Billericay—a humble Essex town with a population just shy of 37,000 people—rarely features prominently in the national consciousness. Its local football team, resigned to the Ryman League Premier Division, exists a million miles away from the pizzazz of the Champions League.
So, suspicions are predictably aroused when more bets placed are on an outcome of a Billericay Town F.C. match than a game featuring three-time European Cup winners, Barcelona.
This is exactly what happened in November 2012 when over £1 million was staked on a game between Welling and Billericay, despite the match only attracting 408 spectators. Much to the bemusement of the clubs involved, the FA declined to investigate potential match-fixing.
The spotlight is, however, on six English players arrested for match-fixing in light of a newspaper sting. An undercover reporter, working for The Sun, filmed lower-league player Sam Sodje confessing to punching Oldham’s Jose Baxter and getting sent off in exchange for a £70,000 fee.
A European Epidemic
English football’s run-in with match-fixing is just the tip of the iceberg: A recent infographic at Sports Betting Online highlights the impact of the £306 billion illegal betting industry across the continent.
Following Calcio Scommesse (Operation Last Bet), Italy is currently facing another round of match-fixing allegations. World Cup-winning midfield terrier Gennaro Gattuso is the most high-profile name to be placed under investigation, following in the footsteps of Giuseppe Signori and current Juventus manager Antonio Conte. Spain’s La Liga president Javier Tebas has acknowledged on BBC's World Football Show (h/t Bleacher Report's Mike Chiari) that at least eight games a season are likely to have been fixed across the top two divisions.
Despite being a role model for financial fair-play and boasting a strong commercial infrastructure, German football has been blighted by £13.8 million wagered on matches by criminal organisations, according to Europol director Rob Wainwright . In total, Europol's Operation Veto identified 425 suspects across more than 15 European countries.
Football’s international trade union, FIFPro, released figures claiming that 41 percent of its members had not received their salaries on time, while 12 percent had been approached to alter the outcome of a game. If football has failed to do right by players, you can appreciate the temptation for an unpaid player to wander into the hands of a predatory syndicate.
In the case of match-fixing, silence is the enemy. Were players to report illicit advances as soon as they occurred, then the industry would be able to swiftly identify those responsible and take action. However, by the time a player takes the initial offer, physical threats are openly voiced with promises of violent retribution should the player attempt to renege on the deal. As a result, the player will often keep schtum.
As FIFPro point out in the Black Book (which deals with problems facing professional Footballers in Eastern Europe), a chilling 38.6 percent of players who have been approached to fix a match have been the victims of violence.
The Far Eastern Influence
In the past, games have been tampered with and outcomes manipulated to ensure a team’s progress or guarantee a side’s survival. Flamboyant chairman Bernard Tapie is the most notorious architect, engineering the success of a Marseille team comprised of Marcel Desailly and Fabien Barthez in the early 1990s by bribing the opposition. Now, though, corruption within football is primarily motivated by gambling.
Singaporean national, Tan Seet Eng (aka "Dan") is the suspected kingpin of a match-fixing ring worth £58 billion a year. Known as "the Syndicate," this criminal organisation hails from South East Asia, but has extended its operations across the globe, as detailed by the Independent's Robin Scott-Elliot.
The Syndicate has achieved its influence by targeting players on the lower end of the wage scale and, in particular, through grooming vulnerable young players. These prospects are already under criminal influence by the time they reach their significant signing, allowing their syndicate benefactors to manipulate matches to their ends.
Singaporean authorities claim to have undertaken a clampdown on their most notorious offenders, even arresting the notorious Dan Tan. However, as the BBC reports, this welcome intervention is tinged with tokenised grandstanding as the law of the land allows for indefinite detention without a trial.
Attempts to Solve the Epidemic
UEFA are appearing to show some awareness of the match-fixing crisis and, in March, will unveil an “11-point plan” to combat this scourge across Europe.
However, if English Football is ever to recover, it has to get tough on match-fixing and fast. Sadly, so far, UK football authorities show no evidence of putting the boot in. Alex Horne, General Secretary of the FA, dismissed the betting-initiated match-fixing endemic as not a significant issue.
English football is engaging in a dangerous game if it continues to dismiss the problem as a foreign issue. Such complacency belies the fact that syndicates in South East Asia—where the betting market is now four times as lucrative as the pharmaceutical trade—have a global grip on professional football.
In light of this, denying that match-fixing exists on British shores seems staggeringly naive.
What More Can Be Done?
With the dirty business of match-fixing so deeply ingrained in football, how can the game clean up its act? The road to recovery must begin with international authorities working together to get tough on neutralizing the threat from every conceivable angle.
Change needs to start at the top. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has cracked the whip on corruption in sport by submitting a bill stipulating that individuals found guilty of match-fixing will face longer prison terms accompanied by severe fines.
These problems tend to befall the lower divisions in Europe’s more glamorous leagues. This suggests that the pay disparity between football’s highest and lowest earners leaves newcomers susceptible to chancers. Whilst this theory does carry some weight, at present there simply isn’t the revenue or interest in the non-league game to justify a significant wage review.
However, club academies can and should provide a more thorough education for their juvenile players. At present, the threat of cheating and fixing does not feature in a players’ schooling, at a time when they are most susceptible to corruption. FIFA, UEFA and individual association-backed campaigns must make a concerted investment in the game’s future by providing this information to young players.
Football’s redemption could lie, ironically enough, with the bookmakers themselves. After all, it was Betfair that alerted police to the Billericay betting pattern. Football betting—a major revenue stream for the UK bookmaking market—is dependent on a clean, unedited outcome. Therefore, bookies have a vested interest in lending their support to the fight against fixing.
Technological tracking (as provided by betting intelligence firms like Sport Radar) is also a powerful weapon against match-fixing. New software allows authorities to digitally follow a bet’s audit trail and monitor unusual betting spikes, which can create a path of breadcrumbs back to the source of any skullduggery.
What’s certain is that a dismissive attitude towards match-fixing will ultimately cost the game its reputation in England. Only hard actions, both governmental and from within the game, can rout out this blight.
Match-fixing needs to be unambiguously registered as a criminal offence, with severe consequences for offenders and their employers. Furthermore, education for young players has to be thorough and questionable betting patterns must be registered and tracked.
In short, all involved must work together to fight this battle.
It is a truism that money breeds criminality. Football has walked this line many times previously and only by strengthening the deterrents can it hope to overcome this new threat to its global credibility.