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Sport reflects society: as society evolves, sport changes. A part of this evolution is the emergence of a new type of corruption: match-fixing for financial gain in online betting.

Over the last two decades, the popularity and impact of sport has grown and been reinforced. Great athletes are today acclaimed and praised by media, even worshipped. The Summer Olympic Games is one of the largest sporting events in the world, one that brings all nationalities together and is followed worldwide. The London 2012 opening ceremony attracted a peak viewing audience of over 27 million viewers in the UK alone, around half of the English population.

But at the same time, the overexposure of performances and records by the media, now intrinsically linked to modern sport, undeniably contributes to its excesses. This new dimension reveals a darker side, such as the use of doping and the authorities’ incapacity to fight against it, the considerable amounts of money injected in some sporting events and the excessive transfer fees in football.  Corruption in sport now has a new face, much more subtle and insidious, threatening the very heart of sport and its integrity: it has become betting-related.

Since the 2000s, media and newspapers’ headlines in sport have usually tackled and underlined long-established drifts by casting light on traditional aspects such as doping activities. However, governing bodies and policy-makers must now face the new scourge of our time in sport. 

As a result of its very scale, this new type of corruption is a concrete and serious threat to sporting integrity. Because of its transnational aspect – the multiple actors it involves (clubs, organised crime, etc.), the economic market size and the opportunities that the Internet brings – means it is fundamental to set-up EU-level measures to fight against it efficiently. 

Sport Integrity, Match-fixing and History 

“If in future the concept of a champion as a model of excellence becomes tarnished by the manipulation of matches or the corruption of players, then the entire credibility of sport will vanish.” (Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), 2011).

The spirit and very essence of sport relies on integrity. Not being able to predict the result is key to any competition.  The glory and beauty of sport lies in the rise of the underdog; small teams have a chance to overcome the largest teams, and the lowest-ranked athletes create surprise by beating the favourites. Moreover, sport competitions gather athletes who all share the same goal: victory. Their will to succeed, combined with an unpredictable outcome, create the emotions, disappointment and excitement felt by all of us when a team, or an athlete accomplishes a victorious feat or fails. These emotions are at the heart of sport’s popularity.

However, sport integrity has long been threatened. Match-fixing is not a new phenomenon. It has existed since the beginning of the 1900s and has taken various forms. The “Black Sox” scandal (1919) illustrates this long involvement of bookmakers in sport perfectly and how their activities affect sport integrity: during the final of baseball’s greatest competition, the White Sox team chose to scuttle itself after one team member, Gandil, succeeded in demanding $80,000 from bookmaker Joseph “Sport” Sullivan and managed to enrol several of his teammates (including top star Eddie Cicotte), for $10,000 each. 

Nevertheless, over the past decade, corruption has taken on a whole new dimension that seriously put sport’s integrity at risk. Globalisation and the expansion of the Internet have created more opportunity for profit and have made it more attractive for organised crime to get involved in match-fixing. It is essential to distinguish this new type of corruption from the traditional ones.

Doping vs. Betting-related Corruption, Sport vs. Profits

Stakeholders must make sure that betting-related corruption is carefully differentiated from other long-established kinds of corruption in order to identify risks more efficiently.

In accordance with the Civil Law Convention on Corruption, the notion of “corruption” remains broad and accepts one fundamental difference regarding its final goal. It is understood as the aim to influence the performance or the behaviour of all actors involved either for sporting reasons or for potential financial gain. Traditionally, corruption has been pursued for both objectives even though sporting motivations have been the most frequent ones. However, with the influence of globalisation and online betting, the phenomenon has recently evolved; and the balance is tending to change: more and more, corruption aims at achieving financial profit instead of sporting results.

This great difference in the goal seems to explain new developments in corruption and new challenges the sport world must combat. 

In this regard, doping activities have usually been compared with betting-related corruption as both of them gravely threaten the integrity of sport. Nevertheless, key differences exist and embody the new face of corruption. While the first one has usually dealt with one or several athletes who are taking performance-enhancing drugs to win, the second one mainly concerns teams as a whole or players who under-perform to lose. 

Furthermore, the impact and market size of sports betting cannot be compared to the market for doping products. Economically speaking, online betting is becoming a significant activity and has reached a completely new dimension. In recent years the total amount of bets placed on the Internet worldwide has been increasing continuously, tripling from 2004 to 2012. It was close to €16.4 billion in 2004 and €32.6 billion in 2008, and the projection for 2012 is in the region of €50.7 billion (H2 Gambling Capital statistics). 

