With the World Cup kicking off in Qatar next week, international football is under attack from match-fixing syndicates.
Sportradar, a prominent international company that monitors betting markets, said it had detected around 600 potentially rigged football matches in the first nine months of 2022. Most of the suspicious activity has been concentrated in smaller leagues, involving underpaid players and officials, and 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 globally, FIFA is taking precautions.
For the first time, an integrity task force comprising stakeholders including Sportradar, INTERPOL, the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) and the FBI will monitor betting markets and in-game betting on every World Cup match. The task force will look at violations of everything from goals to yellow cards. The FBI declined to comment on its role in the task force, but is participating in the group in preparation for the 2026 World Cup in the United States, according to FIFA.
Sportradar, which already works with a number of U.S. sports leagues to track the betting market, said it used artificial intelligence and machine learning to monitor 30 billion data sets from more than 600 bookmakers around the world. It also employs a team of 35 intelligence officers with backgrounds in counterterrorism, financial fraud, military defense and law enforcement.
“I know it sounds like James Bond, but it’s not,” Andreas Krannich, general manager of Integrity Services at Sportradar, told ESPN. “It was solid intelligence work. We even infiltrated a match-fixing organisation.”
As well as monitoring the betting market, FIFA has held seminars to educate World Cup teams and referees about the threat of match-fixing and existing protocols, which include reporting mechanisms. Still, even with all the precautions taken, preventing match-fixing is extremely difficult. Education, the threat of detection, and eventual penalties are the best weapons sports leagues have to deter game-fixers after games are over.
“Over the past few years, FIFA has taken an effective approach to combating all forms of manipulation and/or unlawful influence on football matches or competitions,” a FIFA spokesperson wrote in an email to ESPN. “Based on this approach, FIFA’s judiciary has been taking concrete action, although there have been no reported cases of match-fixing in the FIFA World Cup final.”
However, in 2016, five betting operators and integrity monitors, including Sportradar, detected unusual betting patterns during a World Cup qualifier between South Africa and Senegal. Irregular betting focused on an “excess” of the number of goals scored in the match, which was subsequently linked to a “deliberate wrong decision” by Ghanaian referee Joseph Lamptey. Prosecutors accused Lamptey of awarding South Africa a nonexistent handball penalty. After investigation, FIFA banned Lamptey for life.
“From a match-fixing standpoint, the risk of the World Cup is relatively low,” IBIA integrity director Matt Fowler said in a phone interview with ESPN in October.
IBIA is made up of sports betting operators from around the world who are able to drill down into customer level account data to identify any suspicious activity. For example, if a string of new accounts were opened around the same time and began betting heavily on the same event, IBIA members could raise red flags, prompting a deeper investigation.
While this year’s World Cup will be subject to more scrutiny than ever before, there will also be more money pouring into it. FIFA estimates that $155 billion has been wagered globally on the 2018 World Cup, which is held in Russia during the traditional summer session. The amounts wagered on this year’s World Cup could help match-fixers cover up any attempts to spoil the event.
“It’s a valid question because of the liquidity,” Fowler said. “It’s going to generate a lot of betting interest all over the world. When you do have that liquidity, being able to look at the activity at the customer level makes a big difference because obviously you’re going to have a lot of liquidity in a place Suspicious money market, the line does not necessarily move.
“I think the more traditional methods of just tracking line movement might be harder to spot [irregularities] Because of the size of the market [in the World Cup],’ he added.
There are also concerns that match-fixers could target smaller in-game events, such as whether a player receives a yellow card, in what is known as “field-fixing”. However, betting markets for micro-events are often not sufficiently liquid to make it worth the risk for match-fixers looking for big scores.
“Put yourself in the guy’s shoes,” says Sportradar’s Krannich. “You need return on investment and market liquidity. You have to convince the players and the referees, and find bookmakers who are willing to take your money. If you want to put $10,000 on the first throw-in or yellow card, good luck. Bookmakers always protect themselves by lowering limits.
“You can never rule that out,” Krannich said, “but from my perspective, organized crime groups are targeting the FIFA World Cup in Qatar more than any other competition.” relatively low.”
Overall, though, he remains concerned about the level of match-fixing he has found across all sports. He believes the lingering financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has left smaller sports organizations vulnerable, creating a “dream scenario” for match-fixers.
“For game-fixers, Christmas and Easter are on the same day, and the party goes on,” Krannich said. “It sounds cynical, but unfortunately, that’s the way it is and we see it everywhere.”