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It’s time for a global crackdown to stop match-fixing

Millions of cricket fans watched the replays open-mouthed as Mohammad Asif bowled deliberate no-balls during the Lord’s Test against England in 2010.

Scott Heavey/Getty Images Snooker Player Stephen Lee
Snooker Player Stephen Lee

Millions of cricket fans watched the replays open-mouthed as Mohammad Asif bowled deliberate no-balls during the Lord’s Test against England in 2010.

The sheer cheek of what he was doing shocked many, as did the fact that it was so easy to see once the Sunday papers had broken the story and lifted the lid on the practice.

But while that particular scandal will remain in the memory for a long time because it was so brazenly obvious and happened on live television, it was just one of numerous recent attempts in professional sport to fix a match (or, on that occasion, one aspect of it).

Match-fixing is rife around the globe today, and the various sporting authorities have their work cut out keeping up with the cheats. Things have got so bad that an expert in the field is leading calls for governments to step in and take charge of the situation.

Chris Eaton, a former head of security at Fifa, said governments had to stop “deferring” to sport, and match-fixing would stop only after a crackdown on the criminal gangs that benefited from the cheating. That was something for law-enforcement to sort out.

Eaton, who is now director of sport integrity at the International Centre for Sport Security, said governments were shirking their responsibilities to police the system properly – for political reasons.

“I think they’re trying to avoid a confrontation with China, which is the main source of illegal gambling in the world,” he said.

“Sport is not there to nullify organised crime or betting on sport. This is for governments and they are eschewing this responsibility – shamefully, in my view.”

Eaton was speaking after news emerged of a host of arrests and allegations over further fixing.

Football, snooker and cricket have all been in the spotlight recently. One of the high-profile cases involved Pakistan cricket umpire Asad Rauf and the son-in-law of the Indian cricket board’s president, who have been charged by police over the rigging of the IPL’s T20 tournament. A total of 22 people have been held in this case.

That development came just days after former India fast bowler Shanthakumaran Sreesanth was banned for life for spot-fixing.

Meanwhile, snooker player Stephen Lee has just been banned for 12 years after being found guilty of seven charges of match-fixing, while investigations in the football world have demonstrated the global nature of the problem.

Lewis Whyld/PA Wire Mohammad Asif
Mohammad Asif
 

There are many losers when sport is corrupted like this. First, there are the fans and spectators, who expect to see an honest battle between teams or individuals. Rigging the outcome – or simply just fixing various details within a game – defeats any notion of competition.

Then there is the knock-on criminality. Drugs, prostitution, human trafficking, smuggling and sometimes terrorism can be bedfellows of these gambling syndicates. Allowing the gangs to profit from rigging sporting events helps boost their other nefarious operations.

But there is also a huge impact on the regulated betting industry – an industry worth billions of pounds a year in the UK alone. The whole point of match-fixing, after all, is to beat the bookies with insider knowledge. It is fraud on a potentially huge scale.

Bookmakers will not comment on how match-fixing affects them. This is partly for commercial reasons but also because they don’t want to highlight which scams – if any – they have fallen prey to.

But Jonathan Shepherd, of Betrescue, a provider of betting information and an odds-comparison service, confirmed that match-fixing was a serious problem for the industry.

“The whole point of fixing, after all, is to know the result in advance and take our partners – the bookies – to the cleaners,” he said.

“In purely business terms, it is the bookmaking industry that is potentially the biggest loser from match-fixing.”

It’s no surprise that the industry works closely with the authorities, and they have systems in place to look for suspicious betting patters.

This was highlighted following the recent investigation into snooker player Lee. After he was found guilty of match-fixing last week, World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn revealed the extent to which the authorities monitor the situation.

He said that special “integrity units” looked at every match and were alert to any suspect trends in games.

Lee was effectively banned for life after a tribunal reached a guilty verdict. He had denied the allegations, but the panel found that he had deliberately lost matches at the 2008 Malta Cup and the 2009 World Championship, and the first frame in games at the 2008 UK Championship. He also lost by a pre-determined score at the 2009 China Open.

“We are diligently looking at every single game,” Hearn said after the verdict was delivered.

“We know that without integrity in our sport, the sport’s finished.”

It might seem a common-sense approach, but it shows just how endemic match-fixing corruption is. The fact that every single game is scrutinised so closely highlights just how serious a problem it has become.

It’s no wonder that the likes of Chris Eaton have called for governments to step in and take charge.

His argument that football is in crisis has been backed up by the latest crackdown on betting syndicates, with police in Singapore and Australia making a wave of arrests.

The Singapore investigation has seen nearly 700 games around the world come under suspicion, and 14 people have been picked up by the authorities.

Meanwhile, a number of British players have been in court in Australia, charged with match-fixing. And for anyone who thinks of match-fixing as being a “victimless crime” (in the same way some people manage to persuade themselves that an inflated insurance crime is also victimless), the players’ concerns over their safety highlights just how entrenched in the criminal world these betting gangs are.

Police said the accused players were barricading their hotel doors because they were frightened they would get visits from the heavies – presumably to warn them not to shop anyone else during any investigation or trial.

Earlier this year, European police agency Europol said hundreds of games worldwide had been linked to one of these syndicates, with the Champions League and World Cup qualifiers among the targets.

The problem runs throughout the sport, however. If you can bet on it, it will be a target for the crooks – and a few weeks after the Europol announcement, it emerged that the English FA had been in touch with all the Conference South clubs after becoming concerned over betting patterns.

From the Champions League to the conference – all levels of football are at risk and highlight how difficult it is to stop the problem. It adds weight to Eaton’s call for inter-governmental action.

“[The recent crackdowns send] a strong message to criminal organisations which are operating in this field,” he said.

“It is very important because, up until now, we’ve focused on players and match-fixers. But the real people who need to be caught are the people who are organising the betting fraud.”

Time is of the essence, he said, and a co-ordinated global crackdown would allow law enforcement agencies, sporting authorities and the regulated gambling industry to hit the match fixers quicker and more effectively.

Without such a co-ordinated response, the fear is that the very point of sport could be lost.

 
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