4th December 2021

Sport & data companies must close ‘integrity vacuum’ that facilitates fixing of football friendlies

Sport and data companies must take action to close an ‘integrity vacuum’ that facilitates the fixing of football friendlies, concludes a Report (PDF below) detailing the results of a three year study funded by the European Commission’s Erasmus+ programme and led by the University of Nicosia Research Foundation. It found that due to the cross-border nature of many friendly matches, which are organised outside of official competitions and usually involve no player compensation, suspicious events are less likely to attract the attention of sporting and criminal authorities. As such, the onus is on sporting organisations and companies that collect data from such games to close them off from manipulation by criminal organisations.

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A total of 338 clubs from 42 countries were affected by suspicious friendlies played in Europe between 2016 and 2020, the Report found. Cyprus was the country that hosted the largest number of suspicious friendlies between 2016 and 2020, followed by Ukraine. Ukraine was also the country with the largest number of clubs affected by suspicious friendlies.

Bogus internationals to club friendlies

The Report found that bogus internationals are nothing new, having been organised for betting purposes since ‘at least 2010’. However it found that there has been a recent move towards manipulating friendlies between club sides from different countries. 

‘The lack of regulation and governance around friendlies is best illustrated by an incident in 2014, when English club Norwich City beat Italian Serie D club Saint-Christophe Vallée d’Aoste 13-0 in a friendly match only to subsequently discover that their opponents were not the Serie D club, but a regional select from the Aosta hastily assembled after the real club was unavailable’, reads the Report, in just one example of many such issues. It also highlights numerous instances of ‘ghost friendlies’, where corrupted data scouts ‘create’ match statistics for a game that doesn’t actually take place.

The Report found that friendlies between clubs from different countries attending a Summer or Winter training camp in a third country to be a particular issue. Evidence indicated that clubs are often offered reduced fees or free passage to attend training camps in certain countries, and National Associations can only advise clubs not to accept such deals.

Polish club vs. Ukrainian club in Turkey

The Report found that a Polish & Ukrainian club had fallen victim to a fixed match that took place in Turkey. Ukrainian Premier Liga club FC Mariupol played Polish Ekstraklasa (top Division) club Raków Częstochowa on 16 January at the Asteria Kremlin Palace in Belek, Turkey. The plush hotel complex is often used by clubs as a winter training location.

The Ukrainian football association (UAF) was notified about the match, however Raków didn’t need permission from the Polish football association (PZPN). Sports data and betting monitoring company Genius Sports supplied data to betting companies, enabling them to offer odds on the game. 

Genius and analytics company Stats Perform quickly became suspicious, due to a significant number of bets placed on four or more goals being scored in the game. Footage (below) showed that the referee had disallowed a goal for dubious reasons in the seventh minute; and later in the game awarded three dubious penalties.

Nobody appeared to know who the referee was. The UAF reported that the training camp was organised by Enda Tours, and both clubs denied any involvement in the appointment of officials. Mariupol reported its concerns to the UAF, which complained to FIFA; however it referred the matter to UEFA as it didn’t consider the game to fall within its remit.

‘It has been difficult to establish whether any meaningful investigation has taken place’, states the Report, which also outlines that referees can earn between €3,000 to €5,000 for two weeks of officiating in Turkey. ‘Consequently, those responsible for the fix, including the referee, probably continue to be involved in football’.

It would appear that jurisdictional confusion may have allowed authorities to deflect responsibility for investigating the issue. The match involved a Ukrainian and a Polish club, but the offence took place in Turkey. As it is unlikely that players were paid for their time and as any potential offence took place on Turkish soil, it is understood that Ukrainian and Polish authorities are unsure as to who should investigate, while Turkish authorities could argue that any crime creeps beyond national jurisdiction. 

The Report’s authors point out that match-fixers prey on this jurisdictional confusion, which is compounded by the fact that players are often not paid for participating in friendlies. UEFA confirmed to the Report’s authors that it is continuing its investigations into this match.

Regulatory soup

The Report found that part of the problem is cracks within the regulation of friendlies. Only France’s gambling regulator restricts betting on friendlies, however it has recently been joined by The Netherlands and Sweden. However, it found that there are no restrictions at all on the sale of data from football friendlies, as this data is considered the property of the clubs that participate in games. Hence, regulation in this area falls to sporting organisations.

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Whilst some national associations require clubs to provide notice about overseas friendlies, others require no notification at all. Some require registration of agents and officials involved in club friendlies played overseas, whilst others do not. This confused situation hampers investigations, as can be seen in the example of FC Mariupol vs. Raków Częstochowa, highlighted above.

In addition, fear of punishment or reprisals is a big issue for players who suspect that a friendly they’ve been involved in has been manipulated. The Report highlights the Samir Arab case as an example. In 2018, Arab was sanctioned with a two year ban for not immediately reporting a match-fixing approach. It is understood that the reason for his delay was cooperation with criminal authorities in Malta, which led to a match-fixer being sentenced to prison.

Due to such fear of reprisals, a survey of players in Greece, Cyprus, and Malta found that player unions are usually the primary point of contact for reporting concerns, rather than national associations or the Police. However, as the Report’s statistics illustrate, this doesn’t mean that clubs in these countries are alone in having a problem with fixed friendlies. 

The Report highlights the Azov Cup, a Ukrainian tournament that took place in Spring 2020 during the Covid-19 European lockdowns. Games involved players appearing in the kits of real clubs, and data companies sold coverage of the games to bookmakers. After four games had been played, the UAF intervened, stating that the games had been fixed.

The International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) is currently formulating a set of data standards in order to better regulate how data from sporting events is used. These would especially help control how data is used from events that fall between regulatory cracks, such as football friendlies.

Recommendations

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Sports betting is a growth industry. The Report highlights that the global regulated market generated US$74.1 billion of gross win in 2019 from approximately $490 billion in revenue. Gross win refers to the amount a sports betting operator wins before operating expenses are factored in. This is forecast to grow to $105.7 billion in from $770 billion in revenue by 2025.

This figure only represents 16% of all gambling gross win (i.e. including betting and other gambling games), and doesn’t include the unregulated market, which is understood to be even larger than the regulated one. There is a lot of money to be made, which suggests match-fixing will continue to be a problem. And friendlies appear to be an easy target because they are inadequately regulated and are less likely to attract the attention of criminal authorities. 

As such, the Report recommends that:

• Nations should assess whether domestic rules – sporting and judicial – allow for sanctions against those that fix friendly matches. As previously mentioned, if matches are not considered official and players are not paid, then there is a chance that manipulation of friendlies may not be punishable.

• Players should be educated that fixing a friendly is still considered match-fixing; whilst clubs should be educated that sharing details of a match on social media or streaming it will allow data companies to offer that match to betting operators, which may make it susceptible to match-fixing;

• UEFA to enforce regulation of friendlies by all 55 national association members. This would include details of all matches, including officials, agents and outside sponsors.

• Formation of a body to represent match agents which should be recognised by FIFA and continental federations, to assistant with the future regulation of friendlies.

• Data standards to be updated, strengthened and promoted by sporting bodies. This could include rules on only agreeing contracts with companies that agree to data standards to prevent sale of data to poorly regulated betting operators that do not report suspicious incidents.

• Prevention of match agents from owning clubs, in a similar manner to rules that prevent player agents from owning clubs.

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