The actors involved in corruption have also changed and operate from different locations on the planet. While the grassroots level remains of primary importance, it would be very restrictive to approach corruption in sport through the prism of individual players. Today, the administration level is also part of this new phenomenon. Clubs and/or federations decide to participate in such illegal activities or even organise them. In football for example, the most frequent cases of match-fixing involve the clubs, such as the recent investigation in Finland in 2011 where Tampere United, the three-time champions, was suspended indefinitely from Finnish football after team officials acknowledged accepting payments of €300,000 from a Singaporean person known for match-fixing. 

The main change however is the involvement of criminal gangs and activities in sporting fraud. Online betting has allowed organised crime to create new platforms for money laundering and to operate in countries all over the world with weak law enforcement and low penalties. The Bochum match-fixing scandal in 2011 and the “Ye case” in 2005 are perfect illustrations of this. In the former case, investigators discovered that a transnational criminal organisation based in Bochum – related to prostitution and narcotics activities – was also running a vast network instigating corruption in sport and rigging bets to launder the fruits of their activities. The latter case mixes organised crime and administration involvement since Chinese businessman Zheyun Ye took possession of a Finnish and then a Belgian club in 2004-2005, with the aim of organising rigged matches and making money on the sports betting market.

These cases are just a few illustrations of this new type of corruption among a long list of cases striking different countries worldwide. 

The European Union has not been spared this trend since the vast majority – 19 out of 27 member states and four candidate countries – has been affected by match fixing at some point and official cases have taken place or are on-going. The most famous country becoming Italy with the 2006 and 2011-2012 Italian football scandals named “Calciopoli” and “Scommessopoli” (“Operation Last Bet”) respectively, in which football insiders with Mafia connections are alleged to have “bought” results for €400,000,  €120,000 and €50,000 (for first, second, and third division matches).

Rigged matches or players’ underperformances for online betting seem to be the new face of corruption operating worldwide and involving huge amounts of money. No country can presume it is safe or immune; while football, basketball and tennis are the most affected, no sport is free from this new threat. The recent case of Montpellier in French handball is particularly relevant.

The mechanisms are complex and difficult to understand. To efficiently fight this threat to sport’s integrity it is crucial to gain a better grasp of the strategies at work – know your enemy!

Match-fixing, modus operandi and the EU

It is necessary to recognise these risks at political level. This has been recently achieved, but must not detract from the crucial need to create tools for apprehending and tackling such phenomena.

Political awareness has evolved in light of these recent cases and match-fixing has been the focus of the EU sport policy agenda over recent months, and the Council of Europe, the EU Council and the European Parliament have all adopted new policies to tackle this issue. Last October, the European Commission set out an action plan for online gambling in which one of the three objectives was the prevention and fight against betting-related match-fixing.

The majority of stakeholders have agreed on the fact that major obstacles in prosecuting cases of match-fixing are operational rather than legal: difficulties in getting sufficient evidence for criminal charges, lack of expertise and a low level of awareness are some of the barriers to undertaking legal proceedings. Jean-Francois Vilotte, President of ARJEL, shares these conclusions stating that “the first observation relates to the lack of tools for understanding and assessing these risks”.

Aware of the threat, European betting agencies have also showed their commitment to get involved in this fight against corruption. In 2009 they called for the establishment of a robust independent global sports anti-corruption body; and they usually try to communicate with public authorities when recording and detecting irrational betting. Betting companies have welcomed EU initiatives for a better cooperation between all stakeholders and the need for exchanges of experience and good practice.

There is now a consensus among stakeholders that political willingness and strong involvement of the relevant actors together with educative and preventive measures are the key factors in making this fight more successful. No doubt, some progress has been achieved in recent years. However, the fight against match-fixing is yet to become a priority all over Europe. 

EU and the need for a leading position

Betting-related corruption operates worldwide, regardless of national frontiers. It is a Europe-wide phenomenon which requires a European approach and EU solutions.

Promoting fairness in sporting competitions as well as the physical and moral integrity of sportsmen and sportswomen is one of the objectives of the European Union. The EU now has sufficient tools to achieve these objectives, especially since it was granted more substantial competences in criminal matters through the Lisbon Treaty.

In this context, the EU must take a leading position in the fight against match-fixing. First, by supporting and taking an active role in the negotiations towards an international instrument set up by the Council of Europe. Second, in requiring member states to ensure that their criminal legislation is effective in coping with major forms of match-fixing and by calling on sport organisations to enforce disciplinary rules. 

Moreover, the EU must make the most of the existing instruments to facilitate transnational cooperation in criminal matters (i.e. Eurojust, EUROPOL) and to promote the exchange of experiences and better cooperation among agents involved. 

The EU is called on to play a key role in helping national sporting bodies, as they now face better structured organisations, operating transnationally. The old continent must become a reference on the international scale in fighting such corruption. The time has now come to match their fine words with deeds by ensuring that all stakeholders work in the same direction. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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