The World Cup kicks off in Qatar next week as international football comes under attack from match-fixing.
Sportradar, a prominent international firm that monitors betting markets, says it has identified around 600 manipulated football matches in the first nine months of 2022. Much of the questionable activity has focused on minor leagues involving players and officials who receive less compensation. experts say match-fixing syndicates are unlikely to target a high-profile event like the World Cup. But with more than $100 billion expected to be wagered on the World Cup, FIFA is taking precautions.
For the first time, an Integrity Working Group of stakeholders including Sportradar, INTERPOL, the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) and the FBI will monitor betting markets and in-play betting at every World Cup match. The quick team tracks offenses ranging from goals to yellow cards. The FBI declined to comment on its role in the task force, but according to FIFA, it is participating in the group in preparation for the 2026 World Cup in the United States.
To track the betting market, Sportradar, which partners with many American sports leagues, says it uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to monitor 30 billion data sets from more than 600 bookmakers worldwide. It also employs a team of 35 intelligence officers with expertise in counter-terrorism, financial fraud, military defense and law enforcement.
“I know it sounds like James Bond, but it’s not,” Andreas Krannich, Sportradar’s managing director of loyalty services, told ESPN. “This is intense intelligence work. We’ve even penetrated a match-fixing organization.”
In addition to product market monitoring, FIFA has held workshops to train World Cup teams and referees on match-fixing risks and protocols including whistle-blowing mechanisms. However, even with all precautions, match-fixing attempts are extremely difficult to prevent. Education, the threat of detection, and ultimately penalties, are what top gun sports leagues should do to discourage matchmakers from coming after their games.
“In the past years, FIFA has adopted an effective approach in combating all forms of manipulation and/or illegal influence on football matches or competitions,” a FIFA spokesperson wrote in an email to ESPN. “In line with this approach, FIFA’s judicial authorities are taking specific measures, despite the fact that no cases of match-fixing have been reported in connection with the finals of the FIFA World Cup.”
However, in 2016, five betting operators and integrity monitors, including Sportradar, flagged illegal betting schemes in a World Cup qualifier between South Africa and Senegal. Unfixed bets were placed on the number of goals to be scored in the match and were then linked to “deliberate wrong decisions” by Ghanaian referee Joseph Lamptey. Prosecutors claimed that Lamptey gave South Africa a handball penalty that did not happen. After an investigation, FIFA banned Lamptey for life.
“The World Cup is relatively low-risk from a match-fixing perspective,” Matt Fowler, IBIA’s director of integrity, told ESPN in an October phone interview.
IBIA is made up of sportsbook operators around the world who have the ability to drill down into customer-level account data to detect any suspicious activity. For example, if a flood of new accounts are opened at the same time and even begin to bet heavily at the same time, IBIA members may raise red flags and require a deeper investigation.
While there will be more scrutiny than ever in this year’s World Cup, there will be more money on the line. FIFA estimated that $155 billion was wagered worldwide on the 2018 World Cup in Russia during the tournament’s traditional summer slot. The amount of money involved in this year’s World Cup will help match-fixers hide their attempts to compromise events.
“It’s a valid question about liquidity,” Fowler said. “It creates a huge amount of betting interest around the world. When you have that kind of liquidity, it makes a big difference to look at activity at the customer level because you can have questionable money in a very liquid market, and the lines don’t necessarily move.
“I think the traditional methods of controlling the movement of lines may be more difficult to detect [irregularities] due to the size of the market [in the World Cup],” he added.
There are also concerns that match-fixers may target small incidents in the game, such as when a player receives a yellow card, which is known as “spot-fixing”. Micro-event betting markets usually don’t have enough liquidity to risk it for match-fixers looking for a big score.
“Put yourself in the shoes of the match,” said Sportradar’s Krannich. “You need a return on investment and liquidity in the market. You need to convince the players and the referee, and you need to find a bookmaker willing to accept your money. If you want to bet $10,000 on the first throw or a yellow card, the lucky bookmaker will always protect itself by reducing the limits. .
“You can never rule it out,” Krannich said, “but my view is that the chances of organized crime targeting the World Cup here in Qatar are relatively small compared to other competitions.”
But in general, he is concerned about the level of match-fixing found across all sports. He believes the lingering financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic have left smaller sports organizations vulnerable and created a “nightmare scenario” for match-fixers.
“For the crowd, it’s Christmas and Easter on the same day and the party goes on,” Krannich said. “It sounds cliché, but unfortunately that’s the situation and we’re seeing it everywhere.”