Opinion: Can You Identify Match Fixing on Betfair?

It happened a few years ago. I was browsing the Betfair Exchange and noticed a friendly match featuring two clubs from Bulgaria; their names escape me. The surprise was the sheer weight of money being wagered on a seemingly pointless match. Several hundred thousand pounds had been matched in a couple of minutes, and the odds became artificially shortened.

Sure enough, the outcome that was bet on came through, and I was left wondering: “Was this a fixed match?” I can’t say for sure, but it certainly fell into the ‘suspicious’ category.

How Many Football Matches Are Fixed?

The simple answer is: No one knows. What I can tell you is that in 2013, Ben Paterson of Sportsradar, a ‘betting intelligence’ company, spoke about how his firm tracked and monitored games at the behest of UEFA. Sportsradar was tasked with checking up to 30,000 games a year. They looked at betting patterns and highlighted around 300 matches per year that displayed extremely suspicious betting activity and were likely to be fixed.

Back then, the betting industry was worth $1 trillion per annum and has grown exponentially since. According to Paterson, the poorly regulated Asian markets were responsible for a large percentage of likely fixed matches. Even though the firm could identify a fixed match, they were unable to find the people involved. Moreover, 90% of fixed matches only became apparent in-play which made it even harder to find a fix.

It is naïve in the extreme to believe that football doesn’t have a shady element. There have been several match-fixing and ‘influence peddling’ incidents. The Calciopoli of 2006 implicated Juventus, and other huge Italian clubs such as Lazio, AC Milan, and Fiorentina. These clubs were accused of selecting favourable referees to ensure games were rigged. All were found culpable with punishments ranging from points deductions to relegation.

In 1993, Marseille infamously bribed the players of Valenciennes, a team they were due to play before the European Cup Final. Marseille needed a win to take the title and avoid a showdown with PSG on the final day. An ‘easy’ match would also ensure they were able to prepare well for their final. Marseille strolled to a 1-0 win and later, it was found that certain Valenciennes players received bribes. Marseille was stripped of their title but not the European Cup they won that season.

Closer to home, there was a furore over the English FA’s decision not to investigate a Football Conference game between Welling and Billericay. Over £1 million was wagered on a game that had 408 spectators, far more cash than was wagered on a Champions League game involving Barcelona on the same night in 2013. Ultimately, six men were arrested by the police.

It wasn’t the first time that an English lower league game came under suspicion. In 2011, ten times more money was wagered on a Hereford United game than the normal amount for a League 2 match. Back in the 2003/2004 season, then Lincoln City manager, Gary Simpson, said he told the FA about a game involving his side where there were unusual betting patterns before and during the match.

Spotting Fixed Matches

In reality, it is extremely difficult to spot a fixed match unless you have received word of it beforehand. In this instance, you are legally obliged to inform the authorities or risk arrest. Otherwise, you can rely on hearsay or check the weight of money on Betfair games.

The Betfair Exchange is home to some weird and wonderful football league matches. For instance, I looked at a Hong Kong reserve league match between Kitchee and Guangzhou R&F HK. For any Betfair Exchange match, check out the top right-hand corner of the screen beside the ‘Refresh’ button and you can see the amount of money matched.

In the example I highlighted, £5,783 had been wagered on the win, lose, draw market. Leagues like this are becoming more popular to bet on (I have won good money on them myself) so seeing that amount is not surprising.

The Hong Kong game was reaching its conclusion, so I looked at a Philippines cup match between Global and JP Voltes. A few minutes before kick-off, just £216 had been placed on the match outcome. You would expect it to reach a couple of thousand by the end. Global was 4.00 underdogs, Voltes was 1.66 to win, and the draw was 3.9.

Now imagine if, within minutes of kick-off, the odds on Global suddenly plummeted to 2.00 or less even though Voltes were having the better of it. Next, the sum of ‘matched’ money suddenly escalates to £10,000, then £20,000. Within 25 minutes, this obscure game has attracted £50,000 of bets on the win market, and Global’s odds are now 1.50?

Although this scenario did not play out with the Philippines cup match, it has happened before. Even on sites such as Bet365, I have seen the odds of an obscure team winning fall to odds-on after being 5.00 a few minutes before kick-off. Once again, I can’t say that these matches are definitely fixed (sometimes the bookies receive new information on team selection) but it’s clear that something is not right.

Recently, I spotted a team with a woeful record at 25/1 to win. It was day one of the new season, and they were expected to receive yet another hiding. They dominated play early on and scored. Even then, they were 13/2 to win, so I backed them. They won 6-0! As it was a new season, it was probably a case of the bad side bringing in lots of new players unbeknownst to the bookies; they were well down the football ladder so no one would be aware.

You can also look at match goals for clues. Once again, I returned to an in-play game in the Hong Kong reserve league and checked out the over 5.5 goals market. 19 minutes into the game, with the score at 2-0, only £374 had been matched. This is completely normal with no sign of suspicious activity. Had that figure been £10,000 for instance, I would have found it very odd.

How Do Matches Get Fixed?

There have certainly been occasions where the referee has been ‘taken care of’ financially. However, there is only so much a referee can do to influence a game without it becoming obvious. Across global leagues, it is more common for a big gambling syndicate fixer to hire ‘runners,’ locals with connections in a given league who are aware of players susceptible to bribery. Perhaps the player is a bad gambler or going through an expensive divorce.

In any case, the runner offers the player cash on behalf of the syndicate and promises more for the ‘right’ result. The fixer then places enormous bets on the match on global betting markets and makes a fortune if all goes well. For the record, the Asian sports markets complete far more deals per day than the New York Stock Exchange.

To avoid suspicion, the fixer hires ‘beards,’ individuals who place dozens or even hundreds of small bets around the world. A common tactic is for the fixer to begin rumours that the game is fixed in the opposite direction of what he is betting on. As a result, the market gets balanced with the ‘mug’ money, and the match looks less dubious.

As for the depth of match fixing, your guess is as good as mine. Back in 2011, a journalist called Declan Hill claimed that games had been fixed in major European first division leagues, the Champions League, and even the World Cup!


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