A new guidebook published by the United Nations highlights the links between organized crime and match fixing in sports, and it offers suggestions for the relevant authorities about how to tackle the issue.
The Resource Guide on Good Practices in the Investigation of Match-Fixing (pdf), released on August 23 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), describes match fixing as “an increasingly prevalent modern manifestation of corruption,” and a threat to the integrity of sports and the positive role they can play in society.
“A combination of factors has allowed this threat to grow, including personal greed, weak governance structures of sport as a sector, easily accessible global betting markets that are open to exploitation, low prioritization of match-fixing as a threat by law enforcement agencies and the use of sport by organized criminals to advance their own interests,” the document states.
Most match fixing involves attempts to interfere with the fair play of a sport for the purpose of making money in legal or illegal betting markets. And there are numerous ways this can be accomplished.
One of the most common forms of match fixing involves competitors deliberately underperforming, also known as “tanking,” or deliberately losing, or “throwing,” matches. In these cases, the athletes often receive a portion of the earnings from bets placed on their opponents’ victory.
This was the match fixing method used in a major scandal that broke in 2013 involving El Salvador’s national soccer team. Several players allegedly accepted thousands of dollars from a Singaporean criminal named Dan Tan in exchange for throwing international matches. A number of the players were banned from the sport, but criminal penalties proved more difficult to enforce.
Another common form of match fixing is known as “spot fixing.” This involves participants fixing specific aspects of a given competition, like a single set of a tennis match or the timing of the first throw-in of a soccer game.
In addition to the athletes themselves, referees and other sports officials can also participate in match fixing. For example, a betting fraud racket was able to infiltrate corrupt soccer referees ahead of the 2010 World Cup, where “as many as 15 matches were targets” of match fixing, including a match between Guatemala and South Africa, according to a report by the New York Times.
Referees were also at the center of a 2005 match fixing conspiracy in Brazil that became known as the “Whistle Mafia.” In that case, a group referees took money from online gamblers in exchange for manipulating the results of multiple soccer matches in the bettors’ favor. Similar allegations have been made in recent years regarding other South American referees.
InSight Crime Analysis
According to the UNODC, criminal organizations around the world “engage in match-fixing because it is a low-risk enterprise with the potential for large rewards from global and national betting markets.” In Latin America, where sports — particularly soccer — are extremely popular and also often tied to organized crime, match fixing serves as an easy way for crime groups to make money using existing infrastructure with little additional risk.
As InSight Crime has reported, investing in local soccer teams serves a number of purposes for criminal organizations. Not only can these investments be used to evade taxes and launder the proceeds of illegal activities, they can also help criminal groups build social capital. This is likely the reason that so many soccer bosses in Latin America have been revealed to have ties to criminal organizations.
After investing in a soccer team, threatening or otherwise coercing players, referees and others into fixing matches for the benefit of the crime group is in some ways a logical next step.
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The UNODC report notes that technological advances have globalized betting markets, and thus “the amount of money being bet [continues] to expand at a rapid rate.” This growth has likely added to the attraction of match-fixing for criminal organizations. In fact, Chris Eaton, the security chief for the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), told Reuters in 2011 that “organized crime has infiltrated various levels of [soccer] with the precise purpose of making money from the huge amount of revenue generated betting.”
However, as the Salvadoran scandal illustrates, match fixing can be very difficult for law enforcement to detect and prosecute (see the UNODC graphic below). Proving that match fixing occurred usually requires the collection and analysis of substantial amounts of evidence like betting trend data, information about financial transactions, telephone or digital communication records, and video recordings of the match in question — all of which can prove difficult to obtain. And even if convincing evidence of match fixing can be compiled, the activities of the fixers still might not be punishable under existing laws.
Nevertheless, the UNODC guidebook provides some suggestions for how authorities can investigate and break up these types of schemes. For example, due to the difficulty of investigating and prosecuting match fixing itself, the document suggests that law enforcement should look into whether suspected fixers are engaged in other criminal activities that may be easier to prosecute.
Additionally, the guidebook recommends that law enforcement agencies work with media outlets, betting services and sporting organizations to detect possible instances of match fixing. Interactions like these have contributed significantly to past match fixing investigations. Moreover, given the globalized nature of the crime, the UNODC also recommends improving information sharing and cooperation across borders when it comes to investigating and prosecuting match fixing.