Sport is facing a “massive spread in the cancer of match-fixing” during the Covid-19 era, investigators have said, with fixers diversifying into new areas and targeting especially vulnerable teams, players and officials.
Experts at Sportradar, seen by Fifa as the global leader on detecting match manipulation, tracked more than 600,000 matches across 26 sports in 2020 and saw a steep rise in suspicious betting activity in football friendlies – despite fewer matches being played during the pandemic – as well as fixing in several other sports including table tennis, esports and volleyball.
“While the amount of sport collapsed in 2020 as a consequence of Covid-19, we discovered a massive spread in the cancer of match-fixing,” Andreas Krannich, the managing director of Sportradar’s Integrity Services, said. “In the past match-fixers have targeted those sports and leagues where the profit and turnover is biggest, such as football, tennis and basketball. But now they have diversified.
“What the fixers quickly understood is that a lot of sports are now suffering financially as a consequence of Covid-19. And where there is far less money, players, referees, coaches, presidents are increasingly vulnerable. We have even seen match-fixers take over complete clubs – invest, bring in some of their own staff, and start to manipulate.”
It is understood that football teams from Russia, Brazil, Vietnam, Czech Republic and Armenia frequently feature in suspicious friendlies, which rose from 38 in 2019 to 62 in 2020. One trend is for fixers to target games at foreign training camps during winter and summer breaks, where corrupted players and match officials are often able to leave the country before investigators can question them.
According to Sportradar, which works with 26 sports bodies including Fifa, the most recent case occurred during the past fortnight in a friendly in Europe where a referee is suspected of manipulating the match to ensure at least two goals were scored in the first half.
There were also sharp rises in suspicious activity in table tennis, which went from one escalated match in 2019 to 20 in 2020, and esports, which increased from three matches under suspicion in 2019 to 39 last year. Meanwhile, in Thailand alone there were 17 basketball matches in 2020 that are suspected to have been fixed.
In total Sportradar’s systems flagged 526 highly suspicious games across sport last year compared to 661 in 2019. However, Krannich said that in percentage terms the number of fixed games had actually gone up in 2020 “with new sports, new leagues and new federations targeted successfully”.
“We have extremely good networks in bookmaking around the world as well as informants from law enforcement, the police, and the match-fixing world,” he said. “And what they were telling us was that match-fixers were running out of money and they were thinking: ‘OK, how can we compensate? How can we make profit out of this situation?.’ And what they have done … they’ve diversified. We have seen sports that were previously seen as an add-on become more targeted by fixers.”
Krannich also said that Sportradar would be making its Universal Fraud Detection System (UFDS) free to all sporting bodies for the first time from October to help them better detect any problems.
“This would be like a burglar alarm, provided free forever, to alert our sporting partners to suspicious matches,” he said. “Since 2009 we have found over 5,300 manipulated matches in different sports. And if we say matches are manipulated we are 110% sure. We cannot afford, and we have never had, a false positive – meaning it’s the tip of the iceberg of the real numbers.”