AFF Suzuki Cup organisers deserve congratulations for facing the secret hiding in plain sight: match manipulation.
Swiss betting trend analysers Sportradar strongly suspected match-rigging in last month’s Asian Games, observing spikes in betting that mirrored certain late goals. Even more worrying, the suspicious patterns shown in Incheon displayed fingerprints similar to those of global syndicates which were already being tracked.
AFF organisers summoned all the team managers yesterday to highlight the beautiful game’s blight and the stinging punishments for it. With betting on the summer’s Brazil World Cup having reached an eye-watering six trillion dollars and an estimated six million dollars placed on each Thai Premier League match, Sportradar will have plenty of work over the next month. Players foolish enough to take the “dark dollar” face up to seven years in prison and/or a $100,000 fine. There is clearly an appetite to oppose this sordid practice and it must be followed by action, because one would be foolish to believe that Southeast Asia’s premier tournament will be free of illegal betting.
Gambling is illegal here in Thailand, which forces the betting-mad population to adopt a Prohibition mentality and indulge their passion away from prying eyes and taxation. To address the lingering suspicions that football is part of that shadowy world, the Thai FA hired Sportradar. Internally, gambling’s illegality makes monitoring village beer bars or transient odds makers impossible; they can only monitor worldwide trends. Their Fraud Detection System uses “sophisticated algorithms and constantly maintained database of both odds and person fraud scores,” which sounds impressive, but gambling is an ever-changing landscape favouring the poacher far more than the gamekeeper.
Predicting results is now old hat and the emergence of spot betting has created a cheat’s charter. For red and yellow cards, awarding of a penalty or even corner, a well-organised betting syndicate can manipulate events which previously seemed wholly arbitrary. The atomising of betting opportunities also makes individual game actions low key. Returns accumulate quietly to spread the risk without the need for a one-off, headline-grabbing amount. Unfortunately, it also leaves Sportradar chasing their tail and tournament organisers swamped by huge amounts of data with little time for analysis.
Adopting a highly proactive stance, the AFF Suzuki Cup organisers need to educate everyone involved of the risks taken by making seemingly harmless decisions to concede a corner or throw in. The lesson is not only about being caught by authorities and risking their careers, but understanding that taking a dive for global criminals is never the end of the matter. They must learn that, once in the debt of organised criminals, their new bosses wouldn’t flinch before taking horrific measures if they didn’t get a return on their investment.
The assassination of Colombian defender Andres Escobar after his own goal knocked his country out of the 1994 World Cup bore heavy overtones of contract killing by a disgruntled betting cartel. So the AFF Suzuki Cup must be bold, robust and vigilant to promote Sportradar’s approach. They must also avoid the Thai appeals approach (where meaninglessness sanctions are handed down to save face) and support their investigator’s mandate:
“In order to successfully combat match-fixing, an organisation needs to have Statutes and Rules in place with relevant penalties that can be enforced, whilst also being robust under appeal.”
A bad news story about heavy sanctions for match malpractice is nothing compared to lifting the carpet, hiding the story, then dealing with the terrible press stench over the following weeks and months.
This is by no means an “ASEAN disease,” either. In May 2010, Thailand’s Muang Thong United shocked Qatar’s Al Rayyan by winning there on penalties in the AFC Cup. This was followed by an even more startling conversation with the home team officials, who told us that Qatari FA had sewn up the votes for hosting the 2022 World Cup by fair means and foul.
For me it sounded like false bravado, but the next time I was in the UK I asked my local betting shop for the odds of it happening. As it turns out, I could bet on any 2022 host city bidders, from favourites USA to outsiders Australia. But there was one country not even quoted: Qatar. When I told the shop clerk how surprised I was that a possible host couldn’t be bet on, he assumed it was because they were no-hopers. During the summer of 2010, the only hint I saw of something building came in a British tabloid’s footnote. It quoted support for Qatar due to a “successful public relations campaign.” Encouraging FIFA words from high up were massaging momentum in the right direction, and the previously unthinkable was confirmed in December of that year when Qatar were shockingly awarded the tournament.
Like the AFC “Don’t Delay-Play!” campaign, the AFF Suzuki Cup needs to draw up an eight point list to grab momentum in the fight against match manipulation:
1) Make it clear that anyone who wants to report suspicious match behaviour is safe to do so anonymously.
2) A forensic review of all goals scored in the last five minutes of games carried out independently.
3) Give Sportradar complete access to tournament-generated data and give them complete freedom to publish their findings openly and bluntly.
4) Follow the UEFA’s lead by appointing a high-profile Integrity Officer to oversee the whole process from monitoring to prosecution.
5) A tournament-integral message that match manipulation is a criminal as well as sporting offence.
6) Give analysis priority to any game which produces an own goal, shock result or red card for dissent or petulance.
7) Make it clear to any teams who cannot qualify for the knockout tournament that any remaining games will be prioritised for scrutiny.
8) Directly address known match fixers to let them know that they will operate in a climate of suspicion.
Those responsible for match fixing must be confronted openly rather than having their existence denied. Gambling cartels can’t be beaten, but with so many other global opportunities, they may prefer to avoid attention and find another vehicle to generate their vast revenue.
We cannot eradicate the scourge of match manipulation, but the occasional draw would be a decent result for now.