Monday, February 4, 2013

How to Fix The Fixing: A Problem With One Impossible Solution

The European Police Intelligence Agency (Europol) announced the conclusion of a nineteen month investigation today at a press conference in which they revealed that 680 global matches from 2008 to 2011, including 380 matches in Europe and a Champions League match played in England, were deemed "suspicious of match fixing."

Rob Wainright, Director of Europol, at The Hague today. (AP)
You're wondering right now if you watched one of these matches, had a rooting interest in one of these matches, or if any high level talent was involved in one of these fixes. Statistically speaking, yes, yes, and yes.

Kind of a punch to the gut, no?

While the average soccer fan would philosophically be able to wrap his/her mind around the fact that sporting events are bet on, and that because they are match fixing does take place, he/she would also probably balk at the suggestion that players from his/her club or national team or even referees in charge of matches in his/her league of choice were somehow involved. What we've found out today is that this is likely not the case.

The number of matches deemed suspicious seems staggering, but callers for calm will undoubtedly point out that in only one Premier League season 780 matches are played. This investigation spans multiple years and, ostensibly, although Europol is being frustratingly vague with concern to the dirty details of the investigation, all levels of the professional game on a global scale. While this statement of scale is true, it assumes that the Europol investigation uncovered 100% of the incidences of match fixing and does nothing to address the incidences of corruption before 2008 or after 2011. In other words, the size of the problem is likely much, much bigger than the big problem Europol announced today.

That's two punches to the gut.

Moreover, the organization most likely tasked with undertaking the brunt of the work required to try to rid the game of match fixing scandals associated with betting is FIFA. Yes, notoriously corrupt, cronyism personified, forever-embroiled-in-its-own-bribery-du-jour scandal FIFA. Many will say, FIFA included, that this should be a joint law enforcement/governing body issue and that the quest to rid the game of match fixing requires strong legal action including arrests, convictions, and jail time, and while I agree with this, the logistical nightmare of arresting, extraditing, trying, and convicting those responsible for match fixing from amongst any one of dozens of countries all with their own laws, treaties, and varying levels of motivation to do so is staggering. As Declan Hill has repeatedly pointed out, both in his book The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime and on his blog found at, knowing who is responsible for fixing the matches isn't the issue. Getting reluctant governments, who are reluctant for any one of a hundred reasons, to extradite wealthy, powerful organized crime bosses is another matter altogether.

What will most likely happen is what typically happens in situations where an obscene amount of money, ill begotten, is at stake and institutions of public trust are in the balance. The midlevel guys will fry and the string pullers, the guys no one has ever heard of before, will walk. This looks like lifetime bans handed down from FIFA for players, coaches, and referees. Maybe a few guys in suits with expensive lawyers will face jail time. But the guys at the top, the Dan Tans of the world, will largely survive to make it all happen again.

There's simply too much money at stake. As long as there is sport, there will be people who want to bet on sport. And as long as there are people betting on sport, there will be people gaming the system, to include fixing the outcome, to get as much of that money as possible while eliminating as much risk as possible. In his book The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, David Goldblatt describes the culture of betting, specifically betting on soccer matches, that exists in Southeast Asia where much of the Europol investigation leads:

"Legal gambling exists only in Hong Kong...Yet the Asian betting industry is turning over $100 billion a year. That is three times the GDP of Vietnam. The vast majority of this is illegal. On an average weekend during the European soccer season $150 million is wagered with the main underground bookmaking networks of South-east Asia. These are concentrated in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. Betting really takes off during the big international tournaments. Since the arrival of live television coverage of the World Cup in 1998, the volume of bets has grown enormously. During Euro 2004, for example, Thais gambled around $800 million in three weeks; that is half a per cent of the country's GDP. In Singapore $294 million was laid out; that's $70 for every man, woman, and child." 

We're talking enormous sums of money made all the more enormous by the particular economic and social conditions of the regions in which these bets are placed. You'd be a pretty horrible crime boss if you weren't doing everything in your power to take advantage of this situation. You'd be a pretty great and well protected one if you did. 

And this is not just a seedy Southeast Asian crime problem nor, indeed, a soccer problem. During last night's Super Bowl, sports betting conspiracy theorists the world over likely paused to mull over the possibility that the Superdome's sudden power outage, which took place right at the moment the Baltimore Ravens looked poised to run away and hide with the Lomabrdi Trophy, was somewhat less than accidental. Power outages that occur once a desired score line is achieved and that officially end a contest are an old standby favorite of the fixers.   This is not to say that the Super Bowl was fixed, but the culture of fixing and the historical instances of such are both long established. It's a sign of how much so that Twitter and Facebook exploded the moment the lights were shut off with all sorts of theories and accusations regarding a fix. Even Goldblatt's book, outwardly a history of soccer, could also accurately be described as a history of match fixing. Every few years there's a massive scandal and no region, league, or club should be naive enough to think themselves immune.

What makes soccer so different, and what makes the problem so difficult to solve, is the game's global appeal. Who would have ever thought a crime syndicate in Singapore could fix a match in England? Who would have thought there would be a reason? Who has the authority and clout to stop them from doing it? 

I have my doubts about FIFA as they've proven over and over for years and years to be rotten from the top down, and, at any rate, throwing the book at referees and players doesn't cut the head off of the snake. Europol, and by extension Interpol, has the tools to name those responsible but needs cooperation from individual governments, governments not always motivated for any number of reasons, to do anything with teeth (ie, arrest, extradite, try, convict, and sentence). 

That leaves the fans. The punters. The people enthralled by the sport and willing to wager their money on a hoped for outcome, an outcome that should be a mystery to everyone equally. The source of all the money in this whole enterprise in the first place; from player salaries to ticket sales to video games to IPOs to transfer fees to jerseys. The passion that fuels the enterprise. No passion for the game, no betting. No betting, no money. No money, no match fixing. Hurts, doesn't it?

That's three punches to the gut.  


  1. Very well done. Go on, son. Be a hero.

  2. Thanks! Unfortunately, Brian Phillips came along and destroyed this post with his very sensible and incredibly well written, "Soccer is Fucked." I'm serious. Google it. Great stuff. Still, I appreciate the props!