The World Cup kicks off next week in Qatar at a time when international football is under attack from match-fixing syndicates.
Sportradar, a leading international company that monitors betting markets, says it has identified around 600 potentially manipulated football matches in the first nine months of 2022. Most of the suspicious activity centers on smaller leagues, involving players and officials who receive low pay, and experts say match-fixing syndicates are unlikely to target an event as high-profile as the World Cup. But, with more than $100 billion expected to be wagered on the World Cup worldwide, FIFA is taking precautions.
For the first time, an Integrity Task Force made up of stakeholders, including Sportradar, INTERPOL, the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) and the FBI, will monitor betting markets and in-play betting on every match of world Cup. The task force will monitor irregularities on 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 has partnered with many US sports leagues to track betting markets, says it uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to monitor 30 billion datasets from more than 600 bookmakers around the world. the world. It also employs a team of 35 intelligence officers with experience in counterterrorism, financial fraud, military defense and law enforcement.
“I know it sounds like James Bond, but it’s not,” Andreas Krannich, managing director of Integrity Services at Sportradar, told ESPN. “It’s solid intelligence work. We even infiltrated a match-fixing organization.”
In addition to monitoring the betting markets, FIFA has held workshops to inform World Cup teams and referees of the threat of match-fixing and the protocols in place, which include a whistleblower mechanism. Yet, even with every precaution, preventing match-fixing attempts is extremely difficult. Education, the threat of detection, and possible penalties are the best weapons sports leagues have to deter matchfixers from coming after their games.
“Over the past few years, FIFA has taken an effective approach to combating all forms of manipulation and/or unlawful influence of football matches or competitions,” a FIFA spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. -mail to ESPN. “In line with this approach, the FIFA legal bodies have taken concrete action, although no cases of match manipulation have been reported in relation to the FIFA World Cup final competition.”
However, in 2016, five betting operators and integrity checkers, including Sportradar, reported irregular betting patterns during a World Cup qualifier between South Africa and Senegal. The irregular bet centered on the ‘over’ on the number of goals to be scored in the match and was later correlated to ‘intentional bad decisions’ by referee Joseph Lamptey of Ghana. Prosecutors alleged that Lamptey awarded South Africa a penalty on a nonexistent handball. After an investigation, FIFA banned Lamptey for life.
“The World Cup is relatively low risk from a match-fixing perspective,” IBIA director of integrity Matt Fowler said in a phone interview with ESPN in October.
The IBIA is made up of sports betting operators from around the world, who have the ability to mine customer-level account data to identify any suspicious activity. For example, if a slew of new accounts are opened around the same time and start betting heavily on the same peer, IBIA members may raise red flags, prompting further investigation.
Although this year’s World Cup will be more closely watched than ever, there will also be more money at stake. FIFA estimated that $155 billion has been wagered globally on the 2018 World Cup, which will took place in Russia during the tournament’s traditional summer slot. The sheer volume of money being wagered on this year’s World Cup could help match-fixers hide any attempt to jeopardize the events.
“It’s a valid question because of the liquidity,” Fowler said. “It’s going to generate a huge amount of betting interest around the world. When you have that liquidity, being able to look at the activity at the client level makes a big difference, because clearly you could potentially have money. suspicious money in a very liquid market, and the lines will not necessarily move.
“I think more traditional methods of tracking line movements can be harder to spot. [irregularities] due to market size [in the World Cup],” he added.
There are also concerns that matchfixers target smaller in-game events, such as a player being shown a yellow card, which is known as “spot-fixing”. Micro-event betting markets, however, usually don’t have enough liquidity to make it worth the risk for matchfixers looking for a big score.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a match-fixer,” said Krannich of Sportradar. “You need a return on investment and liquidity in the market. You need to convince the players and the referee and also find a bookmaker who is willing to accept your money. If you want to place $10,000 on the first touch or yellow card, good luck The bookmaker always protects itself by lowering the limits.
“You can never rule it out,” Krannich said, “but from my perspective the likelihood of organized crime groups targeting the FIFA World Cup here in Qatar compared to other competitions is relatively low. .”
Overall, however, he remains concerned about the level of match-fixing he has detected across all sports. He believes the lingering financial ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic have left smaller sports organizations vulnerable, creating a “dream scenario” for matchfixers.
“For matchfixers, it’s Christmas and Easter on the same day, and the party goes on,” Krannich said. “It sounds cynical, but unfortunately that’s the situation, and we see it everywhere.”