The World Cup kicks off in Qatar next week at a time when international football has come under fire for match-fixing syndicates.
Sportradar, a leading international company that monitors betting markets, says it has identified around 600 football matches that could be manipulated in the first nine months of 2022. Much of the suspicious activity is centered on the minor leagues and involves underpaid players and officials. Experts say it is unlikely that a match-fixing syndicate would target an event as high-profile as the World Cup. But with more than $100 billion expected to be wagered globally on the World Cup, FIFA is taking precautions.
For the first time, a stakeholder integrity task force including Sportradar, INTERPOL, the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) and the FBI will monitor betting markets and in-game betting at every World Cup match. The taskforce will monitor irregularities in everything from goals to yellow cards. The FBI declined to comment on its role in the task force, but according to FIFA, the United States is participating in the preparation team for the 2026 World Cup.
Sportradar, which has partnered with most US sports leagues to monitor betting markets, says it uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to monitor 30 billion data sets from more than 600 bookmakers globally. It also employs a team of 35 intelligence officers with backgrounds in counter-terrorism, financial fraud, military security and law enforcement.
“I know it sounds like James Bond, but it’s not,” Andreas Krannich, Sportradar’s managing director of integrity services, told ESPN. “It’s solid intelligence work. We’ve even infiltrated a match-fixing organization.”
In addition to monitoring betting markets, FIFA held workshops to educate World Cup teams and referees about the threat of match-fixing and the protocols in place. Still, even with all precautions, it is extremely difficult to prevent attempts at match fixing. Education, the threat of detection and ultimately punishment are the best weapons sports leagues have to keep cheaters from coming back after their games.
“In recent years, FIFA has adopted an effective approach to combating all forms of manipulation and/or illegal influence on football matches or competitions,” a FIFA spokesperson wrote in an email to ESPN. “In line with this approach, although no cases of match-fixing have been reported in relation to the final of the FIFA World Cup, FIFA’s judicial bodies are taking affirmative action.”
However, in 2016, five betting operators and integrity monitors, including Sportradar, flagged irregular betting patterns during a World Cup qualifier between South Africa and Senegal. Informal betting centered on “overs” on the number of goals to be scored in the match and later correlated with “deliberate wrong decisions” by Ghanaian referee Joseph Lamptey. Prosecutors accused Lampte of awarding South Africa a penalty for a non-existent handball. After an investigation, FIFA banned Lamptey for life.
Matt Fowler, IBIA’s director of integrity, said in an October phone interview with ESPN that “the World Cup is relatively low-risk from a match-fixing perspective.”
IBIA is made up of sportsbook operators from around the world, who have the ability to trace customer-level account data to identify any suspicious activity. For example, IBIA members may raise red flags if a large number of new accounts are opened at the same time and begin betting heavily on it, prompting a deeper investigation.
There will be more scrutiny than ever before this World Cup, and more money will be on the line. FIFA estimated that $155 billion was bet globally on the 2018 World Cup, which was held in Russia during the tournament’s traditional summer leg. The amount of money bet on this year’s World Cup will help the match-fixers hide any attempt to compromise the events.
“It’s a valid question because of liquidity,” Fowler said. “It’s going to generate huge betting interest around the world. When you have that liquidity, being able to look at consumer-level activity makes a big difference, because obviously you can have questionable money in a very liquid market, and the lines don’t necessarily move. .
“I think the more traditional ways of tracking line movements can be more difficult to detect [irregularities] Because of the size of the market [in the World Cup],” he added.
There is also some concern that if a player receives a yellow card, match-fixers could be targeted for minor in-game events, such as something known as “spot-fixing”. Betting markets in micro-events, however, are generally not liquid enough to be vulnerable to matchmakers looking to score big.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a race cheat,” said Sportradar’s Krannich. “You need a return on investment and liquidity in the market. You need to convince the players and the referee and find a bookmaker willing to accept your money. If you want to bet $10,000 on the first throw or yellow card, congratulations, the bookie always Protects self by lowering limits.
“You can never rule it out, but from my perspective, the chance of organized crime groups targeting the FIFA World Cup in Qatar is relatively low compared to other competitions,” Krannich said.
Overall, however, he is concerned about the level of match-fixing that has been uncovered across all sports. He believes the ongoing financial ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic have put smaller sports organizations at risk and created a “nightmare situation” for match-fixers.
“For matchmakers, it’s Christmas and Easter on the same day and the party continues,” Kranich said. “This sounds cynical, but it’s unfortunately the situation, and we see it everywhere.”