Debunking the Myth of English Football's Latest Match-Fixing Scandal

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Debunking the Myth of English Football's Latest Match-Fixing Scandal
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Football and scandal are seedy, intimate bedfellows. The salacious and soap opera-style storylines of the sport often distract from what happens on the pitch.

Yet there was something decidedly grubby, or "stomach churning" as one manager put it, about the recent allegations of match-fixing.

This was the beautiful game at its most ugly.

If you missed it (where on earth have you been?), a former Portsmouth player, Sam Sodje, was the subject of a newspaper sting, as per the Mirror. He was filmed boasting that betting syndicates would pay £30,000 to him and other players to be booked. A red card would cost up to £70,000.

Six people have since been arrested—full BBC report here—including DJ Campbell, the Blackburn Rovers striker. It was when Campbell’s name was released that the real meltdown occurred.

As a former Premier League striker, the scourge of match-fixing had alleged links to the untouchables, the gilded echelons of the greatest league in the world.

Cue much hand-wringing. Alan Shearer, in an interview with BBC radio, said he wanted players banned for life. Henry Winter, the esteemed Daily Telegraph football correspondent, blamed the bookmakers for “creating a monster," or, in other words, a plethora of betting markets which could be targeted by the corruptors.

Pete Norton/Getty Images
Sam Sodje

But amid the hyperbole, ranting and raving, no one actually stuck up a hand and asked: "Hang on, can anyone actually make any money betting on an individual to receive a yellow and red card?"

The answer is no chance. Bit of a letdown, no? Not quite the scoop that we were led to believe. The story is, of course, troubling, but anyone with a semblance of betting knowledge will tell you it does not constitute match-fixing.

So why the hoo-ha? If we were to give the worries and the wailers the benefit of the doubt, it could be explained by the layman’s furrowed brow when he is confronted by the vagaries of the gambling industry, legal or otherwise.

It is a mysterious world inhabited by smart folk. Those outside of it reckon it is a byzantine world inhabited by fools.

All you really need to understand more about this topic is common sense. We can all agree, I’m sure, that along with death and taxes, the other great truth in life is this: Bookmakers, legal or otherwise, hate to lose money.

Therein lies the answer. Using the example of the allegation that players have been paid to receive a yellow card, it is easy to debunk the myth.

UK high street bookmakers do offer the opportunity to bet on an individual player to be booked in a match. But they take so few bets on it that they would immediately spot—and shut down—a market they suspected of manipulation.

All it would take is a handful of bets over the average stake (a pitiful 10 quid according to industry insiders) for sophisticated software to call a halt. Oh, and then that software would record the IP address, bank details of the gambler and foreword it to the Gambling Commission.

In the vast Asian gambling market, where a single Premier League match might attract more than £20 million, there is no opportunity to bet on cards. It is impossible because Asian bookies only offer odds on three markets: the Asian handicap (a goals-related market), match odds and over/under a certain amount of goals.

There is an opportunity to make money from a red card by trading the goals markets in Asia so long as you know when it will be received, but Chris Eaton, the former head of security at FIFA and renowned anti-corruption strongman, dismisses such a bet as "small fry."

As far as understanding what the allegations are and how one could see dollar signs, Eaton is unequivocal. "It’s not match fixing and you just can’t bet on this stuff," he told me.

Of greater concern for Eaton, who now heads the International Centre for Sport Security, is the loss of focus about the real problem. He said: 

People are going to start believing that all this spot fixing is going on. But it’s not. Everyone needs to try to ignore stories like this because it makes our jobs harder.

If we are to clean up sport, governments, police forces, lawyers, sporting bodies need to understand that criminal organisations don’t waste their time on spot bets. They are only interested in the massive returns. And that means bets like the half-time and full-time result and goals.

Sure, that’s a more worrying prospect than some guy outing off to an undercover reporter. But it’s the harsh truth. Accept it.

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