SII Focus 25th November 2015

Timor: sock puppets infiltrate Opta database

The integrity of the prestigious Opta database is under question, after fraudulent information released by a group of online aliases was found on websites reliant on Opta data. Opta is a trusted supplier of match information to the betting industry, and also feeds data to sites like Soccerway and Goal. Its parent company, the Perform Group, signed an agreement in August to help FIFA fight match fixing and clean up the integrity of the game.

However, it appears a group of ‘sock puppets’ may have managed to infiltrate this site. In October 2010, an obscure blogger called Andy1890 published what he claimed was a new logo for the Timorese soccer federation. In reality, it was a modified Brazilian team crest in the red, black and yellow of Timor.

A few days beforehand, a user on Wikipedia known as Andy4190 posted the crest on the team’s Wikipedia page. Later that month, the contributor Iha9c created wikis for Timor’s under 16, under 19, under 21 and under 23 teams, using the same image too. The logo has ended up on Opta-run football data websites like Soccerway and Goal.

The logo is only associated with the country’s youth teams on these sites. However, that’s not the case on another Opta-fed website, which associates the crest with Timor’s senior team. That website belongs to a World Cup broadcaster in one of Asia’s footballing superpowers.

Other errors abound. Information about players’ birthplaces appears to be wrong in several cases, for example. The player Alan Leandro is listed as playing with Bangkok United, when the team’s website (and Soccerway’s own page for the team) lists a Leandro Tatu – a player with a different appearance and birth date.

In a recent match against UAE, the Brazilian Jairo Neto was shown as a half-time substitution; FIFA does not list him as playing at all. The contact details listed for the Timorese football federation do not match those found on the FIFA website. One of the few places this address is found online is the Facebook account of a group trying to reform football in East Timor.

As explained, the Soccerway and Goal websites are fed their team information and match results by Opta, a subsidiary of the Perform Group.Perform has recently been brought in by FIFA to help it ‘protect the integrity of the sport in regions around the world’.

Opta is a popular source of data for betting agencies. As its website states, it is a supplier of: ‘accurate, impartial and reliable data which has become an essential requirement of sportsbooks and gaming operators globally. Our data is utilised [for] innovative and pioneering gaming products.’

Even if all these mistakes are due to human error, it shows how quickly misinformation can spread once it hits the web. There is no suggestion anything other than team information is susceptible to such a con. But all of this brings into question the integrity of people collecting data for Opta from places like Timor.

Investigative journalist Declan Hill calls the match scouts who collect data for organisations like Opta the ‘foot soldiers of the sports data world’.He says that because they are ‘relatively badly paid’ they can be bought by fixers to ‘delay their reports by a few seconds’, thus giving betting syndicates the chance to get a very late bet in on the next goal scorer.‘If you can get accurate, guaranteed information before the rest of the market you can place a certain bet’, he writes on his blog.

In games that are not broadcast on TV, match scouts can be bought to make up entirely false information, as they are often the only source of this data from the ground. In the sports integrity industry, this is known as a ‘ghost game’.

‘Ghost games are so-called for a simple reason – they do not exist’, writes Jake Marsh of the International Centre for Sports Security (ICSS) in this article for the Sports Integrity Initiative. ‘No players, referees, substitutes or coaches took to the field of play, and no spectators were in the stands. The two actual physical teams may have been many miles away from where the match was reported to have been played.’

A match reportedly played between the Portuguese and Spanish lower league sides Freamunde and Ponferradina in summer 2014 is often cited as a ghost match, however Marsh argues it was slightly different – a fake match. ‘Real people actually played a football match, but they were not the actual players of one of the teams’, he writes. ‘Having said this, fake matches – as with ghost games – demonstrate the constant innovation on the part of criminals to adapt their modus operandi in order to confound the betting markets and law enforcement.’

‘Criminals look for the vulnerabilities in new areas and would appear to believe they have found a vulnerability in the betting data model in its reliance on very poorly paid individuals who are there providing minute-by-minute or second-by-second information’, writes Marsh. ‘Perhaps in an even more stark way than typical match-fixing, ghost games exemplify the criminals’ realisation of these weaknesses in sport betting and how to capitalise on them’.

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