LONDON (Reuters) - A Georgian townhouse in a genteel, leafy London suburb houses a team of gambling experts huddled round dozens of computer screens showing match results from around the world. No bets are placed, however, no money won or lost. This is the frontline of the war on football match-fixing.
The multi-billion dollar football industry was shaken to its core earlier this month when European police and prosecutors said hundreds of games may have been rigged in a match-fixing syndicate being run from Singapore.
Helping football’s governing bodies tackle the problem, companies such as Sportradar analyse betting odds movements to detect match-fixing, while FIFA has also set up an inhouse Early Warning System (EWS).
In Europe, a group of 15 leading bookmakers work together in the European Sports Security Association (ESSA), sharing information on suspicious betting patterns via e-mail.
But the scale of the problem, with World Cup qualifiers and Europe’s flagship Champions Leagues under suspicion, as well as games in Asia, Africa and Latin America, necessitates a global solution, says former FIFA security director Chris Eaton.
“A warning system has got to be global - gambling is global,” he told Reuters. “It’s true to say that ESSA will pick up movements in the legal gambling area - for the most part it is illegal betting where the fixes are conducted.”
Sportradar is part of an emerging industry that has grown up around official efforts to stamp out fixing in sports, especially football. The firm’s employees monitor 300 or more bookmakers and more than 30,000 games a year for European soccer’s governing body UEFA.
Ben Paterson, Sportradar’s Integrity Manager, said his firm identifies between 250 and 300 suspicious football games every year, and that those figures show no sign of dropping off.
“A lot of people are doing a lot of things to curb match fixing, yet we still see the numbers maintained, if not increasing slightly,” he added.
Although ESSA covers only a small part of the global market, it says it can give specific details on who is betting and where bets are placed to help prevent fixing before a game.
Bookmakers are linked by an email alerting system allowing its members to flag details of suspicious betting to each other and pass on details to sports bodies with whom they have ties.
Its advantage is that bookmakers know who made the bet and where. Its downside is that it is limited to Europe.
FIFA’s system can monitor betting patterns but without the level of specific detail ESSA has. EWS also uses a network of contacts around the world to pass on intelligence and runs a whistleblower hotline. As well as FIFA games, it also monitors Major League Soccer in the United States and Japan’s J League.
“EWS in FIFA is a small and capable organisation but it seems to me that they don’t have a substantial field presence,” said Eaton.
“Sportradar are probably the best there is for the present. While they are a commercial organisation, I would rather see them operating within an independent global body independent of sport and betting organisations.”
Detection efforts are struggling to keep up, experts say, because of poor coordination between gambling companies and soccer’s ruling bodies, while a lack of regulation in Asia means vital data is simply unavailable.
Mike O‘Kane, chairman of ESSA, wants big Asia betting houses like Sbobet and Ibcbet to join forces with their European counterparts to fight fixing.
“I do call on all the European betting operators, in fact all global licensed operators, who are serious about protecting their company to join ESSA,” he said.
Philippine-based Sbobet and Ibcbet declined to comment on the issue when contacted by Reuters.
A German investigator who helped jail 14 people for match-fixing was critical of the systems.
“Coming from our experiences of the last three years we have to say that these systems are not productive for our investigations as evidence in court,” said Friedhelm Althans, investigator in the German city of Bochum.
“They are basically blunt instruments which don’t yield results,” he told Reuters.
‘MADE FOR CORRUPTION’
Football has replaced horse racing as the staple of the bookmaking business, helped by technology that allows punters to bet live online while watching matches on television.
Sportradar’s Paterson said the explosion of the online industry led to particular match-fixing trends appearing.
Ninety percent of fixed games will see suspicious patterns in live betting, usually with the Asian bookmakers, rather than any pre-match betting.
The mechanics of Sportradar’s system rest on complex algorithms, a global network of 150 freelance informants and decades of analysts’ experience, but the principle behind it all is relatively simple.
Most football betting happens during the match, when bookmakers increase odds and offer a chance of higher payouts.
As the betting is live, the odds are reactive. If a large amount of money is placed on a particular bet, bookmakers respond by lowering odds. If they lower the odds far enough, Sportradar’s system triggers an alert and analysts get to work.
If a match is deemed suspicious, Paterson’s team will gather round a whiteboard and thrash out the details.
“If we see some suspicious betting, we try to exhaust all avenues of why that betting could be legitimate,” said Paterson. “Most of the time we’re able to find a legitimate reason for these.”
Some, such as a match that ends 0-0 and has no corners, no throw ins and no free kicks, are hard to defend.
“All this does though is raise the flag that this match is fixed,” Patterson said. “It’s the start of an investigation.”
Monitoring in Asia is far weaker and Professor David Forrest, an expert on the economics of sports betting, said the conditions were ripe for match-fixing to flourish in the region.
“Most of the competitions targeted are competitions where there is low pay and yet there is a very, very big unregulated betting market in Asia where criminals can make lots of money,” said Forrest. “It’s made for corruption.”
The special economic zone of Cagayan in the Philippines is home to the top five Asian bookmakers who, due to a lack of stringent regulations, are under no obligation to file accounts, keep memoranda of understanding with sporting bodies or ensure ‘Know Your Customer’ principles like European counterparts.
Ralf Mutschke, FIFA’s head of security, says better coordination with law enforcement agencies would also help. Efforts to tackle match-fixing are hampered by the fact that it is not a criminal offence in every country.
Laila Mintas, head of legal at FIFA’s EWS, told a gaming conference in London this month: “We would appreciate the European Union taking a lead by setting the minimum national regulations on match-fixing.”
For Sportradar’s Paterson, match-fixing has become such an issue that left unchecked it could seriously challenge the game’s integrity.
“Who wants to go to a football match where people know the results already? You might as well go and watch worldwide wrestling.”
Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla and Pedro Redig; Editing by Peter Rutherford