that their op­po­nents reg­u­larly ques­tioned what was hap­pen­ing.

“I was pan­ick­ing, get­ting a call when we were los­ing 2-0 and the boss say­ing this bet­ter f**king hap­pen,” de­fender Reiss Noel told po­lice about one game. “I felt threat­ened as we weren’t get­ting the goals re­quired.”

Spor­tradar’s al­go­rithm had again alerted the au­thor­i­ties, and Noel and a team-mate, goal­keeper Joe Wool­ley, were banned for life by FIFA af­ter ad­mit­ting help­ing to fix matches.

“These guys weren’t ex­actly brain sur­geons,” says Ian. “Po­lice were at the game, and you’ve got a fixer on the phone ac­tu­ally speak­ing to one player, and him then say­ing to the goal­keeper, ‘We need to let an­other in’. Some­times the footage you watch of keep­ers jump­ing the wrong way is al­most com­i­cal.”

How­ever, there’s also a de­gree of cat-and-mouse be­tween Spor­tradar and crim­i­nals that wouldn’t look out of place in The Wire.

“A few years ago some­one re­alised you don’t even need to ma­nip­u­late a per­for­mance to fix a match – you can just ma­nip­u­late the con­cept of a per­for­mance,” ex­plains Ian. This led to the ex­tra­or­di­nary phe­nom­e­non of ‘ghost games’, in which en­tire matches were faked.

“In or­der for book­mak­ers to cover foot­ball, they sim­ply need data on what is hap­pen­ing. So it was cre­ated from noth­ing – they sent through de­tails about imag­i­nary goals be­ing scored af­ter they had bet on them.”

Among the games that never kicked off in­cluded Mal­dives Un­der-21s against Turk­menistan Un­der-21s from 2012, and Por­tu­gal’s Frea­munde against Spain’s Pon­fer­rad­ina in 2014. “Peo­ple in­no­vate – it’s like dop­ing,” says Ian. “We’ve also had some fix­ers try­ing not to dis­rupt the odds by spread­ing a bet across lots of book­ies. But our sys­tem now ag­gre­gates, so we can catch those spikes, too.”

“THE POINT OF SPORT IS THE HON­ESTY OF THE BAT­TLE”

Spor­tradar can’t take down the mafia, but it is work­ing with peo­ple who can. Af­ter the South­ern Stars scan­dal was ex­posed in con­junc­tion with Aus­tralian po­lice forces, more law en­force­ment agen­cies got in­volved: Europol are part­ners and In­ter­pol are close col­lab­o­ra­tors.

“The flood­gates opened, be­cause forces re­alised that our sys­tem isn’t witch­craft,” says Ian. Spor­tradar now helps to ed­u­cate po­lice world­wide, free of charge. It has even de­vel­oped the sys­tem to the point where it iden­ti­fied a way to sin­gle out spe­cific in­di­vid­ual bets that dis­rupt odds, so law en­forcers can fol­low up those ac­counts.

A num­ber of coun­tries are also set­ting up na­tional plat­forms to fight the prob­lem and share their re­sources, with Spor­tradar of­fer­ing cru­cial in­sight once again.

Mak­ing ma­jor ar­rests will al­ways be com­pli­cated, though. The ev­i­dence re­quired for crim­i­nal con­vic­tions (‘be­yond rea­son­able doubt’) is greater than that needed for sport­ing sanc­tions (‘to com­fort­able sat­is­fac­tion’). “Sports or­gan­i­sa­tions can ban peo­ple but they can’t put them in pri­son,” says Ian. “Our FDS is good at pin­point­ing who’s ex­e­cut­ing a fix, but the prob­lem is they’re foot­sol­diers – a 17-year-old kid who made a mis­take and can’t get out of the web he’s in. We want the pup­pet­mas­ters.”

As a re­sult, Spor­tradar now has a spe­cial­ist group, set up by a for­mer British mil­i­tary counter-in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tive, at­tempt­ing to join the dots in these in­ter­na­tional crimes. The more in­for­ma­tion they share, the more crim­i­nal cases they can get across the line. This means care­ful vet­ting of who works for Spor­tradar, too.

“We need to check the back­ground of em­ploy­ees,” says Ian. “We need to be wary if some­one seems le­nient. None of our an­a­lysts are al­lowed to bet, and our level of en­cryp­tion is ex­tremely high. All our servers are in-house, we have no in­for­ma­tion on the cloud and we’re quiet on so­cial me­dia. We know we’re caus­ing a headache for peo­ple who could make a lot of money, so we might be tar­geted.”

The big ques­tion many FFT read­ers might want to ask, alas, re­mains unan­swered. How much match-fix­ing takes place in the Pre­mier League? “Worth a try,” laughs Ian. “Sadly, I can’t talk about any spe­cific league.”

He will dis­cuss the game’s rel­a­tive vul­ner­a­bil­ity, how­ever. “It is quite dif­fi­cult to fix. Some­thing like ten­nis is eas­ier. There, you can even have a match that’s ar­ranged, but some­how ap­pears fair to the play­ers. We agree that I’ll win the first set, you win the sec­ond set, and then we play for real in the third. It’s still the best man wins, and we both get to bet.”

While there’s a dif­fer­ent al­go­rithm for the Pre­mier League as op­posed to the Croa­t­ian third di­vi­sion, to re­flect pro­file and bet spend, we should not as­sume that the big­gest names are not in­volved. “Rich peo­ple can have gam­bling debts and can be sleep­ing with the wrong peo­ple,” says Ian. “They can be vul­ner­a­ble. It may be eas­ier to fix a bad­minton match, but how much liq­uid­ity is in the bad­minton mar­ket? Not much. Foot­ball has plenty of liq­uid­ity.”

It’s al­most time to leave Spor­tradar’s nerve cen­tre when an alert pops up: there’s some sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity in a south­ern Euro­pean clash. Our an­a­lyst – let’s call him Bob – guides us through sev­eral screens. An Asian bet­ting com­pany is of­fer­ing baf­flingly low odds on there be­ing an­other goal scored, de­spite it be­ing the 88th minute of the match. Some wild punts are clearly be­ing made.

The fix is in, we de­cide, and watch the clos­ing mo­ments play out on a dig­i­tal screen. But noth­ing hap­pens. Bob con­cludes that this is likely to end up des­ig­nated as a ‘failed fix’ – a pos­si­ble dodgy deal that didn’t work. Pa­per­work will be filed.

A for­mer pro­fes­sional gam­bler, Bob got into this gig af­ter fre­quently get­ting foiled by some of the du­bi­ous odds move­ments he now fights. “I en­joy get­ting to see it all,” he says. And he still goes home to watch foot­ball af­ter work.

Ian ad­mits his work can leave him “dis­en­chanted”, though. “The point of sport is the un­pre­dictabil­ity of a re­sult, and the hon­esty of the bat­tle,” he says. “But this is the world we live in.”

Un­til things change rad­i­cally, Spor­tradar will keep fol­low­ing the money.

“YOU’VE GOT A FIXER On THE PHONE AC­TU­ALLY SPEAK­ING TO A PLAYER, AND HIM THEN TELLING THE KEEPER, ‘WE NEED TO LET AN­OTHER ONE In’”

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