Matt Scott: A ghost game and the corruption threat to football in all its forms

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“The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” Jacob Marley’s ghost – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

In the century-and-a-half since its inception, football has crossed every ocean and taken root in nearly every corner of the globe. It truly is a marvellous business, its success eclipsing almost all of its Victorian contemporaries, surviving the wars and the many technological innovations that put paid to so many once-thriving concerns of the former British empire.

That is probably because of its assimilability, which allows a cultural imprint to be placed on the game by whichever nationality kicks the ball, and its accessibility, which permits a game to be played wherever that ball is kicked. Yet the latter of these age-old qualities that have served football so well also presents it with a modern-day threat.

Much of football’s recent financial success has been down to the interests of bookmakers. According to a report for the International Centre for Sports Security delivered by Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne in May this year, the value of the global sports-betting market is between $200 and $500 billion. Some of that is returned to sport in the form of sponsorship, yet by far the majority of it is illegal: 80% of all bets placed are through unregulated institutions, according to the report, allowing for money-laundering to the tune of $140 billion every year.

With so much liquidity available, it is inevitable that sport will attract the interest of organised criminals. Laundering cash by placing a large bet in an illegal market has fewer overheads and will attract less attention than the traditional method of setting up a high-street front organisation with busy tills but no customers.

Still, betting is risky. Not always will the result go as the punter expects it to (if it did then there would be no bookmakers). The logical conclusion for the organised criminal would be to influence the odds in his own favour, by knowing the outcome before a bet is placed. To do that, players and match officials are sought out to deliver match events against different criteria than winning or fair play.

But the risks run by those on-the-field participants who seek to subvert the integrity of the game are very great. Livelihoods, even liberty, can be lost. In June this year Michael Boateng, a former defender at Whitehawk, a sixth-tier English club, was jailed for 16 months for his part in a conspiracy to fix matches. Two east Asian businessmen received five-year jail terms after an investigation involving the UK police, Gambling Commission and the Football Association.

Clubs can also do a lot to protect themselves. Arguably the most notorious match fixer in the world is Wilson Raj Perumal, who has written a book about his experiences. As Julie Norris, the Interpol programme manager for integrity in sport, told the FIFpro conference Don’t Fix It two months ago, one Premier League club became the target of his attentions.

“He [describes] how he went to Chelsea,” said Norris of a passage in Perumal’s book. “Upon arriving he introduced himself as a reporter from Singapore who wanted to talk with the players. Chelsea refused. Chelsea has a brand and it protects that brand. But Perumal can walk in at a lot of other clubs. Not all clubs protect their brand as carefully as Chelsea.”

Vigilance on the part of the clubs is an essential part of the fight against match fixing but it alone cannot prevent the likes of Perumal trying it on. The stakes are too high, and clubs cannot account for every movement of players who spend only a few hours a day on their premises.

But the protagonists in matches are not the only threat to bookmakers and the integrity of our sport, as what happened on a football field in Portugal last Monday morning demonstrates. The website of the third-tier Portuguese team SC Freamunde carried information about a pre-season friendly match being played against the second-division Spanish side Ponferradina. Unusually, the game was to kick off at 10am, about 60km away from Freamunde in São João de Vêr. That was not the extent of the odd circumstances surrounding the match: the Portuguese side had even played a cup game against Portimão 12 hours previously.

RunningBall, an Austrian subsidiary of the UK FTSE250-listed firm Perform Group, sent a local match-monitoring scout along to the fixture. As normal, he called what he saw back to RunningBall’s bookmaker clients in the betting markets so they could offer live odds on the match. The game ended 2-1 in Ponferradina’s favour, a result duly posted on the Freamunde website.

Except the two teams involved were neither Ponferradina nor Freamunde. “Sport Club Freamunde never held any meeting with this Spanish club, and the act described is a real fraud,” the Portuguese club said in a statement. Antonio Coelho, the president of São João de Vêr who rented the pitch to the players involved, had his view on the game. “It was a fun game among friends,” he told Bloomberg. RunningBall and its match monitor had been duped.

This is now a police matter in two jurisdictions as Spain’s Liga de Fútbol Profesional called in the authorities, as did Freamunde. RunningBall has commenced an investigation into the events that led to the incorrect information being pumped out to the betting markets. But INSIDEWorldfootball can reveal it was not the first time RunningBall has been caught out.

On January 29 this year a game scheduled between Ulisses Yerevan and Gandzasar did not even take place but data was sent to the markets by a RunningBall monitor. This is what is known as a “ghost game”, whereby betting markets offer odds on fixtures in which no ball is ever kicked. RunningBall insists such incidents are isolated.

“Perform acquired RunningBall in June 2012 and with the exception of the events in Armenia and Portugal we are not aware of any other such incidents in the 156,000 matches that have been scouted during that time,” it told INSIDEworldfootball in a statement.

“We are confident that our systems will have identified if there had been other instances. Notwithstanding, as part of the investigation into last week’s events we have already commenced a full and proper review to ensure that that is the case.

“As an organisation we take the integrity of sports data very seriously and we are in the process of introducing a number of additional stringent measures to ensure that our protocols and controls remain of the highest standards.”

The matter is a salutary lesson to those companies who offer information to betting markets that there should be no risks taken in ensuring the information sent is sound. The ultimate guarantee is, of course, not to offer data of any description if there are any suspicions at all.

As for Freamunde, whose website carried bogus information about the nonexistent fixture (which has since become a blank page on the internet), it is said to have been a victim of a wider fraud. Federbet, the firm that raised the alarm in the case, believes the website might have been hacked. Indeed, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the club but those who investigate the matter will no doubt take note that it occurred only a few months since Freamunde released a statement about its financial difficulties. “Right now, we do not have time to solve the cash flow problems that we face,” the club chairman, Miguel Pacheco, said in January.

There is nothing to suggest Freamunde is anything other than innocent in this case, but its recent off-the-pitch problems do serve as a reminder that some who are in financial distress can be driven to desperate measures.

As FIFpro’s pamphlet accompanying the Don’t Fix It conference made clear: “Unpaid wages are no excuse for match-fixing, nor will the payment of decent wages act as a silver bullet in the prevention of match-fixing: the problem is much more complicated than that. However, decent wages that are paid on time will help prevent the conditions in which match-fixing or match-manipulation can flourish.”

It is to be hoped that ghost games and other fixed matches are but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of the football business. But they are a clear reminder that for this business to continue to thrive, football should never let up in the fight against corruption in all its forms.

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1558754638labto1558754638ofdlr1558754638owedi1558754638sni@t1558754638tocs.1558754638ttam1558754638.