The World Cup starts next week in Qatar at a time when international football is under attack from match-fixing syndicates.
Sportradar, a prominent international firm that monitors betting markets, says it has identified approximately 600 potentially rigged soccer matches in the first nine months of 2022. Most of the questionable activity has focused on the minor leagues, which involve players and officials who receive low compensation, and experts say it is unlikely that match-fixing syndicates will target a high-profile event like the World Cup. But with more than $100 billion expected to be bet on the World Cup globally, FIFA is taking precautions.
For the first time, an integrity taskforce made up of stakeholders including Sportradar, INTERPOL, the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) and the FBI will oversee the betting markets and in-game betting on every World Cup match. The task force will monitor irregularities on everything from goals to yellow cards. The FBI declined to comment on its role in the task force, but is participating in the group in preparation for the 2026 World Cup in the United States, according to FIFA.
Sportradar, which partners with many 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 experience in counter-terrorism, financial fraud, military defense and law enforcement.
“I know it sounds like James Bond, but it’s not,” Andreas Kranich, Sportradar’s managing director of integrity services, told ESPN. “It’s solid intelligence work.” “We 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, which include a whistle-blowing mechanism. However, even with all precautions, preventing match-fixing attempts is extremely difficult. Education, the threat of detection and possible fines are the best weapons sports leagues have to deter match-fixers from coming after their games.
“In the past 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, specific actions have been taken by FIFA’s judicial bodies, although no cases of match-fixing have been reported in connection with the final match of the FIFA World Cup.”
However, in 2016, five betting operators and integrity monitors, including Sportradar, detected irregular betting during a World Cup qualifier between South Africa and Senegal. The irregular betting centered on an “over” on the number of goals to be scored in the match and was linked subsequently to “deliberate wrong decisions” by referee Joseph Lamptey of Ghana. Prosecutors argued that Lamptey awarded a penalty to South Africa on a non-existent handball. After an investigation, FIFA banned Lamptey for life.
“The World Cup is relatively low risk from a match-fixing perspective,” Matt Fowler, director of integrity for IBIA, said during an October phone interview with ESPN.
The IBIA is made up of sportsbook operators from around the world who have the ability to examine account data at the customer level to identify any suspicious activity. For example, if a large number of new accounts are opened at the same time and many bets are placed on them, IBIA members may raise red flags, prompting a deeper investigation.
While there will be more scrutiny than ever at this year’s World Cup, there will also be more money on the line. FIFA estimated that $155 billion was wagered globally on the 2018 World Cup, which was held in Russia during the tournament’s traditional summer run. The amount of money wagered on this year’s World Cup could help match-fixers hide any attempt to compromise the events.
“It’s a valid question because of liquidity,” Fowler said. “It will generate a huge amount of betting interest around the world.” When you have that liquidity, being able to look at client-level activity makes a big difference, because it’s obvious that you could potentially have questionable money in a very liquid market, and the lines won’t necessarily move.
“I think more traditional methods of just tracking line movements can be harder to spot.” [irregularities] due to the sheer size of the market [in the World Cup],” he added.
There is also some concern that match-fixers may target minor events in the game, such as whether a player receives a yellow card, something known as ‘spot-fixing’. The micro-event betting markets, however, usually don’t have enough liquidity to make it worth the risk for bookmakers looking for a big score.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a match-fixer,” said Sportradar’s Kranich. “You need return on investment and liquidity in the market. You have to convince the players and the referee, and also find a bookmaker that is willing to accept your money. If you want to bet $10,000 on the first out or yellow card, luckily the Bookmaker always protects itself by reducing the limits.
“You can never rule it out,” Kranich said, “but from my perspective, the chance of organized crime targeting the FIFA World Cup here in Qatar compared to other competitions is relatively low.”
Overall, though, he remains concerned about the level of match-fixing he has discovered in all sports. He believes the long-term financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has left smaller sports organizations vulnerable, creating a “dream scenario” for match-fixers.
“For fixed matches, Christmas and Easter are on the same day, and the fun continues,” Kranich said. “This sounds cynical, but unfortunately that is the situation and we see it everywhere.”